Shots In The Dark
Reconsidering Hunter S. Thompson
While this blog is mostly about matters-Harvard for the foreseeable future, I do want to delve into other areas of culture and politics. Like, for example, the death of "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Along with every other aspiring journalist growing up in the '70s, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
and ...on the Campaign Trail
. To me, the books were the dark, subversive flip side of All the President's Men
. Both were attacks on the established political order, of course. But whereas Woodward and Bernstein were conventional newspaper reporters—two sources for everything!—Thompson was the outsider, the rebel, the iconoclast, the freak. He pushed the boundaries of acceptable political discourse, and over time he came to embody the '60s-ish ideal that you could fuse your lifestyle and your work. Thompson wrote stoned (et cetera). In some way, the rest of us could also rebel against the idea that you had to check your personality at the office door and become the man in the gray suit.
But over time, I've come to have doubts about Thompson's legacy. Anyone looking at his work seriously has to concede that he hasn't published much of worth for the past 30 years. In fact, he hasn't published much at all. One can only wonder what role his drug and alcohol use played in that diminished output. I can't imagine it wasn't a factor.
And as a former magazine editor, I've seen his influence in lots of ways, most of them bad. Thompson seems to have convinced a generation of young journalists that attitude is everything; that it's more important to be rebellious than to be serious; and that the coolest thing to do in journalism is try to convince someone to pay you to write stream-of-consciousness nonsense while underwriting your drug habit. Thompson was one of a kind, but his legions of young imitators missed that reality. Part of Thompson's sadness, I think, was that he seemed to wallow in that cult of personality, and perhaps even chose to live his life in a way that would promote it. Perhaps he even chose to end his life in a way that would promote it.
The Hunter Thompson of 1972 would have eviscerated these Hunter Thompson-wannabes, urging them to find their own distinctiveness, their own originality. In his later life, he seems to have needed them.
There is another sadness about Thompson's death, and that is that the world of modern magazine journalism really had no place for him. Imagine Thompson in Rolling Stone
now—amid the mindless and substance-free profiles of Britney and Beyonce, his writing would have seemed wildly out of place. Hunter Thompson's suicide isn't literal proof of the death of narrative magazine journalism. But it sure is a sign of an art form on the brink of extinction.
A Touch of Harvard History
If you're interested in the historical role of Harvard presidents, you might want to take a look at my op-ed
in today's Los Angeles Times
. Called "Harvard Presidents Used to be Players," it's a short overview of the public roles played by some Harvard presidents over the 20th century, and why it's more difficult for a university president to play that kind of national role. My thanks to the folks at the Times
, who were a pleasure to work with.
Is It Left Versus Right?
James Atlas has written a smart piece
in today's "Week in Review" section of the Times
. The battle behind the battle at Harvard is really about whether the university is going to be liberal or conservative, he argues. On issues such as affirmative action, the development of Allston, bringing ROTC back to campus, the salaries of endowment managers, and the curricular review, Larry Summers wants to "tug" Harvard back to the center. (Tug is a pleasant way to put it.)
There's much truth to this argument. As I argue in Harvard Rules
, Summers is instinctively hostile to the 1960s and any sign of its legacy. And in return, those who tend to think more positively of the '60s tend to dislike Summers. It's no coincidence that the drive to reduce the eight-figure salaries at the Harvard Management Corporation was led by members of the class of '69. I'd suggest that the fight at Harvard has a lot to do with how Harvard interprets that legacy—does it advance the progressive spirit of the '60s, or does it reject that decade's legacy because of its excesses and the often tiresome, knee-jerk rhetoric and dogma of the far left?
On a couple of points, Atlas over-reaches. I never spoke to a soul in Cambridge who sees the Allston development as an "imperial land grab." My impression was that, by and large, folks in Allston were pretty happy about the development of their less-than-picturesque community. The fight over Allston is really about the future power and importance of different intellectual constituencies, and the faculty is frustrated because Summers won't give them any meaningful input into that fight. He wants to make those decisions alone.
Nor is the curricular review a political battle, as Atlas says. It probably should be, taking on the big question of whether to prioritize Western civilization, or if not, what to prioritize. But because the curricular review has been a rush job, those big questions, so political in nature, haven't been discussed.
