Summers’ five year combative reign at Harvard featured one battle with the faculty after another. Summers wanted African-American studies star professor Cornell West to actually teach classes. That battle ended when West left for Princeton. So who won the battle, Summers or West?
Summers reintroduced ROTC to Harvard Yard, a sin in the eyes of militant anti-militarists. Summers’ biggest faux pas in the eyes of Harvard’s tenured radicals was his audacity to wonder aloud whether “intrinsic ability” more than sex discrimination explained why there are not more top female engineers and scientists in America’s elite research universities. This politically incorrect indiscretion the Harvard faculty could not abide.
The ironic part of this story is that Summers is not a conservative tilting at liberal windmills. He’s a Clinton Administration liberal, ostensibly one who would fit in with eastern liberal establishment faculty.
Not all people think Summers was ill-suited for his role. What Newsweek magazine called his “missteps” others called “leadership.” Summers was appointed by Harvard’s Corporation with the idea he would “get control of Harvard,” that he would provide focus for a behemoth secure in a $26 billion endowment even as it still attracts $400 million per year in federal grants. He dared to try by questioning “sacred” precepts of academic culture. He made some progress, and students liked him. But his administrative demise suggests he not only didn’t gain control but that members of the Corporation failed to backstop him.
Sure, Summers bears some of the responsibility for his fall from academic grace. He was arrogant, undiplomatic, and too often allowed his sharp tongue to overpower his sharp mind. Despite his Washington, D.C. experience Summers was not exactly politically savvy. He drove around campus in a stretch limousine, directed the chauffer to park it illegally, and appointed a personal press secretary. None of these actions are all that odd for government officials or CEOs of American corporations—except in academia. All this and more earned him a vote of no confidence by the faculty with another vote scheduled, until he made his resignation announcement. Apparently, he didn’t give the people what they want.
So what do the people want of a university president? It’s easy, really:
--They want unending growth and success without change.
--They want to keep doing the same things with ever different results.
--They want an academic bureaucrat, an “Educrat,” who manages but never leads.
--They want a president who speaks cautiously never courageously.
--They want a president who raises more money but doesn’t ask them to help.
--They want academic excellence without controversy.
--They want someone who wins the Friends of the Student Award, is beloved by Alumni, is a social butterfly, gives scintillating speeches and writes great books, is First Scholar among the Faculty, attends all university athletic, music, academic, and cultural events, never misses church, birthdays, or committee meetings, is always on campus, is always visiting friends of the university in other states, is here, is there, is everywhere.
--They want Everyman who is Superman.
Summers was not all that, nor am I, nor is any university president. But that’s still what people want from a university president.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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