Judging by the way the wind is blowing in Cambridge, February is officially "Not Larry Summers" month in the city on the Charles. After staying on as Harvard's president despite a no-confidence vote by its faculty last year, but in the face another such vote scheduled for next week, President Summers has resigned.
Last year, the Summers found himself in hot water over some widely misunderstood remarks he made at an academic conference regarding why differences in the variability of intrinsic aptitude across the sexes may lead to fewer women in elite university science departments. Some with better vantage points than I are saying that by now most people have moved on to some of his other offenses.
There is merit in that argument, but not to be underestimated is an impact of a change in norms. When it is not considered appropriate to criticize someone in a position of power, too few people do it. But once it becomes acceptable or even commendable to do so, the inertia shifts, and the new norm is to offer too much rather than too little criticism. Shifting norms become much more important at a place like a university, where there is very little relevance of the conventional "bottom line" that keeps for-profit institutions from straying too far afield.
What I find most interesting about the episode (apart from the fact that many Harvard faculty seem to be in need of a good elementary statistics class) is that there is a strong contingent of support for Summers among the undergraduates. The editorial page of The Harvard Crimson is eloquent today:
More importantly, the seeds sown for improvement in the undergraduate experience under Summers’ presidency are indicative of his larger willingness to press for change at an institution by nature resistant to it.Well put. As the title of the editorial makes clear, this truly is "Harvard's Loss."
Summers unforgivingly, and often publicly, made known his prioritization of certain academic initiatives over others. Given the occasion to address a crowd, Summers rarely failed to mention his belief that this era would be defined by a revolution in the life sciences and by the quickening pace of globalization. His acting on these beliefs has led, for example, to the bolstering of the Broad Institute, the planning of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and the establishment of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health and a Chilean office of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. It was his brazen trumpeting of these priorities that increased his popularity with students and with a public uninterested in the more esoteric aspects of academia.
Through these and other initiatives, Summers hoped to fashion Harvard into a university that more directly served his conception of the public good. To this end, he has emphasized (and correspondingly obtained funding for) increased research in the life sciences and in expanding Harvard’s global footprint.
It is the prerogative of and, more, the duty of a university president to shift a university’s focus when the demands of the era require it. After all, Harvard, like most other schools founded in colonial days, was established primarily as a training institute for clergy. Reform has come only in battles against the wishes of the entrenched interests of the time. Harvard’s greatest leaps of progress have come when its presidents have fought to modernize the University and redefine its role in accordance with the progressive goals of their respective eras.
Ultimately, too many of today’s entrenched interests felt threatened—justified or not—by Summers’ vision, or by the manner in which he sought to bring his vision to fruition. That was his ultimate undoing.