Nevertheless, Atlas is right: what's going on at Harvard isn't just a fight between an imperious president and a whiny faculty, as it's often caricatured in the press. It's a fight over what Harvard is going to stand for in the 21st century—the struggle for the soul of the world's most powerful university.
A Crucial Issue
One of the biggest political questions implicit in Larry Summers' presidency is that of the university's relationship to the federal government. Without question, Summers has weakened Harvard's identity as an institution apart from, and often in opposition to, the government. For many students and faculty members, this drive to closer ally Harvard with Washington is worrisome, and represents a subversion of the university's role as an enlightening force in society. Summers, they charge, is interested only in power—primarily his own—and thus he's willing to compromise the university's independence to make himself more politically palatable to Republicans who might appoint him to, say, the job of Federal Reserve chairman. Probably a pipe dream now, but it wasn't always.
Let me give a quick example of how Summers' desire to bond Harvard closer to the government has created tensions on campus.
The president gets a lot of credit from conservatives for wanting to bring ROTC back on campus; conservative pundits bash faculty and students who oppose that as being un-patriotic and hostile to the military. (In fact, Summers himself has said pretty much the same.)
These conservative arguments rest upon a caricature of the Harvard community, which is not nearly as leftist as portrayed. The student body in particular is hardly a bunch of riotous left-wingers. I never got any sense of real dislike of the military on campus. Everyone
supports our troops.
What they don't support is the military's ban on gays. That bigotry offends a humane and open-minded intellectual community, as it should. Consequently, people are troubled by the idea of restoring a military presence to the Harvard campus.
The bottom line: If the military lifted its ban on gays, the Harvard faculty would vote to bring ROTC back to campus the next week.
This tension also manifested itself in the debate over the Solomon Amendment, a federal law mandating that universities which accept federal money must also accept military recruiting. After 9/11, the Pentagon began to enforce the amendment, threatening the loss of Harvard's hundreds of millions in federal aid, and Harvard collapsed like a bad souffle.
With both ROTC and the Solomon Amendment, Summers refused to speak out on behalf of gays, essentially saying that other goals of the university were more important than this issue of fundamental human rights.
I say "essentially" because Summers has never publicly articulated his position on this matter. It's a shame; I'd like to hear Summers address how the university should balance the imperative of its moral independence with the reality of its dependence upon the federal government. Particularly as Republicans in Congress are cracking down on the autonomy of private universities, that is an urgent question. If Larry Summers really wants to ignite important public and political discussions, this is a much better place to start than whether women are dumber than men in science and math.
The Spin Begins
Any journalist who has tried to write about Larry Summers knows that he has a very simple approach to the media: He doesn't talk to the press because he feels an obligation to, because university presidents should
be accessible to the press. He talks to reporters only when he has to or when he thinks he will personally benefit from the exchange. Nothing too unusual about this approach—Summers learned it in Washington—except that a host of reporters will tell you that when Summers doesn't
want to talk about something, his attitude towards them is transparently dismissive, even hostile.
But sometimes, Summers really, truly wants to spread the word about something. And when he does, he calls the New York Times
Which is why one has to consider carefully the piece in today's Times
, "Amid Uproar, Harvard's President Ponders His Style." Summers cooperated with the article by Patrick Healy and Sara Rimer about the experience of the past month and the public referendum on his leadership style.
According to the Times
, Summers has been going through a dark and painful period of profound self-evaluation. He's reached out to Bill Clinton and spinmeister David Gergen for advice. (A fact Gergen failed to mention when he recently appeared on the Charlie Rose Show to talk about what a great job Summers is doing. Nor did he mention, as I report in "Harvard Rules," that for years he's been doing speechwriting for Summers.)
"I'm actually glad that concerns and anger that clearly were felt are now in the open and are now things we can discuss," Dr. Summers said.
To which one can only laugh in hysterical disbelief. Anyone who knows Summers knows that having these "concerns" out in the open—which is to say, being the subject of volumes of media scrutiny, much of it unflattering— would infuriate Summers. For almost four years, he's made a point of trying to limit the media's access to Harvard, and Harvard's access to the media. At the Treasury Department, Summers was vigorous in his attempts to control the flow of information. This is not a man who takes criticism well, and certainly not public criticism.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not making a judgment about that quality. I'm just pointing out that the disconnect between the Summers of today's article and the Summers of, oh, the rest of his life, is so vast, it's jarring. And when the people he's turning to for advice are Bill Clinton and David Gergen, you have to wonder. After all, Clinton and Gergen dispense political
More juicy bits....
