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.htmlâI’m still getting the hang of this html thingâ 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 suggestsârightly, I thinkâthat 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 perceivedâand 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 resign.
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 makeâin 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 letterâit 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 Sciencesâthe group that’s meeting today, a.k.a., the faculty of Harvard Collegeâbut 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 thinkingâwhat 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 femaleâand 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?