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Administrator’s Style Hits an Academic Roadblock

Posted on 21 April 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University’s secretive seven-member governing board issued an unusual statement recently: It stands behind the school’s president, Lawrence H. Summers.

The board’s one-page letter to “the Harvard community” sets the stage for a possible showdown between Mr. Summers and his prominent faculty critics, who are moving toward a referendum on his leadership.

The immediate source of friction between Mr. Summers and the faculty was a talk he gave at a recent conference on work-force diversification — statements that he finally made public recently — but the roots of the clash run deeper.

Hired more than three years ago to retool Harvard for the 21st century, the former Treasury secretary has found the hierarchical management style common in corporations and cabinet agencies to be a tough fit for a storied university accustomed to decision making that is decentralized and collegial. The confrontation comes as more and more universities, pressed financially on several fronts, have turned to leaders with experience outside academia to reinvigorate their institutions — and have in turn often met resistance from faculty.

The campus firestorm over Mr. Summers erupted last month when he made comments at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference here suggesting that innate gender differences could help explain why fewer women gain high-level academic careers in science and math. Prominent Harvard faculty and presidents of other elite universities spoke out publicly against his views.

But the gender remarks proved to be only the catalyst that this week ignited a broader assault on Mr. Summers’s performance since he took the helm in 2001, a period that has been marked by an unusual number of public rows with the powerful faculty, many of whom have nothing to fear from him because of lifetime tenure guarantees.

At an on-campus meeting with Harvard faculty earlier this week, senior professors flayed Mr. Summers for his management tactics and sometimes abrasive manner. Several said that the stage was set for a motion to take a faculty vote of no-confidence in Mr. Summers — something no one can remember ever occurring at the university in recent times. Mr. Summers called the meeting a “searing” experience, according to the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. Bowing to demands from faculty members, Mr. Summers released a full transcript of his comments at that Jan. 14 conference.

A vote of “no confidence” would be symbolic since, in the university’s system, the president serves at the pleasure of the board, called the Harvard Corporation. But it might be difficult for Mr. Summers to rule effectively if his faculty were not behind him.

Harvard said Mr. Summers would not be available to comment for this article.

With some professors already complaining that the governing board has not done enough to rein in the sometimes brusque former Treasury secretary, the blunt language of the transcript could wind up further inflaming the debate.

Founded in 1636, Harvard is one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, with 41 Nobel laureates among its current and former faculty and a $22.6 billion endowment that is, by far, the richest of any American university. Managing such an institution can also take its toll: Mr. Summers’s predecessor, Neil L. Rudenstine, known as a manager who agonized over details, found the Harvard presidency so taxing that he had to take time off in 1994, with Harvard acknowledging at the time that its chief was overwhelmed with the job.

When Mr. Summers came to Harvard, he was viewed as a strong figure who would speak out on national issues, reinvigorate the faculty and make undergraduate education more rigorous.

Last year, in a move supported by Mr. Summers, a Harvard committee recommended far-reaching changes in the undergraduate curriculum, which would boost the number of required science courses and encourage students to spend time abroad.

But battles with Harvard faculty broke out soon after Mr. Summers arrived. His confrontational style marked a sharp departure from that of his predecessor, Mr. Rudenstine, a soft-spoken Renaissance scholar. During Mr. Rudenstine’s tenure, Harvard’s African-American Studies department became widely regarded as a national powerhouse.

Many at Harvard are still bitter that Mr. Summers singled out one of the department’s stars, Cornel West, three years ago for a highly unusual presidential scolding of a tenured professor. Among Mr. Summers’s issues, according to Prof. West’s associates: making a hip-hop record and allegedly missing classes to help with a political campaign. At the time, a person close to Mr. Summers said he was only trying to encourage Prof. West to concentrate on scholarship and teaching. The incident inspired widespread publicity, and Prof. West ultimately left for Princeton University.

According to the transcript released, Mr. Summers cited “issues of intrinsic aptitude” to explain the scarcity of women in the higher levels of science and engineering. He also said that “it does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight…overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means” or average levels of ability “there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population.” Standard deviation is a statistical measurement that describes a significant degree of difference from the average, or mean.

In addition to aptitude, Mr. Summers cited as a primary factor tensions between women’s “family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity.”

Daniel S. Fisher, a Harvard professor of physics, said the new documents would not quell the tumult. He called the transcript “shocking” and added that Mr. Summers’s comments at the conference are only part of the reason for faculty discontent.

Mr. Summers also told participants at the conference that women weren’t the only group underrepresented in an important activity. “To take a set of diverse examples,” he said, “the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and agriculture.”

According to the transcript, Mr. Summers cited no sources for these assertions and told conferees he was trying to be provocative with his comments.

In the latest of several apologies, the Harvard president said in a letter sent to faculty that he would have spoken differently if he could “turn back” the clock. “Though my…remarks were explicitly speculative, and noted that ‘I may be all wrong,’ I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields,” he wrote.

Mr. Summers’s supporters predicted the moves will help fend off calls for his ouster. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz says Mr. Summers “comes off much better in the statement than he has come off up to now. He should have put this out earlier.”

