A Theory of the Harvard Mess

The storm that has erupted at Harvard University turns out to have been building for some time — for three-and-a-half-years, or precisely the period that economist Lawrence H. Summers has been president.

Heretofore Economic Principals has stuck to covering just one neglected aspect of Summers’ presidency, the government lawsuit over Harvard’s failed Russia project in the 1990s. Reporting on a university takes too much time.

But the recent ventilation of extensive discontent, mainly in a series of three faculty meetings bravely and carefully reported by Harvard’s alumni magazine, has made it possible to form an opinion about what amounts to a rebellion by a large fraction of the university’s core Faculty of Arts and Sciences and senior staff.

(Richard Bradley’s new book, Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University, is also useful. It contains a trove of interesting information, but lacks a deep understanding of the institution.)

Indeed, it seems safe to say that the circumstances at Harvard have been widely misunderstood around the world — as, for example, by The Economist magazine. “Freedom of speech: Harvard’s disgrace. Its faculty have censured Larry Summers. They, not he, should be ashamed.”

The real problem is a fundamental mismatch between the university and the executive who in 2001 was chosen to head it — “an arranged marriage gone sour,” in University Professor (of Chinese literature) Stephen Owen’s phrase.

“This is the first time in my 16 years at Harvard that I have spoken at an FAS Faculty Meeting — and I hope this will be my last,” said James L. Watson, professor of Chinese Society at the February 22 session. “I have taught at five universities, some of which were facing serious difficulties. But I have never seen anything like the firestorm currently enveloping us.”

It fell to economist Caroline Hoxby to offer the clearest formulation of the problem when, in a powerful statement, she indicted Summers for persistently running against his own team in a bullying manner. Towards the end of her remarks, Hoxby ventured that it sometimes seemed as though the president possessed a view of the faculty, at least some of them, “that is a caricature: self-absorbed people who care a great deal about their privileges and not much about their students and the quest for knowledge.”

As a result, Summers seemed to have adopted “a management strategy in which decisions are discussed with only a small inner circle, there are forums for airing views but few mechanisms for incorporating them, and resistance is assumed to stem from obstinacy, not thought and experience.

“I do not know where youÉ got this caricatured view of the faculty, but it is not true to my experience.” In her view, she said, the faculty “is passionate about research and passionate about students and struggles every day with the tension between the two.”

Where is such a caricature of Harvard to be found?  Close to home.  It is a cartoon version of a subtle and durable critique that supplied the founding impulse of an institution just down the street at the other end of Cambridge — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chances are that Larry Summers acquired it in the early 1970s, when he was an undergraduate at MIT, and at the end of the decade, when he taught there for three years.

To understand, it is necessary to go back more than 150 years, to a time when there was no MIT. Geologist William Barton Rogers, discouraged by the anti-intellectual atmosphere at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, moved to Boston in 1845.

He couldn’t get a job at Harvard, which was in one of those periods of self-delight that have plagued it periodically since its beginning — in danger, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, of becoming “a fashionable finishing school for young gentlemen.”

So for fifteen years, Rogers sought to form a new-fangled polytechnic institute, based loosely on the model that was revolutionizing science in Germany.  He could find no backers. Boston was entering its gilded age.

Then the Civil War broke out. The US Congress passed the Morrill Act, creating the land-grant universities. Massachusetts split its windfall, creating both MIT and an agriculture college in the western part of the state — the present-day University of Massachusetts, in Amherst.

The usefulness of local competition was apparent from the very beginning.  When Harvard failed to offer him a professorship, young Charles Eliot quit in disgust and went to Germany to learn more chemistry. In 1866, MIT made him one of its first professors. Three years later, Harvard hired Eliot back — this time to be its president.

Since then, Harvard and MIT have been separately governed, to the great glory of both. Twice when the fundraising got tough, MIT’s administrators attempted to merge their institution into Harvard.  The first time, in 1904, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court wouldn’t let them sell their headquarters in Boston’s Copley Square.  The second time, in 1915, MIT’s faculty rebelled. On the land it had bought for MIT, Harvard built a business school instead.

The two cultures that have co-evolved over a century and a half could hardly be more different — two campuses of more or less the same university, separated by their motivations. MIT’s mascot is the beaver, symbolizing industriousness. Harvard doesn’t have a mascot.  As sociologist David Riesman famously said, “MIT is about merit, Harvard is about grace” — meaning not just the finely-turned phrase and the conducive architecture, but the potent doctrine of predestination, on which early Harvard scholars spent so much time, with its implication that some among us are already among the Elect, and that, just possibly, an outward sign of such other-worldly grace was having been “called” to Harvard in the first place.

