Wolf amongst wolves

Harvard president Lawrence Summers—his faculty "threatens open revolt"!  So he’s going to "temper his style" and treat people "more respectfully"…see the NYT story.

Just months before this latest flap, in an
essay for Harvard’s alumni magazine, Summers argued for a measure of
autonomy as the University’s chief.

“At the same time,” he wrote,
“we have also seen that the team cannot be managed by its players. Too
often, universities have been managed as kibbutzim, with academic
leaders elected by faculty, students, and staff, thus undercutting
mandates to impose high standards and the creation of leadership
horizons sufficient for true long-term innovation.”  (Zachary Seward in the Harvard Crimson)

HuThis pot has been coming to a boil for a while.  Back in early 2002 Summers had the temerity to criticize that marxist behemoth Cornel West, perhaps wondering what the tutorial value of supporting Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign might be.  West eventually decamped to a far more radical venue than Harvard—Princeton.  (No doubt they didn’t force him to take a pay cut from his ex-Harvard University Professorship’s $300K.) 

Summers clearly has a problem with the mutual proximity of his foot to his mouth, adducing the statistic of 1M teenage prostitutes in  Korea in the 70s while making a point about the power of economic growth to improve living conditions (and leaving the entire south end of the peninsula enraged).  By the late 70s the South Korean population was in excess of 35M, but still, that’s rather a blunder for an economist.  It is especially painful to Koreans, of whom up to 200,000 were kidnapped by Japan into sexual slavery as "comfort girls" in the Second World War.

In late 2004, Summers was challenged by a group of female faculty to reverse the trend in tenure for women.  In the  year prior to  Summers’ ascension to the peacock throne, 36 percent of tenure offers went to women,  while four years later that number was down to 13 percent (of 32 offers). 

Summers, even back when he was a superstar economist and Treasury official, has always struck me as a bit too much of a smartass for this own good.   But as an ex-UMass employee and  Harvard College grad, I have a funny feeling the current story is tipping a bit too far in favor of the galant and embattled faculty.  As I’ve watched his most recent incarnation as Harvard President, I have not agreed with many of his positions but I’ve been interested in his apparent belief that (shades of Nixon) "make no mistake—I am the president!"  And wondered about the reactions of the campus barons (and—too few perhaps—baronettes) to the actions of their liege lord.

As anyone who has worked at a college or university (especially the latter, and especially not as faculty) knows, they are among the last outposts of feudalism.  Perhaps this is good in some respects—in theory, the decentralized academic world should give shelter to the corner-cases that we seem to need for mental genetic health.

But the world of the University is far from the wonderfully collegial and intellectually free-wheeling world of nostalgic novelizers more than two or three decades removed from their undergraduate impostures.  It is a place of vicious power struggles, just like any other seriously adult hierarchical organization.  While the tenured faculty whine about Summers’ imperial style, check in with the non-tenured faculty to get their impressions of life under their department heads.  Then check further down the food chain, with the serf-like grad students who in many cases do all the teaching and testing and associated grunt work, for shit wages and just pure shit from on high.  Then amplify the above for Harvard, which, along with a handful of other institutions, is the highest level in the tree for academic superstars.

What I realized at UMass was that, in addition to the usual knife-fighting to be found in any corporation, one has to deal with professorial kung fu and the assassins of state politics.  And all around a fixed or shrinking fiscal pie, circled by professors, pols and administrators like junk-yard dogs.  I’m here to tell you that, as rough as it gets, life in a large corporation is blissful by comparison.

So let us spend a moment in prayerful reflection for the academic soul of Lawrence Summers—intellectual sinner, wayward administrator, and would-be manager of  a  more concentrated collection of inflated egos (cut to the same pattern as his own)  than any maximum leader, even on mental steroids, could ever hope to dominate.

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