[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Summers) The Tempest in the Ivory Tower

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The New York Times > Books > The Tempest in the Ivory Tower
March 17, 2005


    Correction Appended

    In 1937, H. L. Mencken offered some advice to the son of the publisher
    Alfred A. Knopf. ''My guess is you'd have more fun at Yale than at
    Princeton, but my real choice is Harvard,'' he wrote. ''I don't think
    Harvard is a better university than the other two, but it seems that
    Americans set a higher value on its A.B. If I had a son I'd take him
    to Cambridge and chain him to the campus pump to remain there until he
    had acquired a sound Harvard accent. It's worth money in this great
    free Republic.''

    And so it is. No university occupies a more central place in the
    American imagination than Harvard. In ''The Sound and the Fury,'' the
    Compson family sells an inheritance of pastureland to send their son
    Quentin north to Harvard. His experience there, albeit fictional, does
    not become the stuff of university promotional materials. Bedeviled by
    a Southern past at odds with the secure respectability that Harvard
    promises to confer, Quentin cracks up and drowns himself in the
    Charles River. ''Harvard my Harvard boy Harvard harvard,'' he
    daydreams at one point. Repeated over and over, the word is reduced to
    syllables, those syllables to nothing.

    Harvard, boy, Harvard. What is Harvard? That question has come to the
    fore more than ever during the tumultuous presidency of Lawrence H.
    Summers. A brilliant economist who took office in 2001, Summers has
    become known for his brutally direct leadership style. As one joke
    circulating has it, he opens his mouth only to change feet. His latest
    stumble came in January. In [1]off-the-cuff remarks at a conference on
    women in the sciences, Summers said he wouldn't rule out the
    possibility that innate gender differences might help explain why
    there aren't more women in the hard sciences. Offered tentatively,
    [2]his comments set off a fierce debate, at Harvard and beyond.
    [3]Summers apologized to the faculty and vowed to ''temper'' his
    ''words and actions.'' But that wasn't enough for members of the
    Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who [4]passed a no-confidence vote in
    Summers at a faculty meeting on March 15 - the Ides of March. Taken by
    secret ballot, the vote was largely symbolic and did not include
    professional school faculty members. Nevertheless, it was believed to
    be the first in the university's history, and it sent a strong message
    of discontent. (The Harvard trustees have showed no sign of lessening
    their support for Summers, but at press time his fate remained

    The science comments weren't Summers's first misstep. Early in his
    tenure, he had a [5]notoriously testy exchange with one of the stars
    of the university's Afro-American studies department, Cornel West, who
    quit and went to Princeton after Summers questioned his gravitas.
    Other incidents followed, which highlighted Summers's seeming
    disregard for diplomacy and alienated many on Harvard's faculty. To
    some, however, the outrage was also a sign of trouble in academia -
    which, as [6]the critic Stephen Metcalf recently observed in Slate,
    ''has devolved into a series of now highly routinized acts of
    flattery, so carefully attended to that one out-of-place word is
    enough to fracture dozens of egos.''

    But these altercations, though heated, are skirmishes in a much larger
    battle developing at Harvard and beyond. In some ways, it recalls the
    campus turmoil of the 1960's. Only this time around, the protesters
    aren't the undergraduates; they're the faculty, who to some extent
    remain immersed in the values and pieties of the 60's and are clashing
    with a president intent on bringing Harvard in line with today's
    political and economic realities. What's happening at Harvard goes far
    beyond Summers's personality; instead, it's about larger social and
    political transformations to which the academy - essentially a
    conservative institution made up of thousands of progressive minds -
    is deeply resistant.

    Much of this is mapped out in [7]Richard Bradley's ''Harvard Rules''
    (HarperCollins, $25.95), a timely new book that sets out to catalog
    the flaws of Larry Summers. Well-paced and juicy, it nevertheless
    relies heavily on innuendo and on other people's reporting, since
    Summers wouldn't grant an interview to Bradley, a former editor at
    George magazine. Even so, ''Harvard Rules'' manages to shed much light
    on the current situation. In Bradley's view, Summers's mission has
    been ''to purge Harvard of the bonds that kept it from realizing its
    enormous potential and seeing itself in a new way - his new way. And
    that meant eradicating the influence of the 1960's.''

    In some respects, Summers was a canny choice for the presidency. In
    his teaching days, he was the youngest professor ever given tenure at
    Harvard, at age 28, and was widely considered Nobel Prize material. He
    is a liberal, but of a particular kind. A former chief economist of
    the World Bank, Summers succeeded Robert Rubin as treasury secretary
    under Bill Clinton and was a leading proponent of globalization when
    many other liberals were lamenting its discontents. Summers also hews
    to a kind of bottom-line market-driven thinking, which can seem deeply
    at odds with the humanistic values of the academy. And he is
    unapologetic about American power on a campus steeped in post-Vietnam
    ambivalence about such things.