Summers drops the fact that he recently took his kids to see "Hitch," the Will Smith movie about, as the Times puts it, "men who are trying to improve their social skills." Having been thus baited, the Times
lunges for the hook: Did Summers see any analogy between the movie and himself? Oh, no, Summers insists. "It didn't occur to me."
Oh, come on. That's an insult to Summers' intelligence. Whatever else you would say about Summers, he is an extremely smart and savvy individual. Of course he recognized the analogy.
And if, by some bizarre lapse in noting the obvious, he didn't, can't one just imagine David Gergen saying, "Larry, you should make a comparison to that Will Smith movie...that way people will think your problem is just klutzy social skills. Plus, everyone likes Will Smith!"
Another piece of evidence to this point: Having covered Summers for years, I've noticed that Summers only mentions his children in order to make a point that's not really about his children. It's kind of a weird habit, but I've seen it happen probably twenty times, and one well-known recent incident was when he talked about his daughters naming their toy trucks at the infamous NBER conference.
Later in the piece, Gergen compares Summers to Socrates. Let's just think about that for a moment, shall we?
Gergen also says of Summers, "It's a good thing when a male demonstrates vulnerability."
Especially if he demonstrates it in front of two reporters for the New York Times
. Apparently Gergen and Summers feel they can actually talk about their media strategy with the press as part of their media strategy. Hold on a second... I'm getting dizzy. It's all too meta!
points out that there is yet expected to be a vote of no-confidence in Summers, and then, in a weird and hasty parenthetical, points out, "No one expects the vote to go anywhere." Maybe so. But the Times
just injected itself into the way that vote is perceived on campus. If the Times
says that no one expects the vote to go anywhere...
--Summers states that he never felt that his position with the Harvard Corporation was in jeopardy. Of course, he has to say that, but the thing is, it's probably true—hell, Summers appointed half of the Corporation—and that should be disconcerting for Harvard. Not that the Corporation should have rushed to dump Summers...but if what just happened on campus didn't shake them up a little, they really don't have a clue about what's going on there.
The Corporation's secrecy (probably deliberately) promotes an aura of omniscience. But perhaps the emperors have no clothes. Maybe their secrecy hides the fact that they actually have no idea what goes on at the campus they visit once a month.
--Finally, the Times
does point out that "questions abound about whether Dr. Summers can successfully lead Harvard's next capital campaign," expected to be "at least a record $4 billion."
Pay close attention to that number. Not too long ago, folks at Harvard were saying that the campaign was going to be at least $5 to $7 billion, and I heard from several sources that Summers wanted it to be $10 billion, to make it truly historic. Suddenly, we're back to $4 billion. Yes, questions abound—and expectations are deliberately downscaled.
I don't want to bash Healy and Rimer. They're both really good reporters, and they've been covering this Harvard story very well. But today's article has an arranged quality to it that you recognize if you've been in journalism for a while and ever had to negotiate access to a subject. It works like this: Summers says to the Times
, you've been covering this thing to death, you owe me one. And the Times
says, you give us an interview, and we'll show your side of the story, which is code for saying, we'll write a puff piece.
I'm sure that this piece of spin emanating from Mass. Hall will have a big impact on alums, who sometimes seem to care more about how Harvard is portrayed in the Times
than how it is in real life. But don't assume it has any relationship to reality.
The Women in Science Party
I wrote yesterday about the problem of how Larry Summers rebuilds his reputation when he has become the object of public satire. (Of course, he has become a hero to some groups, but I'm talking about the arbiters of pop culture—late-night comedians, web-based humorists, New Yorker cartoonists, etc.)
So last night I was forwarded an invitation to a Harvard party on Saturday night that shows just what I'm talking about. It's so funny, I'm reprinting it here, with the names changed so that a) these kids' parents don't get too bummed out, and b) the kajillions of people who read this blog don't crash the party. Here it is...
"bored and horny have conspired once again to bring you the first xxxxx
party of 2005.
see you there...
jCome celebrate the innate differences between men and women
Or, if you're gay, don't.
[[Note: This party is for friends only. Fuck those motherfucking freshmen.]]
David ("A woman discovered radium. Wanna fuck?")
