May 22, 2017

Obligatory Summers Post

According to Section 4.3(c)(iii)(g) of the Code of Academic Blogging, I am required, on pain of banishment from the faculty club, to post about the departure of Lawrence Summers as Harvard president. Much e-ink has been spilled on this topic, and I for one feel no wiser for it. With some trepidation, let me offer a few thoughts.

I am the first to admit that I don’t know much about how to run Harvard, or about what kind of job Summmers did. I read the same press articles as everybody else, but in my experience outsiders commenting on university matters hugely overweight things they read in the newspapers, and underweight less flashy details of management. For example, I as a Princeton professor don’t much care what Princeton’s president thinks about the Iraq war, even though the local newpaper will print any offhand remark she makes on that topic. I care more about who she appointed to the committee to pick the dean of engineering, or about whether she wants to change the administrative status of sixth-year grad students. You’ll never read about those things in the newspaper.

So I’m pretty sure Summers wasn’t bounced because he dissed Cornel West and made some ill-considered remarks in a speech. Not having followed the details of Summers’ management of Harvard, I won’t pretend to know the detailed reasons for his ouster, or whether the Harvard Corporation showed good judgment in (apparently) deciding he should leave.

What is clear is that he is gone because the Corporation (what most other schools would call the Trustees or Regents) decided he should go. A faculty vote of no confidence last year had no real effect, and another one now would also not have mattered if the Corporation thought Summers was on the right track. If the faculty were involved in ousting Summers, their role was to convince the Corporation that Summers was doing a bad job.

Some commentators argue that the opinions of Harvard faculty shouldn’t matter. But even if Harvard faculty members know nothing about how Harvard should be run (which is pretty unlikely, if you ask me), it still matters what they think.

Consider a corporation run by a CEO who reports to a board of directors. If the majority of vice presidents think the CEO is doing a bad job, that should be a matter of concern for the board. They should talk to the CEO and the managers about what is happening. Then they should decide if people are unhappy because the CEO is making difficult but necessary decisions, or whether the CEO is just doing a bad job.

Maybe the CEO is doing an okay job at most things, but he seems to have a knack for angering and disappointing vice presidents. This is a problem for the company if it causes vice presidents to leave or makes it harder to recruit new ones. This problem is especially serious if other companies are eager to hire away vice presidents, and if the competence of the vice presidents is a big factor in the quality of the company’s output.

None of this depends on whether the vice presidents have the formal power to fire the CEO, or to do anything else for that matter. If employees make a difference in the company’s output and the labor market is competitive, the employees have power.

Which is why the call from some commentators to strip the faculty of their power is pointless. At most universities, the faculty have little or no formal power. All the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty did was (a) pass non-binding resolutions, and (b) talk to people. To the extent they had power over the real decision makers, that power was granted not by Harvard but by the market. That is not something Harvard can change by amending its bylaws.

Comments

  1. There’s an interesting thread, with some insighful posts in the comments, on the site “Crooked Timber”, at:
    http://crookedtimber.org/2006/02/21/summers-resigns/

    A scandal involving Shleifer/Russia
    seems significant and under-reported:

    “Chief among them was to be a motion to censure Mr. Summers for his role in what has become known as the “Shleifer affair,” the professor said. Andrei Shleifer, a prominent Harvard economist and personal friend of Mr. Summers, was a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he and a former staff member had defrauded the U.S. government through a program intended to help Russia make the transition to a market economy.”

  2. Ed,
    First off, I really have not been following this story. So I may be way off base here.
    but why do you think that he wouldn’t get fired for what he said to the press? As you said, as a faculty member you couldn’t care less about what your President thinks about the war. Sadly the media does care. And as long as the media cares, then the trusties also need to care. No matter how good or bad a job the President was doing, if he says things to the media that are not well thought out and clear, it is going to have an effect on the group he represents as a whole. People are fired every day in the business world for saying stupid or ill advised things to the media. Why would it be different in an educational setting?