    In Cambridge, all this made Summers ''an unabashedly mainstream figure
    in a highly progressive culture,'' as [8]James Traub wrote in The New
    York Times Magazine in 2003. Yet Summers's politics and his brashness
    made him appealing to the Harvard trustees, who were seeking a
    president to pursue a mandate all but guaranteed to win enemies.
    Harvard, whose endowment stands at a staggering $22.6 billion, had
    launched plans for a massive expansion. Spurred in part by Cambridge's
    restrictive zoning, in the 1990's Harvard bought some 200 acres in
    Allston, an area of Boston across the Charles River from Cambridge.

    Still in the planning phases, the expansion has been a hornet's nest
    of complication, from negotiating town-gown tensions to determining
    which departments would be relocated. This has been especially
    problematic because of the university's decentralized structure, in
    which each of Harvard's professional schools and the Faculty of Arts
    and Sciences raise their own money and control their own budgets.
    Autonomy means power. As Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller report in
    their excellent ''Making Harvard Modern'' (Oxford, 2001), when
    Summers's predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, sounded out the law school in
    1999 about possibly moving to Allston, they voted not even to consider
    it. The ''deferential'' Rudenstine, as Bradley depicts him, didn't
    push the matter. Summers, however, was appointed because of his
    willingness to ruffle feathers, with the understanding he would
    centralize power and guide the expansion forward. While Summers would
    certainly be better served if he secured the faculty's blessing, in
    practice, he doesn't need it. And so the frustrated faculty now finds
    itself sidelined in a crucial debate about its own future.

    Against this background, the resentment over Summers's comments about
    women becomes clearer. His remarks may have been misguided, but what
    is the point of a university if not to provide a forum for airing
    controversial ideas? Summers's comments seemed to mark a return to an
    earlier era in the gender debate - and so did the intensity of the
    response. In fact, today, the definition of feminism is open to
    interpretation. Now, a woman with an advanced degree can leave the
    workplace to become a stay-at-home mom and still be a feminist; she
    might even watch ''Desperate Housewives.'' In the broader culture, if
    not on campuses, the era of political correctness is decidedly over.

    But if P.C. is over, what comes next? There's no easy tag line for
    ''the oughts,'' because there's no immediately recognizable
    constellation of values. At moments like this, fraught with ironies
    and ambivalences, it's a relief to find villains. Yet the animosity is
    not just toward Summers himself, but also toward his stated intent to
    steer Harvard closer to the mainstream.

    His presidency, which began in October 2001, has overlapped with one
    of the most unsettling times this nation has faced, and he has viewed
    that as an opportunity to redress what he has called the
    ''post-Vietnam cleavage between coastal elites and certain mainstream
    values.'' He vocally supported bringing R.O.T.C. back to Harvard from
    the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where it had been exiled
    after Vietnam-era campus protests and where it remained because of
    later protests over the military's discrimination against homosexuals.
    And he supported Harvard's honoring the Solomon Amendment, which ties
    federal funding to universities' allowing military recruitment on
    campus, something students and faculty had protested. In this way, as
    Bradley writes, ''Summers explicitly linked the future of the United
    States in its fight against terrorism with the success of Harvard.''

    In another effort to address the global situation, Summers delivered a
    [9]speech on campus in September 2002 in which he criticized a
    campaign calling on Harvard and other universities to divest from
    Israel. ''Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking
    actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,''
    he said. As his detractors saw it, ''Summers had crafted his talk not
    to promote debate, but to silence it,'' Bradley writes. In any case,
    Summers had sent a clear message, one other university presidents have
    been notably loath to communicate even as ugly anti-Israel sentiment
    in the guise of leftist open-mindedness has rippled across their

    It's not altogether surprising, then, that Bradley's book includes
    descriptions of Summers that echo familiar characterizations of
    President Bush. Summers ''is not an intellectual, because
    intellectuals know the power of doubt,'' a professor and signer of the
    divestment petition tells Bradley. In Bradley's view, that's only one
    of his shortcomings. Among many cartoonish characterizations in
    ''Harvard Rules,'' he dwells on Summers's table manners and often
    disheveled appearance. Beyond that he emphasizes that Summers happens
    to be the first Jewish president of Harvard, and notes that that might
    inform his views on Israel and foreign policy. He also speculates
    about New Republic editors ''whispering'' in Summers's ear.

    All this aside, Summers and the faculty have also differed over the
    nature and importance of a liberal arts education. With the rallying
    cry that students should know the difference between a gene and a
    chromosome and focus more on concrete knowledge and less on ''ways of
    knowing,'' Summers ambitiously decided to reform Harvard's curriculum.
    But his method worried many in the university. In the most convincing
    chapter in ''Harvard Rules,'' Bradley recounts how a report on the
    curriculum was delegated to administrators who commanded little
    authority and were perceived by some as puppets of Summers. What is
    more, Summers urged the evaluators to complete their analysis in less
    than a year, a remarkably short time compared with Harvard's earlier
    curricular reviews. Harvard's last major curriculum reform, in the
    70's, capped years of careful study and produced the Core Curriculum,
    in which students are required to take courses in set subject areas,
    including sciences, literature and arts, historical studies, foreign
    cultures, and quantitative reasoning.

