February 21, 2006

Larry Summers Post Mortem

Following up from yesterday, Harvard President Larry Summers does indeed appear to be resigning sometime this week, if not today.

Summers is in this position not entirely due to his remarks about women and science, but that sure provided a convenient cover for anyone who didn't like him. My feeling is that Larry Summers was perfectly right to challenge 'the sacred cows of academic tribalism;' he was just maladroit at doing it. This, I suppose, is no sin, but it is incompetence and shows a lack of judgment. Enough to be forced from his position? Undoubtedly not, in my mind. But he did also have a rather long track record (Cornel West, for example) of treating professors as mere accessories to the real work of the university—namely, his. I don't think he did so enough to get all the flak he got and certainly not enough to be forced out, but now that he is out, we might as well look at what he did do poorly.

Summers's comments about women and science were unquestionably poor job performance regardless of whether you see a college president as a business manager or a visionary. If a president is to be merely the CEO, s/he does not have any business kicking at hornets nests. If s/he is to be a leader of ideas, s/he shouldn't be so lackadaisacal with following them up. The reason Summers is out is not that he talked about "intrinsic aptitude," but that he botched the fallout management. He didn't release the actual text of the remarks for a month. That's not the way to defend one's views, regardless of the ridiculousness of the attack. If a college president is supposed to lead by his or her ideas, then duck and cover should not be an option. Summers tried to play at being an ideas man without committing himself to the consequences. That's simply a lack of intellectual fortitude in my mind.

Summers does not deserve to be a martyr in the cause against academic close-mindedness. He's a pompous man with good management skills but apparently few interpersonal ones. Larry Summers shouldn't be a hero; he's just a casualty.

Edit: BTW, it's official now and is up on the Harvard home page. Summers will step down at the end of this academic year. Derek Bok, a former Harvard President, will step in for the interim. Summers lands fairly softly; he is expected to stay on the faculty (after a year-long sabbatical) as a University Professor, which is a pretty big deal in itself and, ironically, what Cornel West was before Summers drove him out.

More: Professor Samwick has an excellent post on Summers over at Vox Baby.

1 comment:

  1. Update 2:
    Derek Bok is also kind of an ass. More to come. stay tuned.