The Debacle at Harvard

"The Debacle at Harvard," Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2006.


It is a debacle at Harvard: a great university getting rid of its most outstanding president since James B. Conant, the only outstanding president at a major university today, and doing this for no stated reason. His unofficial detractors brought up only his abrasive style. In no way could it be said either that he had completed his mission, and thus deserved retirement, or that he had failed in it, and so deserved to be booted. The event is demeaning to all involved, but especially to the three main parties—the Harvard Corporation, the faculty, and Mr. Summers.

These three share the blame in descending order, and speaking as an informed observer, not an insider, I will assess it as I see it now.

The greatest blame goes to the Harvard Corporation, which brought in Larry Summers and then abandoned him. They set him the task of shaking things up and then became queasy and turned him out when he did just that. For Summers did not truly resign; he was undermined and effectually pushed out. The loss of confidence in him by his superiors was obvious. In the first major public incident of Summers’s presidency, his interview with Cornel West, the Corporation supported him publicly. In the second, the controversy over his remarks on the capacity of women for science, the Corporation remained silent. In the third, the reaction to the resignation of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean William Kirby, the Corporation actively undermined the president by letting it be known that it was consulting with faculty opposed to him.

In all three incidents, Summers was in the right. Cornel West, for all his virtues, was no model scholar; it’s true, apparently, that fewer women than men have capacity for science (or mathematics) at the highest level; the dean had produced very little from the curriculum review that was his main assignment. Summers was trying to hold Harvard to a higher standard of excellence than it was becoming used to—exemplary scholarship from all faculty, hiring only the best without the pressure to meet a quota based on sex, and a challenging curriculum that gets the best out of students as well as faculty.