Tom ("Why look for the gay gene when you can look in my jeans?")
Mark ("If I were a girl, I'd do experiments on my boobs. I like you.")
Paul ("I'm using bi-molecular fluorescent complementation to elucidate the binding interactions between members of the PDZ protein family using high-throughput methodology. Oh. You're a girl. Here, drink this.")
John ("Molecule? More like Mole-cute. I mean, hi, I'm John.")
Steve ("Y ask Y **? Try this guy.")
Mike ("You're in your element, but I just wish you weren't on the periodic table right now.")
Carl ("Oh, hi. I was just calling to ask what the bio homework was...so, um, what's up?")
**only men have the y chromosome>>
After the Deluge, More Questions
So Summers survives. I don't know if faculty upheaval alone could ever have led to Summers' ouster, since one of the underlying rationales of his presidency is to diminish the faculty's power. But after Tuesday's meeting, the anger seems to have dissipated slightly—or at least to have been put on pause.
Still, the fact that Summers will keep his job hardly means that the story is over. In fact, now the really interesting part begins. I can think of at least half a dozen questions that will be simmering for months, if not years, to come.
1) Summers has promised to be more "collegial" in his leadership style. Will he keep his promise?
Let's face it: Larry Summers has never been the type to lead through diplomacy and gentle suasion. Sharing credit has never been his forte. Can he really change now? Or is it just a matter of time before he lapses back into old habits? Because you know that, on some level not very far under the surface, he's mad as hell at being put through this embarrassing public trial.
2) What happens with alumni giving?
The Crimson runs a piece today suggesting that many wealthy alums are standing behind Summers, which isn't surprising: Powerful people tend to bond with other powerful people, and they instinctively dislike popular uprisings. But not all alums have that reaction: I've spoken with a number of alumni, both female and male, who are deeply unhappy with Summers.
Harvard is in the early phases of a massive (a rumored $10 billion) capital campaign. Normally Summers would lead it. Can he really play that role now? And if he doesn't, who can?
3) What happens with the task forces on women headed by professors Barbara Grosz and Evelyn Hammond?
Those women are in a tough spot. They're respected scholars who take the issues surrounding women in academia with the utmost seriousness. But it's hard to imagine that female academics at other universities will eagerly consider the prospect of joining up with Larry Summers' Harvard.
Harvard has traditionally resisted the bidding wars for high-profile academics that other universities engage in. Its thinking: Harvard's reputation pays its own dividend. I wonder if one consequence of Summers' remarks about women won't be that the university is forced to drop that aloofness and start throwing some money around.
In Harvard Rules,
I detail how Summers' assault upon the Af-Am department ultimately cost the university a million bucks, as Summers channeled an alumnus' contribution to a thinktank headed by Professor Skip Gates. How much will Summers—and other Harvard alums—have to pony up now?
4) Will Harvard see a brain drain?
Marcella Bombardieri in the Boston Globe recently wrote a piece suggesting that other universities may be poaching Harvard faculty members. Makes sense to me. Faculty members want to be in an environment where the president is collegial because it's in his or her nature—not because he promises to be lest he lose his job.
5) What happens with the curricular review? Few may remember, but the much-hyped review was on the agenda the day of the first outraged faculty meeting. This thing has been slouching toward Bethlehem for a long time now. To mix metaphors, it's always been a Potemkin village, a half-hearted intellectual exercise gussied up for passing journalists and alums. It's hard to imagine that the faculty will suddenly get fired up about the review. And for it to succeed, they need to be.
6) How does Summers rebuild his reputation?
A week or so ago the New Yorker ran a cartoon showing several women dining out. "I hear we're all getting valentines from Lawrence Summers," the caption read. That's just one out of many examples of how the Harvard president has become the object of popular ridicule. Fair or not, those images don't go away easily. Just ask Jimmy the Greek.
There's a wonderful irony here. One of the reasons the Harvard Corporation picked Summers was because it felt embarrassed by Neil Rudenstine. Summers' predecessor collapsed from exhaustion in early 1994, and was subsequently on the cover of Newsweek
for a story about overworked Americans. For some members of the Harvard community, and especially Corporation member Hanna Gray, this was an unacceptable embarrassment to the university. And so Gray led the drive to choose Summers, who was thought to be far too tough ever to mortify Harvard thusly.
