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.