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The Man in The Ivory Tower

A Harvard spokesman said Summers had no comment.

That time, Summers's remarks didn't immediately find a wider audience. But discussion of them among faculty critics of Summers became part of a larger debate about whether there was a pattern to all of this.

Lawrence Summers talks with the press after being named Harvard president in 2001. Controversy dogged him soon after his arrival. (Lawrence Jackson -- AP)

Summers, who declined to comment on the record for this story, has repeatedly put Harvard at the center of controversy. Shortly after he became president of Harvard in 2001, he clashed with Cornel West, a professor who held the almost godlike (at Harvard) title of University Professor. West's departure from Harvard, for Princeton, led to yet more controversy. In 2002, Summers made remarks -- in response to a petition to divest university assets from companies closely tied to Israel -- that were construed to mean that criticizing Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. And Summers has spoken warmly of the military's Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, alienating gay and lesbian students who, despite being protected by the university's nondiscrimination clause, are officially discriminated against by the U.S. military.

All of this has led to speculation in the larger Harvard diaspora, and among political commentators, that Summers may have a not-so-hidden cultural agenda.

"At stake is the university's very identity," wrote author, editor and Harvard alumnus James Atlas in the New York Times. "Is Harvard liberal or conservative?"

That reductionism makes most people at Harvard wince. Two more subtle schools of thought prevail to explain the events of Summers's tenure. One is the personality theory: Summers is brilliant, brash and simply likes to stir things up. The other might be called the "dark thread" hypothesis: All of these episodes are connected and that Summers is out to remake Harvard, and perhaps the world, in ways that should be deeply troubling to traditional academics, and perhaps the larger, liberal-left establishment as well.

"He was asked to come in and make changes," says Jamie Gorelick, a Washington lawyer who was, until June of last year, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, a mostly advisory body within the university's governing structure. "Everyone knew that he had a style that, to put it mildly, wouldn't necessarily be the most politic."

Those who believe it's all a question of style and personality differ on the degree to which Summers's personality is a problem. Walter Isaacson, a Harvard grad, former chairman and CEO of CNN, and now the head of the leadership think-tank the Aspen Institute, thinks Summers's confrontational approach is exactly what Harvard needs:

"I think he should keep pushing," says Isaacson. "I think Harvard is tough enough to withstand a guy who is intellectually aggressive and even pushy at times. It is good for Harvard to have that strong intellect pushing it."

There is a strange disconnect, however, between many of the alumni and the faculty of arts and sciences. On March 15 -- the Ides of March, as members of Harvard's professoriate have noted -- the faculty voted by a decisive margin a lack of confidence in Summers's leadership. It was apparently the first time in Harvard's history that the faculty had voted no confidence in a president. The vote was widely seen as reflecting long-simmering discontent with Summers's leadership, with what many view as an authoritarian streak, and a general dislike for a man who has been known to call questions "stupid," to look bored during faculty meetings and attack people who disagree with him.

The no-confidence motion was brought by professor J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies, who thinks that the problem with Summers goes well beyond mere personality issues. Matory is a leading faculty proponent of the dark thread theory.

"When a person with great economic and political power consistently advocates the interests of those who are already powerful and prosperous and [supports] actions that are highly injurious to people who have been injured historically . . . it is very, very important for us who care about justice to criticize those points of view," says Matory.

Echoing behind these comments, and many others heard around Harvard these days, is the language of globalization and anti-imperialism. Summers is called "unilateralist" and "arrogant" by his critics; his supporters argue that only a strong leader, like Summers, can break down age-old barriers at the university -- make it more competitive, increase the flow of knowledge across departmental lines and among the many different schools and institutes that make up the unwieldy beast known as Harvard University. Proponents of the dark thread theory argue that this isn't an accident, and they find ammunition for their case in an even earlier chapter of Summers's career -- when he was chief economist of the World Bank.

In 1991, Summers signed off on a World Bank memo that suggested, from a purely economic point of view, it made sense to dump toxic waste in undeveloped countries. They needed the money, and their populations were unlikely to live long enough to suffer the ill effects of environmental toxins. For a hard-nosed economist, a win-win situation. That memo caused a furor -- there is still an annual Lawrence Summers award, given out by the Multinational Monitor, a magazine that tracks business in the Third World -- and made Summers's name shorthand for an unsentimental pragmatism.

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