Nicholas Lemann for Harvard President

Ron Rosenbaum mentions the Columbia Journalism dean favorably—and I’m hoping that the Harvard Board of Overseers thinks of Lemann for the Harvard presidency. For a few reasons (not just that he’s an old friend whom I met when we were undergraduates in Cambridge). He’s brilliant and distinguished, to begin with, and intellectually sophisticated, a scholar of history who has studied pedagogical policy and done an impressive job as a dean.

More than that, he has something that the late and unlamented Larry Summers never had, never could have: a humane set of values. Summers epitomized the worst of the meritocracy, the insulated belief of the intelligent that they deserve their place on top because they scored high on the SATs and make more money than other people. It’s a complacent materialism that is as nauseating in its way as Babbitt’s or General Motors’ in days of yore, but with the sheen of blue-state high-culture on it (and, in Summers’s case, Jewish tribal self-involvement). Lemann’s life and work show that you can be as smart as Summers, actually smarter, and care about ordinary people.

Lemann comes from a privileged background but has a deep sense of noblesse oblige, meaning he believes in something the meritocracy doesn’t cultivate: community. When I first met him, he was a kid reporter investigating racist Louisiana laws. These days he’s committing Columbia Journalism school to excellence and diversity. I saw this when I taught a class there not long ago. The students had varied backgrounds. Some had that thing called “life experience.” A young Muslim woman wore a head covering. Lemann has minorities high on his staff. There’s a feeling of tolerance and extension of spirit, great liberal values.

The thing I’d fault Lemann for—he was too tactful as a journalist covering the powerful— recommends him for the Harvard presidency. And (again unlike Summers), he knows how to manage people.