[Paleopsych] NYT: At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the President's Management Style

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At Harvard, the Bigger Concern of the Faculty Is the 
President's Management Style
January 26, 2005

[The drum beat continues. Is anyone wagering on how many more days Summers 
will last?]


    CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Jan. 25 - Among Harvard's faculty, the underlying
    conversation right now is not about gender differences and the ability
    of women to succeed in math and science. It is about Lawrence H.
    Summers's ability to succeed as president of the university.

    The uproar over Mr. Summers's remarks suggesting that innate gender
    differences might explain the lack of women in math and science
    careers comes against the backdrop of distress over his management
    style, which has been building since he took over three and a half
    years ago.

    A dozen Harvard professors, as well as other educators associated with
    the university, said in interviews that for all his intellectual vigor
    and vision, Mr. Summers, a former Harvard economics professor, has
    created a reservoir of ill will with what they say is a pattern of
    humiliating faculty members in meetings, shutting down debate and
    dominating discussions. This ill will, they say, has helped fuel the
    fury on campus over what Mr. Summers initially said were meant to be
    provocative, off-the-record remarks at an academic conference here on
    Jan. 14.

    "Larry is stimulating to argue with one on one and would be admirably
    controversial as a colleague," said Daniel S. Fisher, a Harvard
    professor of physics and applied physics, who has observed Mr. Summers
    in many meetings. "But with Larry as president, the rules are clear.
    For the president, it is fine to be provocative, but for faculty,
    serious questions and constructive dissent are squelched."

    The support of the faculty is particularly important now, as Mr.
    Summers pushes ahead with his ambitious plans to expand the campus
    across the Charles River, revise the undergraduate curriculum, make
    Harvard pre-eminent in big science and bring more low-income students
    to the university. The many admirers of Mr. Summers say his brash
    style makes him just the person to lead Harvard into the future.

    Steven Pinker, a star psychology professor who left the Massachusetts
    Institute of Technology for Harvard a year ago, called Mr. Summers a
    "refreshing" change from the "bland diplomats" that he said college
    presidents tend to be today.

    "He does speak his mind," said Professor Pinker, whose work Mr.
    Summers is known to admire and which provided much of the foundation
    for the recent remarks about women. "He subscribes to the idea that
    ideas should be discussed. He enjoys stating his position forcefully.
    He enjoys a forceful rejoinder. He doesn't believe people should wilt
    under the pressure of a good argument."

    But his critics say Mr. Summers puts his ego before the university and
    its academic values.

    "He just dominates faculty meetings," said Mary C. Waters, the
    chairwoman of the sociology department, "There's no dialogue. You
    speak and then Larry responds."

    Most professors who were interviewed refused to be identified, saying
    they were afraid of retribution from Mr. Summers. Those who did speak
    on the record took pains to mute their public criticism.

    Mr. Summers spent much of last week apologizing for his remarks about
    women and science and declaring his intention to recruit more women as

    In an interview on Friday, Mr. Summers said his propensity to debate
    and challenge "sometimes leaves people thinking I'm resistant to their
    ideas when I am really trying to engage with their ideas." Asked if he
    thought he needed to adjust his style, he said, "I've learned from
    this experience."

    Whatever anger and resentment he has stirred among the faculty, Mr.
    Summers appears to have the strong support of the Harvard
    Corporation's seven-member board, which includes him and his former
    mentor Robert E. Rubin, a former Treasury secretary.

    "I think he is an outstanding president and he has a chance to be one
    of Harvard's greatest presidents," Mr. Rubin said. He added that he
    was unaware of widespread faculty discontent with the management style
    of Mr. Summers.

    Mr. Summers, who was Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton,
    was only a few months into the job when he got into a fight with
    Cornel West, a star of the Afro-American Studies department, over his
    scholarship, which resulted in Professor West's highly publicized
    departure for Princeton. ("Good morning, Mr. President, who have you
    insulted today?" Mr. Clinton said to Mr. Summers in a telephone
    conference call after the West incident.)