Harvey C. Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government, said Mr. Summers has also taken on such issues as grade inflation and the generally liberal leanings of the school’s faculty. “He is being attacked for his strengths and not for his defects,” Prof. Mansfield said. “The liberals of Harvard lost the election last November. They are taking it out on Larry Summers.”

The turmoil that has pushed the Harvard president to the brink of a possible faculty referendum on his leadership has much to do with encounters like a session between Mr. Summers and some of his professors in November of 2003.

At the time, the university was planning a massive and still-unbuilt satellite campus that would require an undetermined number of professors to move across the Charles River from Harvard proper, to neighboring Allston, Mass. Accustomed to having a say in matters such as department mergers and new programs of study, German professor Peter Burgard asked Mr. Summers whether the faculty would be voting on the Allston plan as well.

The answer was a quick “no,” according to the professor and others who were there. “I asked why not,” Mr. Burgard recalls, “and he said because it was a personnel and financial matter and not a curricular matter even though he had justified the move to Allston on curricular grounds in a 10-page letter he sent to the faculty.”

The controversy at Harvard comes at a time when governance issues have spawned friction between more and more university presidents and faculties accustomed to a greater say in operation of their institutions. Robert Sloan resigned as president of Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, last month and took the largely ceremonial post of chancellor following several no-confidence votes by faculty. Angered by a lack of input and other issues, the faculty senate at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, Miss., recently asked state officials to replace Shelby Thames, the university president.

Observers say such battles reflect broader changes in higher education. State legislatures are demanding more efficient use of tax dollars at public universities, and universities, both public and private, are becoming increasingly complex operations. Facing competing demands for limited resources, many colleges are forced to raise funds nearly full time. Many are picking top executives from the ranks of government and corporations to meet these challenges.

After earning a bachelor of science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975, Mr. Summers enrolled at Harvard as a doctoral student in economics. By 1983, at the age of 28, he had become a tenured professor of economics, one of the youngest in the school’s history.

Mr. Summers, now 50 years old, has a history of ruffling feathers with provocative remarks that get him into trouble. As chief economist at the World Bank from 1991 to 1993, he signed a memo that, in jest, argued the economic merits of dumping garbage in poor countries. As deputy Treasury secretary, in 1997, he provoked controversy when he told a small group of reporters asking about Republican efforts to repeal the estate tax that: “There is no case other than selfishness.”

With then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as his tutor, Mr. Summers practiced being more diplomatic and circumspect. Mr. Rubin, a Harvard alumnus and a current member of the Harvard Corporation, backed his protégé for the Harvard presidency. Mr. Rubin did not return a call seeking comment for this article.

Early in his tenure, Mr. Summers also stirred criticism of age discrimination on campus by vetoing the offers of tenure to two 54-year-old scholars. In a 2002 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Summers said he wanted to adjust the tenure criteria the school uses in an effort to find younger candidates whose best work lay ahead of them, rather than in the past.

For many reasons, Harvard itself is difficult to govern because it has long had a decentralized power structure, in which the deans of each school within Harvard have unusual power, says Henry Rosovksy, a former dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences. Each dean traditionally controls a share of the school’s vast endowment — or, as many at the school say, “each tub on its own bottom.”

But Mr. Rosovksy points out that Harvard’s president, in another respect, has more power than those at many other institutions because, in practice, he has final approval of faculty appointments. “There’s no question that President Summers has taken steps toward achieving” greater centralization, Mr. Rosovksy said.

That effort has led to discomfort among some in the faculty, who say that Mr. Summers has assembled the trappings of a chief executive, with a larger public-relations staff and a grand style that conflates Harvard’s success with his own.

Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor of government and sociology, says universities function best with give and take between strong deans, input from the faculty as well as a president who isn’t afraid to set agendas and propose ideas.

But other professors maintain that Mr. Summers’s main failing was running afoul of ideas favored by the liberal elite. Mr. Summers, for example, has expressed his support for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which was banned from Harvard during the Vietnam era. While falling short of calling for a return, that stance has angered gay students because of the military’s prohibition of openly gay soldiers.

In a letter to the university community on behalf of the other six members of the Harvard Corporation, board member James R. Houghton said the board recognized the intensity of faculty criticisms of Mr. Summers and is taking them seriously. Mr. Houghton, who is chairman and chief executive of Corning Inc., said the Harvard president is “strongly committed” to advancing opportunities for women.

“More generally,” he added, “we know him as someone very much determined to learn from experience, to encourage discussion and debate, and to help Harvard pursue academic excellence in all of its many forms.”

Faculty members say it is unlikely that Mr. Summers will face a no-confidence vote soon, at least in part for procedural reasons. Because so many wanted to speak at this week’s meeting with Mr. Summers, it has been continued until next Tuesday.

Because a no-confidence vote was not on the agenda of the original meeting, 80% of the faculty present would have to approve consideration of such a move at next week’s session under university rules, faculty members say. If 80% of the faculty do agree to consider such a proposal next week, it could be voted up or down at that meeting by a simple majority. If not, it could be placed on the agenda of the next regularly scheduled faculty meeting, slated for March 15.

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