The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University
By Richard Bradley. HarperCollins. 375 pp. $25.95
University Marshal Jackie O'Neill (center) and Harvard President Lawrence Summers (right) at the 353rd commencement ceremonies last year
Three and one half years ago, on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, Harvard University swore in its 27th president, Lawrence Henry Summers, 46 years old, previously secretary of the Treasury in the last months of Bill Clinton's presidency, an economist by training and temperament, a Jew in the highest office at Harvard, which not so many years before had restricted its Jewish enrollment to a measly quota. He had been chosen by the members of the elite, secretive Harvard Corporation, Richard Bradley writes, after a long search:
"Rebuilding undergraduate education, pumping up the sciences, developing [a new campus across the Charles River at] Allston, and globalizing the university -- those were the official tasks for Harvard's twenty-seventh president. Perhaps equally telling were the subjects that the Corporation did not consider priorities -- the effect of the university's great wealth on its self-image, its mission, and its integrity. The fellows of the Corporation were not particularly interested in that wealth's potentially adverse and unintended consequences; most of them were more interested in accruing money than in critiquing it. Instead of considering a president who might present a moral or philosophical counterweight to the economic trends of the 1990s, the search committee wanted someone who could exploit them. That, however, was something they would not say in public."
That the committee got exactly what it was looking for in Larry Summers is by now common knowledge in the community of higher education and among those on the outside who keep watch on it. Whether it got what was best for Harvard is another matter altogether, a question that is at the heart of Bradley's rather peculiar book. But then Bradley himself appears to be a rather peculiar guy. During the 1990s, when he went by his birth name of Richard Blow, he was executive editor of George, the political magazine founded by John F. Kennedy Jr. Immediately after Kennedy's death in 1999, he ordered the magazine's staff not to talk to the press about him, then rushed into print himself with American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr., a bestseller that was roundly vilified in the press (the Hartford Courant, notably, called him "a low-rent opportunist") for honoring its author more than its subject. Having been subjected to much mockery focused on his last name, Blow changed it to Bradley, his mother's maiden name.
All of which suggests that Bradley, as we shall now call him, is a man with multiple agendas, an impression that Harvard Rules does absolutely nothing to contradict. Though Bradley goes through the motions of giving Summers the benefit of the doubt -- "an inspiring teacher," a "successful" mover and shaker in upper-echelon Washington, a survivor of near-fatal cancer -- the book is in fact a sustained attack on him, if not an outright hatchet job. Summers in his view is "arrogant, patronizing, disrespectful, and power-hungry," repeatedly guilty of "bad manners," a "prodigious and sloppy eater" with "the general problem of eating and talking at the same time, which sometimes resulted in Summers' spraying saliva on his audience," all in all a man who had failed to cultivate "the social niceties that most people in high-profile jobs possess -- gracious manners, a gift for small talk, a knack for putting people at ease."
Nasty stuff, all of that, and it all may well be true; there's plenty of evidence that Summers has refined churlishness and bullying to fine arts, as witness the broad opposition to him within Harvard, much of it on grounds of his style and manner. But whether this is really of much interest beyond the extended Harvard community certainly is questionable. Yes, it probably is true that "in terms of status, reputation, breadth, money, power, and influence, no other university can equal Harvard -- not in the United States, not in the world," and thus that what happens there is of interest and sometimes of importance elsewhere. But the food fights that Bradley devotes much of his space to chronicling have all the evanescence of yesterday's gossip columns (the book was finished before the current food fight over women in science), and though he announces what should be his book's central theme -- the money-hunger of contemporary American higher education -- he soon sets it aside to focus on what clearly interest him most, the multitudinous sins of Larry Summers.
He is, as is frequently said, a bull in a china shop. His predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, was an effective fund-raiser, but his "deferential style -- his wet-noodle handshake, the ease of his bended knee -- didn't suit many at Harvard." The Corporation wanted someone "to take charge; to fix what was embarrassingly wrong and make sure that the gap between the public perception of the university and the reality of Harvard didn't grow so broad that it became a chasm; to revive the image of the Harvard president as a national leader, a figure who spoke out not just to ask for money, nor even to voice his thoughts on higher education, but also to deliver his opinions on issues of import to the nation and the world generally."
That the Corporation chose Summers to carry out these tasks perhaps says more about the Corporation than it does about Summers, whose utter lack of tact, finesse and subtlety surely cannot have gone unnoticed during his job interviews. If a bull in a china shop was what the Corporation wanted, that is what it got. Not long after taking office, Summers went after Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies, the little empire that had been hastily assembled by its chairman, Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- at great expense to the university and with Rudenstine's zealous support -- and that had gotten mixed reviews on the outside, largely because of Gates's endless self-promotion and the involvement of his colleague Cornel West in undertakings of dubious scholarly value.
Precisely why Summers went after Gates and company is unclear to this day, but there can't be much doubt that he regarded West as a troublemaker and wanted him off campus, which he got when West decamped to Princeton. At the time, I was among those who thought that Summers had done the right thing in insisting that West meet his professorial obligations, but Bradley's account -- told entirely from West's point of view, since Summers declined to cooperate with Bradley -- at least calls this into question by suggesting that West was scarcely the derelict scholar Summers thought him to be.
Whatever the truth of the case, there can be no doubt that Summers did himself (and, by extension, Harvard) no good by handling it so clumsily and boorishly. The same was true of his treatment of Zayed Yasin, whose Senior English Address at Commencement 2002 was entitled "My American Jihad." It was "about the tensions between being Muslim and being American, and how in fact they weren't really tensions at all," and it resolutely stood behind "the American Dream," but Summers seized on (and wholly misinterpreted) its title as an opportunity to curry favor with certain segments of Harvard's heterogeneous constituency. Bradley says that Summers was privately and publicly critical of the young man in gratuitously insulting terms, and once again did neither himself nor Harvard any good.
Bradley argues that Summers "was obviously versed in the ways of Washington," that "he carried the culture of his former city with him," that he put spin, image and public relations ahead of solid accomplishment, that he "wanted an inner circle that was loyal, first and foremost, to him." This unfortunately appears to be the case, though Harvard scarcely is the only institution of higher learning where this has become a problem. As universities become ever more obsessed with money, it follows that they will adopt the ways and means of this city where the pursuit of it (and power, too) is the overriding obsession. They also become ever more influenced by the corporations that, in today's academic equation, provide so much of their funding:
"By the 1960s, in terms of the breadth and caliber of the research they produced, American universities were without question the world's finest, one of the great success stories of 20th-century America. But that evolution had its downside. To manage such rapid growth, universities began to enlarge their administrations, hiring lawyers and accountants, personnel managers and health care administrators, retirement benefits experts and real estate managers, and public relations gurus and fundraisers galore. They tended to come from corporations and consulting firms, and their style of doing things reflected a corporate culture rather than an academic one. . . . At Harvard, power began to flow away from the people who supposedly represented the purpose of the institution, toward the people who knew how to make it work -- and, above all, to the people who controlled its money."
True enough, and well stated, but having raised this essential point early on, Bradley only gives it bits and pieces of attention in the many pages that follow. Readers interested in the subject must turn to Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (2003), by Derek Bok, president of Harvard (1971-91) when it was still Harvard.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.