    Several months later, invited to speak at a conference on
    globalization sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education,
    Mr. Summers stunned many professors with his brusque dismissal of
    their views on the subject, saying those who voiced concern about the
    possible downside of globalization were naïve. At an early meeting
    with some 80 law school professors, Mr. Summers dismissed as stupid
    the reasoning behind a junior faculty member's suggestion about which
    departments might benefit by moving across the Charles River, to
    Allston, Mass., though he later apologized. Some professors who were
    present felt that Mr. Summers was dismissing the faculty member along
    with her suggestion. Professor Fisher and others cite many recent
    examples in which Mr. Summers has dismissed their views or questions,
    or put down their colleagues. Professor Waters said she and many other
    women on the faculty left a meeting with Mr. Summers in October
    feeling he had not understood their concerns over the sharp decline in
    the recruiting of tenured female faculty members. But Melissa
    Franklin, a physics professor who had spoken out at the meeting, said
    she felt encouraged afterward when Mr. Summers telephoned her to say
    he wanted to explore her concerns.

    Mr. Summers's reputation had preceded him to Harvard, and was even the
    subject of discussion on the presidential search committee. "When
    Larry was being considered for president, his provocative manner and
    insensitivity to others was the major criticism raised by skeptics,"
    said Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition at the Harvard education
    school and an expert on leadership.

    Supporters like Mr. Rubin "gave assurances that he'd gotten an
    education in Washington, that his rough edges had been smoothed,"
    Professor Gardner said. "On the basis of what I have observed and
    heard from colleagues, I now believe, regrettably, that the supporters
    were expressing a hope rather than a reality."

    Professor Gardner made a point of saying that in many ways he still
    considers Mr. Summers "an impressive leader," adding, "but I fear that
    his inability to anticipate the effects of his informal remarks - both
    in terms of content and in terms of style - could cripple his

    His critics say that Mr. Summers brings a hierarchical management
    style that is especially ill-suited to Harvard, a decentralized
    institution where much of the power resides with the deans of the
    university's 10 separate schools and where many faculty members have
    their own large egos as well as lifetime appointments. A president,
    they say, needs diplomatic skills to persuade the faculty to support
    his initiatives and work out compromises.

    "For me it's sad that Harvard isn't able to benefit from all the
    upside potential of Summers as a leader because he doesn't know what
    kind of organization he's operating in," said Theda Skocpol, a
    professor of government. "And he's often self-centered and discourages
    people around him." Professor Skocpol observed that Mr. Summers's
    advantages as a leader include his incisiveness and ability to
    "identify a problem and throw out challenges."

    Mr. Summers has made no secret that he intends to shake up Harvard and
    that intimidation may sometimes be required. In a mostly admiring
    article in the British newspaper The Guardian in October, he is quoted
    as saying, "You know, sometimes fear does the work of reason."

    Told that many faculty members had described him as a bully who
    squelches debate, Mr. Summers said the criticism was unjustified.
    "I've not, since I've been here, resisted a meeting or a discussion
    with any faculty member on the university," he said. "I've never
    suppressed anyone's views."

    Told that many faculty members said he had created an atmosphere of
    intimidation, he said: "I'm really sorry if that's true. It's
    certainly not my intent."

    Even his critics say Mr. Summers is highly accessible. He might insult
    someone in a meeting, they say, and then telephone afterward to
    apologize and solicit their views. The problem, his critics say, is
    that his confrontational style and tendency to criticize the ideas of
    faculty members in front of their colleagues requires an equally
    combative response. And, as president, he has the upper hand in the

    "If you come back at him and hold your own, you come out all right,"
    said Everett Mendelsohn, who has been a Harvard professor of the
    history of science for 40 years. "I've done it on a number of
    occasions." But Professor Mendelsohn added that many of his
    colleagues, while no shrinking violets, nevertheless feel afraid to
    speak up.

    Professor Waters says she is not afraid of Mr. Summers. But she said
    she stopped going to meetings of the faculty advisory committee for
    the search for the dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences because she
    felt Mr. Summers was ignoring the faculty's views.

    She said she subsequently turned down a request to be co-chair of a
    curriculum review committee because she has become skeptical of Mr.
    Summers's interests in faculty opinion.

    "More and more faculty I speak to share my own sense, which is that
    Summers is exerting a lot of control and making a lot of decisions
    without really listening to faculty input," Professor Waters said. "So
    people I know who used to do a lot for the university are pulling back
    and becoming more selfish."

    "I think in the long run that is bad for a university because
    alienated professors who don't think they have a stake in the
    university will not do much for it."

    Sam Dillon contributed reporting for this article.

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