Shaking up Harvard

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/12/2002

Some recall a Socratic dialogue with him playing the devil's advocate; others remember him acting as a bully, holding firm to his views and scoffing at others' ideas.

At a law school dinner just a few weeks after Lawrence H. Summers took over as president of Harvard, he provoked a heated debate about age discrimination policy - arguing that it was fair to use age as a factor in awarding tenure and astonishing professors who hosted a friendly meeting to introduce him to some of the university's legal scholars.

"He seemed to regard that the way to get to know the faculty was to have an abstract debate, as opposed to just asking questions about the law school or politely inquiring about our research," one professor at the meeting said.

Summers, who recalls hoping to draw professors that night into a "vigorous intellectual conversation," arrived at Harvard with a reputation for being abrasive - and many on campus believe he has lived up to his reputation. Six months into a presidency that he promised would shake up the nation's premier university, Summers has had to temper his practice of playing intellectual provocateur and learn a new role: diplomat.

"I think it is important to avoid misunderstandings and to clear them up rapidly when they arise," said Summers in a phone interview. "I think one is reminded that it is always best to advance from areas of mutual interest."

In the past few weeks, Summers has come under pressure from both above and below for his blunt talk. Members of the Harvard Corporation, the university's governing board, admonished him for angering senior black scholars and for allowing a private meeting with the popular professor Cornel West to simmer into a public feud over how strongly the president supports diversity, university officials say.

While many at Harvard praise the new president's assertive, blunt style, he irked some on campus when he spoke out about patriotism and supporting the nation's military in wartime. He led some professors who study Latino issues to consider leaving after he rebuffed two proposals to create the campus's first center for Latino studies. Others recoiled at a lecture in the law school this fall when he called a question from a female law professor "stupid."

However, Summers has moved quickly to defuse campus controversies when they have gone public. He called the professor from the law school to apologize; he made a statement in support of diversity to appease concerned black and Latino professors; and he met with West last week to heal wounds from their previous meeting.

The president declined to discuss private conversations with professors and when asked why he has developed a reputation for harshness, he said, "I'm not going to speculate on others' judgments."

It has never been easy to be president of Harvard, a decentralized institution where much of the power rests with deans at the university's 10 schools. "It is no great surprise that assertive, envelope-stretching Harvard presidents run into faculty flak," said Morton Keller, a coauthor of the recently published "Making Harvard Modern."

He compared Summers's short term with the tensions that arose when, in the late 19th century, president Charles W. Elliot loosened up a rigid curriculum by allowing electives, or when James Bryant Conant in the 1930s transformed the admissions process into more of a merit system, and when Derek Bok two decades ago pressed the university to open more to minorities and women.

Unlike Summers's job in Washington, where he served as the Clinton administration's treasury secretary, Harvard's president can't simply fire dissident subordinates; he has to find common ground with the university's renowned academics, many of whom have large egos, differing interests, and lifetime appointments. He must also contend with students, a group of whom occupied the president's office last spring for nearly a month. The group plans protests this semester to pressure Summers to approve a "living wage" policy for the campus's lowest-paid workers. Last month, a committee established to end the sit-in concluded that Harvard's low-wage employees are earning less than a living wage.

"Every environment is different," Summers said, "but leadership is always about persuasion and the identification of mutual interest."

Fueling much of the tension on campus this fall has been the stark contrast in style between Summers and his predecessor, Neil L. Rudenstine, a low-key president who avoided personal conflicts and made a priority of building the university's Afro-American studies department.

"Neil had a soft approach," said Paul Grogan, Harvard's former vice president for public affairs, who left with Rudenstine in July. "He spent his entire life in the academy. He believed in academic collegiality and exercising leadership through quiet persuasion."

Summers has such a reputation for rubbing people the wrong way that it required help from friends including Robert E. Rubin, Summers's predecessor as treasury secretary, to persuade the university's presidential selection committee that his famously abrasive style was a part of the past.

But some professors and administrators insist he hasn't smoothed over his hard edge. "Rudenstine would say something is `complicated,' when he thought it was a bad idea," one senior administration official said. "Summers would say it is ‘outrageous and stupid,' when at first glance he thought, ‘This is a bad idea, but I'm willing to listen to a good argument.’”

While Rudenstine gently probed professors, the administrator said Summers asks questions and restates someone's position. "Then he smiles and refutes it," the official added. "It's this intellectual virtuoso performance that really makes people feel uncomfortable."

Some on campus may be put off by Summers's style, but others believe the new president's direct approach is what Harvard needs in an era of plenty, with many serious plans on the horizon. Summers has vowed to use the university's $18 billion endowment to revamp undergraduate education, hire hundreds of new professors, spread financial aid more evenly across the university's schools, bolster research in science and other disciplines, and oversee the growth of the campus in Allston.

"There are high expectations," said Jeremy Knowles, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. "What we have now is a change to someone who's more analytical and more questioning. But it's good for our time. If he doesn't ask hard questions, we'll just go on doing what we've always done."

The difference in Summers's approach is visible every month when the president and the deans meet. While Rudenstine would allow "the conversation to bubble up," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Summers "states a position sharply to play devil's advocate."

"Larry is more like a colleague. You can engage in a real exchange of ideas," said Robert C. Clark, law school dean. "He's more like a professor than a politician. And that's good. This is an academic institution and you have to be able to mix it up with professors."

Many on campus, however, believe Summers could benefit from the politesse practiced by his predecessor.

After pressing Summers to take a public stand on affirmative action and threatening to leave for Princeton University, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of the Afro-American studies department, emphasized if there's one lesson the president should have learned in the last six months, it's the need for more tact.

"One of the most important things that the president must realize is how fragile and insecure the egos of even the most senior faculty are - and always to manifest a sense of noblesse oblige in his dealings," he said.

Recalling the law school dinner, Summers - who, according to The Wall Street Journal, has denied at least two professors tenure because of their age - said by arguing against age discrimination policies he was just hoping to draw them out.

"It's certainly my way to participate vigorously in the intellectual life of the university," he said.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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