Give It the Old College Try: Mining Harvard’s Meaning

Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University, by Richard Bradley. HarperCollins, 400 pages, $25.95.

Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, by Ross Gregory Douthat. Hyperion, 304 pages, $24.95.

What is Harvard that we are mindful of it? That’s the question raised by Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, by Ross Gregory Douthat, and Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University, by Richard Bradley.

“Ruling class”? “World’s most powerful university”? I don’t think so. Neither book proves what its subtitle asserts-can’t-and it’s worth noting that all the attention recently given to Harvard president Larry Summers’ attempted career suicide only confirms that if you’re thinking of Harvard as a single entity with a soul or any semblance of one, you’re mistaken.

But before we tackle the broader issue, let’s get to what Harvard lit concentrators might call the normative portion of the review. Both Harvard Rules and Privilege make pretty good jobs of their respective subjects. Ostensibly about the same thing, in fact these books are more like parallel tracts. Ross Gregory Douthat, an undergraduate at Harvard from 1998-2002, has written a memoir about his time at the College, the preppy 369-year-old acorn from which the great university grew. Meanwhile, Richard Bradley-once known as Richard Blow, the former executive editor of John Kennedy Jr.’s George and a master’s degree holder in history from the school-writes about the oak, the modern Harvard multiversity with its $23 billion endowment, its 19,000 students and 15,000 employees, its campus sprawling across Cambridge, threatening-to paraphrase Henry James-to spread to the dreary academic suburb of Allston across the river.

Mr. Bradley’s focus is mostly on Mr. Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, whom Harvard University installed as president in 2001 and who has endured three difficult years in that job. Mr. Summers is Falstaffian-combative, colorful, impulsive-and Mr. Bradley gets great pleasure chronicling the fights he’s picked: the Cornel West Wars, the Stand-Off with Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Flaying of Dean Harry Lewis, the Core Curriculum Dying in the Dark. Mr. Bradley’s literary technique is the “tick-tock,” as embodied in this fairly typical sentence: “It was the summer of 2001, and Skip Gates was getting worried.”

Mr. Douthat’s book is more reflective. His characters-principally himself, but also the heterogeneous mixture in his freshman dorm that the admission’s office confected (“the Rachels and Nicks, the Danforths and Siddarths and Rabias and Nates,” as he writes)-care little about the affairs of kings. They arrive at the Yard with their parents, say good-bye to them, furnish their rooms, try to buy beer, and seek sex partners and grades good enough to allow them to go to graduate school-a pattern that apparently persists, a current undergraduate having told The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle in the midst of Summersgate that “most students at Harvard don’t give a shit about the administration.”

Mr. Douthat (pronounced, I think, DO-that) is a good observer, if hardly a novel one, in showing just how awful the undergraduate experience can be at Harvard for a certain type of intelligent young arrival. The product of an unconventional Catholic, sometimes macrobiotic family in New Haven, his head was turned by the possibility of social acceptance by one of the school’s fraternities, called “final clubs.” This goal having eluded him, he turned his intense longing on a pretty, complicated classmate named Rachel Polley, who would only suck his fingers before she fell asleep in his bed. “This is completely surreal,” he tells her with pleasure. Alas, pleasure turned to pain: A sailing-team junior named Eric Swaggart Allenby carried off the bewitching Rachel, and Mr. Douthat was left to tear apart his dorm room. Timiditas is the true Harvard motto where sex is concerned: Mr. Douthat remained, in his roommate’s cruel phrase, “a virgin by choice: the choice of the women of America.”

The years passed, and Mr. Douthat got laid and became an editor at the right-wing Harvard Salient (he found his club after all). Although his years at Harvard semi-radicalized him, he doesn’t dump on the school’s politics. As he sees it, the problem with Harvard isn’t a right-left political one but a right-brain/left-brain one: The professors in the humanities no longer believe in their material, while the economists and scientists believe too much in theirs, leaving the undergraduates to treat their four years as essentially a jobs-and-contacts fair.

“Harvard is a terrible mess of a place-an incubator for an American ruling class that is smug, stratified, self-congratulatory, and intellectually adrift,” he writes.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts Hall, Mr. Bradley is chronicling Larry Summers down to the pizzas he has an assistant pick up and the food spots those pizzas leave on this “prodigious and sloppy eater['s]” shirts. It helps Mr. Bradley’s book that he’s a pretty good digger. The brouhahas of Mr. Summers’ first thousand days were well covered in the daily press, but it’s my impression that he has still gotten stuff no one else has. Mr. Douthat’s book, at least, suggests so: At one point in Privilege, he laconically comments about the first volley in the Cornel West Wars, a 2001 meeting at which Mr. Summers pressured the African-American university professor-who, among other offenses, had backed Al Sharpton for President-to leave the school. “To this day, nobody knows what happened in that interview, save that Summers left thinking all was well, and West left in a fury,” Mr. Douthat writes.