Any strong school sometimes makes big mistakes. Often MIT has been a safe haven for scholars who didn’t fit in at Harvard.  Norbert Wiener, Paul Samuelson, … Noam Chomsky and Thomas Kuhn are just the most famous of those who didn’t get jobs at Harvard, who subsequently found homes down the river. MIT, in its turn, denied tenure to electrical engineering PhD Robert Noyce, who promptly moved to California and co-invented the silicon chip.

Less attention has been paid to the overlap (or lack thereof) among undergraduate admissions. In Harvard Rules, author Bradley reports a fundraising dinner in 2002 at which Summers was said to have replied, when asked by a student why he had gone MIT instead of Harvard College, “Because I didn’t get in.”

In the 1980s, Summers (whose graduate training had been at Harvard) was the first of substantial number of MIT economics faculty to reverse the trend, leaving what was commonly considered the world’s best economics department to take offices in Harvard’s Littauer Center. This infusion of MIT’s style was said to greatly change the teaching culture of Harvard’s graduate school, and at least in economics, probably it did. Before long, Harvard began attracting its share of the best students entering the field for the first time in thirty years.

Whatever possessed Harvard to hire Summers to be its president in the first place? Go back to the beginning of the 1990s, when Harvard missed its chance to hire legal scholar Gerhard Casper, then provost at the University of Chicago, who was widely regarded as the most promising of the next generation of academic leaders. Stanford University acted first.

Harvard then chose Neil Rudenstine, the number-two at Princeton, a scholar of Elizabethan literature, a capable administrator and a thoroughly nice man who, during his ten years in Massachusetts Hall, was generally perceived as being too eager to please.  Non-teaching staff at the University had doubled during his second five years, for example, to 5,100 persons.

Meanwhile, having served as chief economic adviser to the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988, Larry Summers had gone to Washington in 1991 to be chief economist at the World Bank. During the Clinton administration he rose to prominence with a truly remarkable demonstration of moxie and good sense.

In the out-of the-spotlight post of undersecretary for international affairs for Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, he soon became point-man for Clinton’s top economic adviser, former Goldman Sachs co-chair Robert Rubin — rounding up bond traders to support the Federal Reserve board’s interest rate cuts, crafting strategy in the Mexican peso crisis, practicing shuttle diplomacy in the Asian financial crisis and the Russian default, and helping staunch the panic in their wake.

Along with Alan Greenspan and Rubin, Summers wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 1999 as “The Committee to Save the World.”  Shortly afterwards, he succeeded Rubin in the corner office on 15th Street. It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the success of the Clinton Treasury.  Asset markets boomed and government finances swung from chronic deficit to enormous surplus in eight short years.

It was not surprising, then, when the little Corporation that governs Harvard preferred Summers to the two others on their short-list, Harvard provost Harvey Fineberg and University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger.

(I’m guilty, too. As a columnist for The Boston Globe, I wrote in 2001 that Summers had the potential to be the best president of Harvard since Charles Eliot returned from MIT. I was thinking mainly of his youth, his strategic sense, and the long horizon. About the rest, I could not have been more wrong.)

What no one could have foreseen was that the job offer would precipitate the breakup of Summers’ marriage — and that his law professor wife and three children would remain in Washington, D.C.  Since then, he has operated with the slightly-exaggerated affect of a man no longer modulated by a long and successful partnership. He had more than enough affect to begin with.

It seems unlikely that Summers will choose to remain at Harvard overlong. He is too smart not to recognize that he is not good at it, and too young to give up trying to succeed. His optimal strategy may be to return to Washington and policy-making; to get in shape for another Clinton administration, should there be one, with a different Clinton — to hope, in other words, for a second chance.

And Harvard? How was it that Harvard got to be Harvard in the first place?  The tight control, insulated from most outside pressure, of the owner-managers who control the university through its governing corporation surely has had a great deal to do with it. Expect the university to regain its tranquility in a year or two.

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The following correction was added to this page on April 3, 2005:

Memory plays funny tricks. Economic Principals wrote last week that Harvard University in 1991 missed its chance to hire legal scholar Gerhard Casper, then provost at the University of Chicago, who was widely regarded as the most promising of the next generation of academic leaders. That much is true.

But I had it backwards when I wrote that Stanford acted first. Only after Harvard chose Neil Rudenstine did Stanford successfully recruit Casper to replace Donald Kennedy — to the chagrin of many faculty at Chicago. EP regrets the error.

(A further entry pending.)