Funny how things work out.
Another fascinating meeting yesterday at Cambridge. But first, I want to point out something in the papers this morning. In today's New York Post
, columnist Andrea Peyser sums up the problem with Larry Summers' remarks on women in science thusly: "The offense Summers has committed...is not a mere violation of political correctness. He's committed a sin far more egregious. He has used his lofty perch to promote junk science."
I think that's about the fastest, most accurate way of limning the problem with what Summers said about women's intellectual abilities. Since the Post
editorial page has been consistently beating the Summers-is-a-victim-of-political-correctness drum, I'm surprised to see such independent thinking there. Good for Peyser.
Okay, on to faculty meeting number two.
The media swarmed around Harvard Yard yesterday hoping to witness fireworks that never occurred. By all accounts, the tone of yesterday's meeting, the second public referendum on Summers' leadership of Harvard, was courteous and civil, probably the consequence of a week-long cooling-off period and faculty concern about being caricatured in the media. It's also true that the most extreme supporters and opponents of Summers did not get the chance to speak. (You can be sure that this was no accident—Summers controls the agenda of the faculty meetings, and he would have wanted to avoid polarizing figures.)
That doesn't mean the meeting was without drama. Economist Caroline Hoxby—one of two women in what is probably Harvard's most powerful department—stood and talked powerfully about how Summers has corroded the bonds of trust between faculty members. "Every time you humiliate or silence a faculty member, you break ties in our web," Hoxby told Summers. Hoxby's an African-American woman in a white-male-dominated department, but her work can't be politically pigeonholed. She spoke with credibility and impact.
Physicist Daniel Fisher recited a litany of criticisms he had of the way Summers has planned for the advancement of the sciences at Harvard, arguing essentially that Summers set up committees which were supposed to give him advice, and then ignored them. (A complaint that has the ring of truth—as I write in Harvard Rules
, Summers has a habit of doing exactly that.) Fisher then called on Summers to resign "for the good of Harvard."
But before subsequent speakers could respond to that issue, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Bill Kirby, whom Summers was allowing to direct the meeting, called on former FAS dean Jeremy Knowles. Completely unexpectedly, Knowles stood and offered a plan for a three-person board that would serve as a liason between the faculty, the president and the governing boards, primarily the seven-person, ultra-secretive Harvard Corporation. The other members would be Theda Skocpol, a respected scholar who's a critic of Summers, and Sidney Verba, a respected scholar who's a Summers supporter.
Knowles plan didn't go over well, for several reasons. One, the move felt orchestrated. Two, how exactly this group would work was unclear. And three, the faculty doesn't trust Knowles. (Full disclosure: Knowles was quoted in the New York Times
as saying that Harvard Rules
lacks the "kind of balance and analysis that we like to see from graduates of Harvard College," his way of saying that I'm not really a Harvard man.)
A little background on Knowles: He was the FAS dean under Neil Rudenstine, Summers' predecessor. He's extremely smart, quite witty, highly charming, and utterly political. As dean, Knowles had a reputation for being a faculty advocate, but also for telling people what they wanted to hear, even if it wasn't what he really believed.
Still, if Summers were to lose his job, Knowles would probably be the most viable internal candidate to replace him—and you can be sure that Knowles knows this. So his attempt to propose this three-member panel, with him at its head, could be seen as positioning himself as a conciliatory figure, acceptable to all constituencies of the university...and waiting in the wings should Summers fall. And from what I hear, that's pretty much how the faculty did see it.
No matter. The plan died fast when historian Stanley Hoffman, who's been at Harvard for about fifty years, rose and compared the idea to insider attempts to prop up Napoleon. Sometimes you really have to love Harvard.
But if the intention of the plan was to derail anger at Summers and throw off track a proposal to hold a vote of confidence, it worked. The meeting ended with a sense of uncertainty—nothing was resolved, and no one's quite sure where things go from here. It still seems likely that someone will move for a vote at the next faculty meeting, scheduled for March 15th. But at the moment, I doubt that such a vote would pass. Enough venting has occurred to take some of the steam out of Summers' opposition. The problem is that the faculty doesn't really believe Summers' claims that he'll change his style. They've gone down that road with Summers before, only to discover that it's a dead end. Many faculty members simply don't believe anything that a conciliatory Summers says, and they're unlikely to let him off the hook just because he says he's going to change.
