Saturday, August 23, 2003

Summers wants Harvard to regard itself as a single sovereign entity rather than as an archipelago of loosely affiliated institutions. He wants to change the undergraduate curriculum so that students focus less on ''ways of knowing'' and more on actual knowledge. He wants to raise quantitative kinds of knowledge to something like parity with traditionally humanistic kinds of knowledge. He wants to make the university more directly engaged with problems in education and public health, and he wants the professions that deal with those problems to achieve the same status as the more lordly ones of law, business and medicine. And he wants to assert certain traditional verities, or rather open an intellectual space in which such verities can at least be posited. ''The idea that we should be open to all ideas,'' he said when I saw him in mid-July, ''is very different from the supposition that all ideas are equally valid..."

Even if Summers were a guileful and calculating figure with a hidden agenda of drastic change, he would have a tough row to hoe. But he's not: he's a blunt and overbearing figure with an overt agenda of drastic change. It should come as no surprise that Larry Summers is not quite as popular a figure as his gracious predecessor was. One of Summers's oldest friends on the faculty said to me: ''There are a lot of people on other parts of the campus I've met who just despise him. The level of the intensity of their dislike for him is just shocking.''

I met professors who so thoroughly loathe the new president that they refuse even to grant his intelligence, perhaps because doing so would confer upon him a virtue treasured at Harvard. Despite the protections of tenure, virtually all of Summers's critics were too afraid of him to be willing to be quoted by name. It's not easy to imagine Summers winning these people over. Of course, he may not have to. Harvard's greatest presidents have been an exceptionally cold and nasty lot. One of them, Charles W. Eliot, once said that the most important attribute of a college president is the capacity to inflict pain.

The tactically sound approach to the-institution-that-considers-itself-matchless is first to demonstrate that you share its values and only then to begin pointing out that it could do a better job of living by them. That's what, say, Robert Rubin would do. But Summers always takes the shortest distance between two points. In July 2001, four months after his appointment was announced around the time he assumed office, Summers somewhat reluctantly agreed to meet with seven or eight of Harvard's leading black scholars. Under Rudenstine's extremely lavish care, Harvard had assembled far and away the most distinguished Afro-American studies department in the country. Black scholars feared that the notoriously hardheaded Summers would be far less assiduous than Rudenstine had been. At the meeting, Charles Ogletree, a law-school professor, pressed Summers to spell out his views on affirmative action. Rudenstine had been a zealous advocate of affirmative action, and it was perfectly obvious that Summers had only to say a few magic words and all would be well.

According to one participant at the meeting, Summers replied to Ogletree: ''The jury's out. I want to make up my own mind.'' Word soon got around that Summers opposed affirmative action and that he was critical of ''The Shape of the River,'' the pro-affirmative-action tract that Rudenstine's predecessor, Derek Bok, was co-author of. (Summers says that he had only criticized the book's methodology.)

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place soon after Summers took office and inflected his presidency in ways that could scarcely have been anticipated. While much of the university world took the view that the United States must in some important way have been responsible for the attacks, Summers says that he felt called to speak up for patriotic values. At a speech at the Kennedy School in late October, he chided the school's dean for failing to include a uniformed officer among those the school was honoring for public service. ''There are still many people who, when they think of police, think too quickly of Chicago in 1968 and too slowly of the people who risk their lives every day to keep streets safe in America's major cities,'' Summers told his audience. He seemed to be lecturing his own university and kindred institutions in public. In the ensuing months, Summers tried to raise the status of the R.O.T.C. on campus: he demanded the reversal of a policy that had prevented students from listing R.O.T.C. service in the yearbook and made a point of addressing the R.O.T.C. graduation ceremony at the end of the year. And then last September, he threw down another ideological gauntlet when he claimed, in a speech that was front-page news all over the country, that ''serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.'' And he did not shy from observing that this group included scholars at Harvard and elsewhere who had called on Harvard to divest its portfolio of companies that did business in Israel.

Between patriotism, R.O.T.C., anti-anti-Semitism and much hard talk about grade inflation, Summers quickly gained a reputation as the spokesman for mainstream values as against the consensual leftism of the elite campus. The conservative Weekly Standard called him its ''favorite university president,'' while The Wall Street Journal editorial page spoke in similarly glowing terms -- not a form of adulation normally considered desirable for Ivy League presidents. It was really an astounding situation: the equivalent of Alan Greenspan taking on corporate malfeasance. Summers seemed to have embarked on a crusade for which many people -- and not only conservatives -- had long been waiting. Indeed, one of Summers's oldest friends at Harvard, the economist Dale Jorgenson, said that Summers ''feels that universities in general have forgotten that they're part of the nation'' and wants to restore a sense of ''moral clarity'' to campus discourse.

Larry Summers defined himself, in the mind of the public and to a lesser extent inside Harvard, through his very public, and very ugly, imbroglio early last year with Cornel West, the philosopher and sometime media star. Summers never intended to define himself that way, but now it is one of those things he has to dig himself out of, like becoming a hero to The Weekly Standard. (It was the tangle with West, more than anything else, that made him into a darling of the right in the first place.) Summers's testy exchange with the university's leading black scholars the previous summer constituted only one element of the background to l'affaire West. Neil Rudenstine had allowed the Afro-American studies department to live by its own rules and to practically formulate its own budget. Summers made it plain to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman and builder of the Afro-American studies department, that henceforward the department would be subject to ''the same kind of standards and expectations,'' as he puts it, that applied to the rest of the university.

West appeared to be the living incarnation of those separate standards. He had been named one of Harvard's 17 ''university professors'' despite a modest record of academic achievement. More recently, he had become a political publicist, a media star, a professional spellbinder whose most recent ''work'' was a spoken-word CD. He was rumored to have missed classes to campaign for Bill Bradley and to have distributed A's with an abandon exceptional even at Harvard, where the average grade hovers between B+ and A-.

The average tenure of a Harvard president over the last century and a half has been a little more than 20 years. Summers will probably stay at Harvard a long time. And yet it's hard to see how he can lead the institution if so many of its essential citizens feel he doesn't share their values. After we had spent many hours together, I told him that I had been surprised by how intensely people disliked him. Summers was sitting in a tan leather armchair in his office, his foot up on a coffee table so that I could see the hole in his shoe. He thought for a second, then he started to talk about how people naturally resist change. Yes, I said, feeling a bit uncomfortable, but it's you they don't like. He looked a little taken aback -- that was a first -- and he said quietly, ''I'm sorry to hear that.'' But actually, he wasn't too sorry. ''I have an aggressive and challenging approach,'' he said with one of those quick, embarrassed smiles he sometimes shoots into the middle of a sentence, reminding you of the inner adolescent. ''And it may be there are times I have done that in a way that people haven't felt respected. That's certainly never been my intent.'' On the other hand, he said, ''I don't think of leadership as a popularity contest.''

From a not-entirely-biased article in the NY Times on the man who may save American academia from neo-Nazi oblivion. I love the look it gives into Harvard's arrogant, narcississitic, shockingly unintelligent faculty and the extent to which it controls, even "owns" the university itself. (Its doesn't mention that this is precisely how they retain political control over its faculty and ensure that only Leftwing psychopaths become professors.) Lets hope Larry can finally break their Orwellian stranglehold and force them to answer for their crimes against American intellectual life.