But here comes Mr. Bradley with details galore: “At 3:15 p.m. on October 24th,” Mr. Summers and Mr. West meet in the president’s office-”perhaps thirty-five feet long by fifteen feet wide”-and Mr. Summers asks for Mr. West’s help in “fuck[ing] Harvey Mansfield.” Mr. Mansfield is the school’s conservative professor of government, who’d suggested that grade inflation was the fault of whites who wanted to help the underprepared minorities that prestigious universities like Harvard let in under affirmative action. When Mr. West refused to support an attack on Mr. Mansfield-”‘I don’t need that kind of talk about a colleague,’” Mr. Bradley reports his saying (is that Mr. West’s own voice I hear filling the journalist’s tape recorder?)-Mr. Summers turned on him, telling him that he suspected Mr. West was giving out inflated grades himself and asking to see the transcripts of his classes. For a president of Harvard to request the grade transcripts of a University Professor-its most prestigious faculty position-is like the President asking the director of the Federal Reserve for his time card: He can do it, but he shouldn’t expect his putative employee to stick around for long. Soon, Cornel West was gone to Princeton and Larry Summers’ Sister Souljah moment was on the front page of The New York Times.

There were ramifications to Mr. West’s departure within Harvard. He was a protégé of the politically skillful head of the African-American studies department, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (known as Skip), who dug in for a fight. Mr. Summers invites; Skip feints; Mr. Bradley teases. On page 91, we learn that “Gates would get his face time with the president. But it wouldn’t turn out exactly as he’d hoped”; and on page 206, that “in his ongoing chess match with Larry Summers, Skip Gates appeared to have checkmated his opponent …. though the game appeared to be resolved, it was, in fact, far from over.” Then, finally, on page 275: “The Skip Gates matter also seemed largely resolved …. Gates had leveraged his position … to make gains not just for himself, but also for his department.” Mr. Summers winds up adding Africa to Mr. Gates’ African-American studies department and securing Mr. Gates a million-dollar donation for a multi-volume encyclopedia of African and African- American history. Yet at book’s end, Skip Gates may be headed off anyway; we await the afterword in the paperback edition.

So here’s the obvious question, most evidently for Mr. Bradley but also, I think, for Mr. Douthat: Does any of this matter? Memoirs can make room for themselves with their writing, while a nonfiction book of the sort Mr. Bradley has attempted can sweep you up in its account through the very heat of its breath. But Harvard presents a special challenge, in that no one can really say what Harvard is anymore. You can try to trade off its historic importance, its soul, as Mr. Douthat does, or off its size, as Mr. Bradley does, but neither signifies what it seems to. “Setting a story at Harvard conveys history, power, and tradition,” Mr. Bradley writes. “Harvard raises the stakes.” But for all that, the school isn’t easy to write about right now. Its professoriat is bland-tell me, for instance, what Skip Gates stands for-and its effect on our culture is more like that of a telephone company than a content provider. It’s no longer a school for Puritan deacons, nor a finishing school for Protestant men, nor Joe McCarthy’s “Kremlin on the Charles.” There are 300,000 graduates of Harvard in the world today-what defines them? What does an ed-school graduate have in common with a B-school one, or with the “final club” man that Ross Gregory Douthat banally and bootlessly wished to be?

Fortunately,there’sMr. Summers-the Rock-’em, Sock-’em Robot of university presidents. “There was no question that whenever Larry Summers decided to step down as president of Harvard, he would leave the university bigger, richer, more powerful, and more influential,” Richard Bradley ends Harvard Rules. “The only question was whether he would leave it better.” Recent events suggest we may find this out soon. In January, Mr. Summers stepped up to the bully pulpit again, making a suggestion at a conference of economists that women might be under-represented in math and the sciences because their brains aren’t adapted for it-a comment that might have been forgiven (there he goes again!) except, as the full transcript that was released later showed, he also mused at the same meeting about why there were so few Jews in farming, whites in basketball and Catholics in investment banking.

At a meeting afterward, several members of the faculty called for their president’s resignation, and a further meeting that may prove to be Mr. Summer’s Waterloo is scheduled for March 15. While Mr. Summers divides the school more with his poor relationship skills than any extremist ideas, there’s something heartening-especially if you’re a journalist-about the fury he ignites. In an interview with The Times, Cornel West said, “I’ve been praying for the brother, hoping he would change.” What I say is, “You go, grrl”-Larry Summers gives hope to anyone who wants to write about Harvard.

D.T. Max is a 1984 graduate of Harvard College. Random House will publish his first book, The Dark Eye: A Scientific and Cultural History of Fatal Familial Insomnia, Mad Cow and Other Prion Diseases, in the spring of 2006.