On a side note, I'm struck, looking at recent photographs of Summers, by how much the man has aged in recent months. He looks exhausted. His hair seems to have gone almost completely gray. (There wasn't much, until recently.) He has deep bags under his eyes.
Summers has always looked young for his age. He doesn't any more.
Sensationalist Gossip--and a Clarification
I've been amused by Larry Summers' response to my book. "We are not going to dignify that kind of sensationalist gossip with comment," Lucie McNeil, Summers' press secretary, told the New York Times
on February 17th. By my count, that's about the tenth time McNeil has used that exact line in regard to Harvard Rules
. It doesn't bother me, because while my book is hardly sensationalist gossip, for McNeil to label it as such probably sells books. Who doesn't like to read sensationalist gossip?
More important, note that McNeil doesn't actually say that anything in the book is wrong.
In fact, I take accuracy very seriously, and one of the things that I promised myself I'd do on this blog is to correct mistakes that turn up in the book. Every book has mistakes—don't believe any author who tells you otherwise—and usually the best you can do about them is correct them in the paperback, which is kind of rough if you're the subject of a mistake. (And having been the subject of some erroneous journalism myself, I know how that feels—not good.)
Having said that, I do want to clarify something. On page 330 of Harvard Rules
, I write that New York Times
reporter Sara Rimer had told the office of Harvard dean Bill Kirby that the Times "planned" a front-page story on the Harvard Curricular Review. In retrospect, I think that's an overstatement. Rimer wouldn't promise a front-page story, and the Times
wouldn't decide the placement of a news story before the event had even occurred. I should have said that the Times
"was considering" a front-page story on Harvard's curricular review—that would have been accurate. But to suggest that Rimer was promising page one is wrong.
The Summers Saga
Two fascinating stories in the Crimson this morning. (Well, more than two, but two I want to focus on.)
The first, found at http://www.thecrimson.com/today/article505890.html—I'm still getting the hang of this html thing— is Zachary M. Seward's report of a poll conducted by the Harvard Crimson over the weekend. The poll asked five questions and got 283 respondents from members of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. (Not professors from the professional schools, which is important, for reasons I'll explain in a minute.)
The poll asked five questions.
1) Do you approve of Summers' leadership of the University?
2) What effect do you think Summers has had on Harvard's image?
3) Do you think Summers should resign?
4) If a confidence vote in Summers was held today, how would you vote?
5) Do you think Summers stifles dissent?
On reflection, the Crimson decided that #5 was ambiguous, and threw out the results. Still, it's telling that the Crimson phrased the issue this way. Outside critics of the Harvard faculty have claimed that professors are the ones stifling free speech. The Crimson suggests—rightly, I think—that it may really be Summers who has chilled free speech at Harvard.
Questions one and two are thematically linked, so let's look at them together.
Forty percent of respondents approved of Summers' leadership of Harvard, with 52% disapproving, and 8% didn't know. I'd say this is encouraging for Summers in the sense that, if you'd been at last week's faculty meeting, you wouldn't have thought he had even 40% approval. On the other hand, if a president of the United States had a 40% approval rating, he'd be pretty darn worried.
Asked the effect Summers has had on Harvard's image, however, only 18% of respondents thought that Summers had improved it, while 56% thought he had diminished it, with the rest saying they didn't know or "no effect."
This is not good for Summers; it suggests that even people who like him think that he's not helping the way that Harvard is perceived—and up in Cambridge, they take this matter of the Harvard "brand" very seriously.
Now, let's look at questions 3 and 4.
Asked whether Summers should resign, 32% of respondents said yes, 55% said no, and 13% said they didn't know.
This is a good news-bad news situation for Summers. A majority of the faculty who responded to the poll don't think he should resign, and that certainly helps him. (Consider the alternative.) On the other hand, it's pretty tough to run a university when one-third of the faculty thinks you should
Asked how they'd vote on a confidence vote, 50% of respondents said they would vote that they have "confidence" in Summers, 38% would vote no confidence, and 12% don't know. I don't think Summers can be encouraged by this. Assume that the undecideds break down the middle; that still means that 44% of the Harvard College faculty doesn't have confidence in your leadership. However you may feel about the Harvard faculty, as a practical matter, it's awfully difficult for the president of Harvard to lead his university when almost half the faculty lacks confidence in his leadership.
