What Harvard Taught Larry Summers

Elite universities serve the faculty better than the students. Don't mess!

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When Summers announced early on that he wanted to remake the undergraduate curriculum to ensure that Harvard graduates knew more, especially about science, he set off a direct conflict with the faculty, whose incentive is to spend as little time as possible designing and teaching undergraduate courses. Summers then made his goal harder to achieve by picking fights with faculty members, making disparaging remarks about entire categories of academics (such as women in science) and, probably most important, vetoing tenure cases that had been elaborately assembled by individual departments. It looks as if the collapse of his curriculum-reform effort, which ended with a report calling for almost no core requirements, led to the bitter departure of yet another dean, which set off the endgame of his presidency.

Summers was right that Harvard and other universities need to provide a more structured education for undergrads. But the institutional tides push powerfully in the other direction, and the credential value of the degree is so high that there's no penalty to Harvard for placing the needs of its faculty over the best interests of its students. McKinsey and Goldman Sachs will come calling with $90,000-a-year job offers regardless of what's in the curriculum. Harvard's next president will face the same pressures and have a difficult time standing up to them.

One of Summers' star faculty hires, psychologist Steven Pinker, told the Harvard Crimson just before the resignation announcement that he feared Summers was going to become "like every other college president--just a caretaker, a fund raiser and a mouther of platitudes." Well, being verbally provocative isn't the job of Harvard's president. The job is to make a successful but fragmented university cohere intellectually and educationally. A publicly bland president who did that would be a hero.

Nicholas Lemann, who graduated from Harvard in 1976, is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University

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