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The Man in The Ivory Tower

The Two Larrys

The two theories of Larry, the personality model and the more conspiratorial idea that he's quietly working to make the world and the university one big, Darwinian nightmare -- an unsentimental place driven only by competition -- are both inadequate. The dark thread theory misses the rest of Summers's paper trail and much of the mitigating evidence from his career. Summers has appointed five women to top positions -- as deans and vice presidents -- in the Harvard administration. He has vigorously supported stem-cell research and defended privacy and academic freedom against government encroachments. He has spoken often about the role of education in ameliorating social woes. "The most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor, and education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem," he said in a February 2004 speech.

But the personality theory misses the obvious fact that there are patterns in Summers's behavior, that he is not just a confrontational man but an economist -- and economists, by nature, often gravitate to controversy, and are most comfortable with problems that can be researched in quantifiable terms.


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

"This style of laying controversial questions on the table is natural to an economist," says Harvard economics professor David Laibson, who has supported Summers throughout the controversy. Laibson argues that evaluating Summers based only on his occasional hypothesis about controversial social issues misses the president's true record. "It's true that he is often unpredictable, in that he doesn't follow any party line. But if you tally up all the positions, all the life's work, you see an intellectual who stands firmly left of center."

And Summers's detractors wonder whether he is particularly interested in hypotheses that, as Matory says, are "injurious to people who have been injured historically." And there's a larger question. Given that the university knew exactly what it was getting when it hired Summers, what does it say about Harvard, and the values of Harvard, that it chose this particular economist? And what will Harvard be like if it comes to resemble, in tone and style, the man at the helm?

Judith Hope, a former member of the Harvard Corporation -- a seven-member group that includes the president and tends to act with unanimity -- says Summers was chosen because he's a visionary. Harvard has huge challenges in front of it, which only a man of Summers's skills can handle, she says. Those include a massive expansion plan, across the Charles River, into the Allston neighborhood, where Harvard has been quietly buying up land for at least a decade; a major overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum; and the creation of a more centralized university, where the various schools and institutes and departments and faculties work together for mutual benefit.

The gravity of these challenges is clear. In a survey made public last month, Harvard students gave their institution low marks when it comes to things like faculty access, quality of instruction and quality of life. Signs around Cambridge, put up by local residents, show the depths of resentment against Harvard's appetite for land.

But these challenges, especially the need to improve undergraduate education, are exactly the reason the Summers presidency is a disaster, his critics argue.

"To provide leadership in an intellectual institution, you have to respect those you're working with and be seen to respect them, and in turn win their confidence," says Everett Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science, echoing other faculty.

There's also frustration, among faculty who consider themselves particularly dedicated to undergraduate teaching, that alumni far from Cambridge have allowed the debate to go down paths they consider irrelevant to the real issues of Summers's leadership. It's not about academic freedom, they argue. Or about political correctness. Or Lawrence Summers's right to speak his mind. The idea that Summers is simply getting the flak that comes to any strong leader, any change agent, any visionary, rankles the chairwoman of Harvard's sociology department, Mary Waters.

"If the alumni, or the corporation, think that Larry is doing good by shaking people up, by being a hard-headed leader, it is not going to accomplish the kind of change that they want," she says. "It is a notion of the strong leader [that is] at odds with state-of-the-art management, with what we're teaching our MBAs over at the business school. You don't lead by knocking heads and humiliating people who work for you, attacking them, calling them stupid . . . You lead by empowering smart, creative people to do their best."

People at Harvard have a not-so-endearing habit of overestimating the world-shaking importance of their local tempests. But there are reasons to wonder if what is happening there will be seen as a defining cultural moment in years to come. Some observers have suggested that this is all part of a larger development in the way our society thinks about leadership. Summers's leadership has been compared to that of Howell Raines, formerly of the New York Times, as another example of an institution empowering an authoritarian figure in hopes of shattering old forms of complacency. Some have even suggested a comparison to President Bush, arguing that the American love affair with strong leadership is no longer tempered by a concern with the resulting polarization.

Whether Summers's troubles are attributable to his personality, or part of a larger pattern, may be irrelevant for people like Nancy Hopkins -- the scientist thriving at MIT, where the leadership style and culture is very different from Harvard's. Personality creates institutional culture, whether or not there's darker intent behind it.

"You don't throw bombs at people that are damaging to your constituency," she says. "Research has shown that these attitudes create the problem. The attitudes create the discrimination."

Summers has expressed regret for aspects of his style. And last week he seemed to have taken a page from Hopkins's understanding of the issue. But there are a lot of people at Harvard who wonder what will come out of Summers's mouth next, and what, in the end, their institution will look like if Summers succeeds in molding it in his own image.


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