Why Summers Simmers

As of March 15, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences officially lacked confidence in president Lawrence H. Summers. Fortunately or unfortunately for Mr. Summers, the president has ample private reserves.

The rebuke-by a surprise 218-185 vote at last week’s faculty meeting-came after Mr. Summers had tried to explain why women are underrepresented in the sciences with an amateur theory about innate gender differences. “I should have left such speculation to those more expert in the relevant fields,” the president wrote in an apologetic letter to the faculty last month.

Meanwhile, according to sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Summers has been angling to hire a prominent female scholar: Harvard-trained ­psychologist Carol Gilligan, now at New York University, who professionally theorizes about innate gender differences.

The political symbolism of such a move would be rococo, even by the standards of Mr. Summers’ presidency-something like Richard Nixon wooing Sammy Davis Jr. in 1972: an embattled Clintonite, backed by right-wingers, turning to a feminist researcher whose work might shore up his own quasi-antifeminism. And that’s before the academic politics come in: Ms. Gilligan is being courted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, whose dean, Ellen Langemann-hired by Mr. Summers three years ago-announced March 21 that she would be stepping down this spring.

By comparison, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ resolution of last Wednesday is a model of simplicity: “The Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers.”

“A lack of confidence is to be understood quite literally,” said German professor Judith Ryan, who spoke in favor of the motion at the faculty meeting.

The vote can also be unpacked, if one is so inclined. Mr. Summers’ supporters interpret it as a thought-police action, mounted by a faculty that will allow no challenge to its politically correct, grade-inflating complacency. “It represents their distemper about the fact that there is someone who is at the helm of the university with whose political views they do not [agree],” Yiddish-literature professor Ruth Wisse said.

But four years into Mr. Summers’ presidency, even the pro-Summers camp can’t exactly claim to be confident about its man. Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield said that in the flap about his remarks on women and the sciences, Mr. Summers had pursued a “strategy of conciliation or appeasement,” which “emboldened his enemies [and] disheartened his friends.”

The Summers administration was not supposed to be a deflating experience. When he was hired in 2001 to succeed Neil Rudenstine, the popular theory was that the ex-Treasury secretary’s combative, ambitious spirit would wake up a university that had been dozing on sacks of cash. There was a new century to conquer, a century of globalization and biotechnology and other polysyllabic, sweeping themes. And new times called for a different style.

“I don’t think President Summers would like my saying this,” Ms. Wisse said, “but it was initially the way that President Bush’s style differed.” Ms. Wisse meant it as a compliment. Mr. Summers, she said, was “determined to be a leader and not a triangulator.”

“I find it very refreshing,” Ms. Wisse said.

But President Bush had a war to help drive his agenda. Mr. Summers had some public dissatisfaction about curriculum and grading, along with a large-scale real-estate development project-planning a campus expansion onto land the university had bought in Allston. It was heavy lifting, but not naturally the stuff of drama.

The drama, such as it was, would have to come from the top. The model for Mr. Summers’ presidency would not be the Bush Administration. It turned out, instead, to be the New York Times under Howell Raines.

The parallels between Mr. Raines’ and Mr. Summers’ career paths are unsettling. One was a thwarted novelist; the other was a thwarted mathematician. They found success by switching to a related but less glorious field-journalism or economics-and both had the chance to marinate in Washington politics during the Clinton years.

But whatever their psychological or personal backgrounds may have had in common, what got both of them in trouble was management theory. Mr. Raines and Mr. Summers were hired to be “change agents,” charged with shaking up a preeminent institution.

The trouble with being a change agent is that people don’t necessarily want to change. This is particularly true when those people-like the Harvard faculty and the staff of the Times-are at the top of their profession.

Mr. Raines, in his sprawling, defensive Atlantic Monthly essay of last year, explicitly compared his institution to Mr. Summers’: “At the Times, as at Harvard, it is hard to get in and almost impossible to flunk out,” he wrote.

Mr. Raines lamented “the destructive power of a change-resistant newsroom.” What he-and Mr. Summers-overlooked was the constructive power already in place. The procedures, structures, and habits of Harvard or the Times had been built up by generations of smart people, trying to figure out the best way to do their jobs. They worked. Mr. Summers had made his name in Washington by bailing Mexico out of its economic crisis. But Harvard is not Mexico.

So when the two executives started interfering and centralizing-Mr. Raines breaking down the Times’ “editing silos”; Mr. Summers disrupting the various faculties’ “every tub on its own bottom” system-that was when their crises came. Talented employees, frustrated and alienated, started taking job offers from Princeton or the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, at a staff meeting, things broke into open rebellion.

And now that Mr. Summers’ rebellion is at hand, he doesn’t have a seven-Pulitzer year to offer in his defense. The question for the university, said Richard Bradley, author of Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University, is “Are we better off than we were four years ago?”

Despite the promise of tough, practical leadership, Mr. Summers’ most notable performances have been theatrical: denouncing an Israel-divestment petition, speaking in favor of ROTC, picking a public fight with Cornel West of Mr. Rudenstine’s showcase Afro-American Studies department. They were a hit with the professional culture warriors, but they didn’t change the curriculum.

Nor did they spark much of a culture war. Mr. Summers’ opponents lately tend to complain about administration-the internal budgetary “tax” to fund the Allston project is a sore spot with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences-more than symbolism.

Allston itself has been another letdown. Mr. Summers’ strong hand was supposed to be needed to force some recalcitrant branches of the university-such as Harvard Law School-to give up their Cambridge land and move across the river. But when the proposal came out, the law school hadn’t budged. Instead, Allston is currently slated to be the home of the education school and the School of Public Health, both of which are in uncomfortable quarters to begin with. The site is also supposed to include state-of-the-art facilities for the sciences-an offer widely regarded as a bribe, and one which the sciences may yet try to reject.

And curricular reform?

“I don’t think Summers has felt sufficiently confident to promote a detailed program,” Mr. Mansfield said.

The college released a 67-page curriculum report last April, a mix of generalities and suggested reforms that were seemingly copied from other universities. Where conservatives hoped to see a move toward a rigorous canon, the report offered a vague blandness: “It is essential…that the Faculty provides students with guidance about the important concepts, texts, and knowledge that might underpin a liberal arts and sciences education,” it read. “There are, to be sure, different ways in which this might be done.”