    In the end, a report published in April 2003 set a series of ambitious
    yet vague goals, including replacing the Core Curriculum with
    distribution requirements and putting a greater emphasis on
    ''interdisciplinary courses.'' One of its most striking
    recommendations, however, was that Harvard should ''develop
    distinctive course materials for use in, and potentially beyond,
    Harvard College,'' Bradley writes. The implication was that ''at some
    point, Larry Summers wanted to market those courses to students around
    the world, to use the Harvard brand name to teach 'foundational
    knowledge' to students whether they went to Harvard College or not,''
    Bradley adds. This, he says, is a way ''to further stamp Harvard's
    imprint on the world's education; to promote an empire of the mind.''
    And that inextricably identifies Summers with the broader, more vexed
    debate about the role America should hold among the nations. Indeed,
    the animosity toward Summers is also implicitly that of an academic
    culture, steeped for decades in questioning authority, that has
    awakened to find itself an imperial power.

    In all the recent turmoil, one Harvard constituency has been strangely
    marginalized: its undergraduates. They are the focus of another new
    book, ''Privilege'' (Hyperion, $24.95), a memoir by Ross Gregory
    Douthat, a self-important young conservative vexed by the
    discrepancies between the Harvard of his dreams and the Harvard of
    reality. Douthat, class of 2002, devotes far too many pages to his
    undergraduate romantic woes. Nevertheless, he paints a vivid portrait
    of campus life. Douthat is disappointed by the Core Curriculum and
    finds its offerings ''maddeningly specific and often defiantly
    obscure.'' In Douthat's account, few Harvard courses seem particularly
    worthy of export on the international market.

    Douthat, now a reporter-researcher at The Atlantic Monthly, was once
    employed to write SparkNotes, the cheat sheets students use to write
    term papers without doing the reading. He depicts his fellow Harvard
    undergraduates as essentially corner-cutting careerists, busy trying
    to score the right summer internships that will land them choice
    post-college gigs in Washington or New York. ''The ambitions of the
    undergraduates are those of a well-trained meritocratic elite, brought
    up to believe that their worth is contingent on the level of wealth
    and power and personal achievement they attain,'' he writes. ''The
    pursuit of these goals, in turn, depends on high grades in a way it
    did not for an earlier generation.'' Hence, the oft-heard cry, ''Look,
    I can't afford a B in this class if I want to get into law school.''
    And hence Summers's efforts to crack down on grade inflation at
    Harvard, where in 2001 about 90 percent of students graduated with
    honors, compared with 50 percent at Yale that year.

    Patrician Harvard is long gone. The 60's are over, too. As Douthat
    notes, a Harvard undergraduate weekly founded in the 70's with the
    title What Is to Be Done?, after Lenin's Bolshevist pamphlet, is now
    named Fifteen Minutes. ''The change to a Warhol-inspired title says
    everything about the difference between that generation and mine,'' he
    observes. The shift may also signal a return to an earlier elite
    model, only today's elite are the children of the middle class,
    groomed on SAT prep courses and the right extracurriculars. A Harvard
    degree today, no less than in Mencken's day, is worth money in this
    great free Republic. Now, however, the exigencies of the meritocracy
    require it to come with a high grade point average.

    Sensitive to economic disparities, Summers has abolished tuition -
    $27,448 this academic year, not including room and board, which bring
    the total to $42,450 - for students whose families have annual
    household incomes below $40,000. Yale and Princeton have made similar
    moves. Bradley, however, sees this as public relations as much as
    genuine reform, since such families had paid only $1,000 a year
    before. Yet what about families who earn more than $40,000 a year but
    still can't pay for their children's education without significant
    sacrifice? At Harvard and elsewhere, the cost of college is eroding
    the idea of a liberal arts education in favor of a pre-professional
    one. Time will tell whether Summers's presidency will hasten that

    In ''Harvard Rules,'' Bradley describes the case of Joe Green, an
    undergraduate disillusioned by his experience as a student
    representative on the committee evaluating the Core Curriculum.
    ''Green kept thinking about a question one of his professors had put
    to him: 'If you could either go here and get no diploma, or not go
    here and get the diploma, what would you do?' '' Bradley writes. ''It
    bothered Green that he couldn't easily answer the question.'' It
    should bother the president of Harvard, too. The answer, in the end,
    is the difference between a great university and a brand name.

    Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review.

    Correction: March 27, 2005, Sunday:

    An essay on Page 12 of the Book Review today about Harvard and its
    current difficulties refers incorrectly to Princeton's financial aid
    program for students from less affluent families. Beginning in 2001,
    that university eliminated loans to students who meet criteria for
    need, substituting grants that need not be repaid. Unlike Harvard,
    Princeton has not eliminated tuition fees for such students and has
    not established a specified level of family income to determine


    7. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/17/books/17bradley.html
    8. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/24/magazine/24SUMMERS.html
    9. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/21/education/21HARV.html

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