  3. @ Jamie,

    Two reasons. First, the main public events Summers has been criticized for — the comments on women in science, and the West incident — happened a long time ago. If those were fatal, he would have been long since fired. Second, I don’t think those two things together would generate enough public pressure on the Corporation to fire Summers. If anything, they may have gotten Summers more support from the casually-interested public, by playing into the popular “independent thinker suppressed by politically correct faculty” narrative.

  4. Ed,
    Thanks for clearing that up. As I said, I really haven’t been following the story.

  5. Ed,

    The wheels of bureaucracy in academia can be very slow, or very fast, as any student knows. It has been my unfortunate experience as a student that the bureaucrats will delay action in politically correct cases for dreadfully long spans of time. In my case, I lived in an international dorm with a student from Pakistan who was making jihadist claims from time to time and was starting to threaten me personally with violence. I was told that I would have to wait the other half of the semester in order to change anything, and that under no circumstances could I break my living agreement with the university to stay on campus–even though I was being threatened with physical violence by my roommate. A friend of mine from Eritrea who had been raised since he was four in the US, and thus seemed like any normal middle class black kid, was in a similar situation. They told him point blank that the charges would have to be VERY severe for them to take any action against his roommate because to do so might get him sent home to Pakistan and they couldn’t allow that easily.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if being the **PRESIDENT** he could delay a lot of action. Like you, I don’t know anything about the process of running the university, but I do have experience with the nasty, politically correct side of things. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this was what got the ball rolling for him to be fired.

    I do think your comparison between professors and Vice Presidents is a little… tenuous. Also, bear in mind something which is very different here. Universities are supposed to be academic freedom, including discussion of ideas that are controversial and that might make some people very offended. I think that discussing mental gender differences in light of the extreme disparity between the numbers of men and women in the sciences of all types is a valid part of discussing why women are so underrepresented. If women are in fact not equally wired in some areas, a different approach may be needed or new curricula focused on integrating areas where women do statistically excel with the areas where they don’t. I think it’s just inexcusible that a few hard left types were allowed to shrilly jump up and down like rabid apes over a simple suggestion, when clearly their efforts to recruit women are failing AND it’s a fact that men in most undergrad programs for the sciences are interested in female peers in those subjects. The old propaganda that men “just don’t want smart women” is totally wrong in practice today, women are becoming more of a minority again, and a few people for ideological reasons won’t allow discussion of certain ideas that might lead to a way to fix the problem.

    According to Instapundit, Summers was actually well-received by the students and considered by them to be a success, so I doubt that this was about him keeping Harvard popular among students or a popular outcry. If the Corporation really wants to dumb Harvard down to a trade school where you learn a skill without the debate and exchange of ideas, including radical ones, that academic freedom was supposed to be about, that’s their right. They should just drop their tuition down to community college levels to be fair to their customers–I mean students.

  6. @MikeT

    Far be it from me to argue that every university deals with every situation well. Universities are in some respects bureaucracies, with everything that implies.

    I’m not sure why you think he was fired for his women in science comments. That happened a long time ago, but he didn’t leave until just now. More likely he just lacked the diplomatic skills required to get along with the people who worked for him.

    The point of my vice presidents story was that employees inherently have power whenever (a) the market for their services is highly competitive, and (b) they have a lot to do with the quality of the organization’s output. In such a situation a CEO who has a great strategic vision but alienates the employees is not a good CEO. I’m pretty sure that both (a) and (b) are true for faculty at a place like Harvard.

  7. Ed,

    It wouldn’t matter how good his diplomatic skills are because the kind of people that he offended are the type that get offended by simple disagreement with their worldview and will hold a grudge indefinitely until he has genuflected before their sacred cows. I have dealt with hard leftist professors before and I can understand how they wouldn’t let it go and would have spent the entire period badgering the Corporation until he was fired. How do you know they didn’t recently threaten a lawsuit?

    In his case, it’s the employees who need to learn to get a grip.

  8. helloy