I wish the poll had showed how intensely people hold their feelings, but I can hazard a guess. When I was reporting Harvard Rules, I was stunned by the intensity of the anti-Summers feeling; a lot of people just couldn't stand the man. The pro-Summers feeling was slightly more ambivalent. His supporters liked him and believed in what he was doing, but almost always they had caveats; they recognized that Summers was an imperfect leader.
For the moment, those folks are giving Summers the benefit of the doubt. It'll be interesting to see, over the next days and weeks, whether that slightly qualified support for Summers solidifies or starts to drop off.
Okay, on to the second story in the Crimson, a letter in support of Summers signed by 186 members of the Harvard University faculty. The letter can be found at http://www.thecrimson.com/today/article505884.html. (I promise, I'll get this hyper-link thing down soon.) Organized by two members of the economics department, the letter argues that "any drastic action in the current charged atmosphere would be highly divisive, and would damage our great University." While Summers "has made mistakes," he is nonetheless guided by "a fundamental commitment to the ideals of scholarship and teaching that define this institution."
It's a perfectly fair argument to make—in fact, probably the strongest argument that can be made on Summers' behalf: Okay, so he's not perfect, but his intentions are good. But what's most interesting to me is the list of 186 signatories to the letter—it tells you a lot about the nature of Summers' support.
First, it's important to note that this list is not composed only of members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—the group that's meeting today, a.k.a., the faculty of Harvard College—but from professors across the entire university. That enlarges the potential pool of signatories from somewhat under 700 to several thousand. Seen in that light, the number of signers, 186, seems tepid.
Scanning the list shows where Summers' support lies. Signatories overwhelmingly come from male-dominated areas of the university: the economics department, the sciences, the business school, the Kennedy School, and to a slightly lesser extent, the law school.
No, I know what you're thinking—what area of Harvard isn't
male-dominated? Well, there are a few: the humanities, the school of education, and the divinity school come to mind. (That these aren't exactly Harvard's power centers bodes well for Summers.)
The list also shows exactly where Summers doesn't get support: women. While that may not be surprising, given Summers' recent remarks on women in the sciences and mathematics, the starkness of the sexual divide is remarkable. Out of 186 signers supporting Summers, only eleven
are female—and one of them is his girlfriend, English professor Elisa New. Now, these results are skewed by the fact that women are a minority of the Harvard faculty in the first place. But still...eleven out of one hundred eighty-six?
Even in calmer times, Larry Summers has never shown the political finesse of say, a Bill Clinton, or even a Bob Rubin. Even if he survives the current uprising, how does he undo such self-inflicted damage?
Welcome to Shots in the Dark
So as I write this, I'm in the midst of the publication of my second book, which is called Harvard Rules—The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University
. For those who haven't experienced it, the process of having a book published is bizarre, exciting, scary, and unpredictable. (Sometimes, it's boring, but I haven't experienced that yet.) The process can also be frustrating, because you, the writer, can feel weirdly passive and incapacitated—you've worked for years on this project, and suddenly everyone else is having their say, but you have no way of responding to what other folks are saying about your book.
Well, you could write anonymous reviews on Amazon. But I'm shying away from that approach.
Which brings me to Shots in the Dark. The initial reason for this blog is to chronicle the experience of book publication. The reviews, the readings, the controversy, the hostile letters, the nice ones. My book also happens to be a part of a story that's in the news right now—the feud between Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers and a good portion of the Harvard faculty. Having reported on this story for over two years now, I have some thoughts about what's going on up in the 02138 zip code, and I'll write them here.
Beyond Harvard, Shots in the Dark will focus on politics and popular culture, two interests of mine that frequently overlap. Some years back, I was an editor at George magazine, which covered the intersection of just these areas. I miss George, which shut down at the end of 2000, and I don't see much like it in the magazine/media world these days. So I'll share some thoughts about those subjects as well. They may not have much impact or shed much light—hence, "Shots in the Dark"—but at the very least, I hope they generate some discussion.
Tomorrow will be a fascinating day at Harvard—the second faculty meeting devoted to debate over President Summers' leadership of Harvard. It should be dramatic, and I'll post some thoughts about what happened as soon as it's over....
Meantime, thanks for reading. I hope you'll keep me on my toes with comments, criticisms, and suggestions. Here goes....