Harvard's real problem

You'd think that Larry Summers would have been either fired or forgiven by now. But the Harvard president's rocky ride continues. Last week, the Harvard faculty gave Mr. Summers a vote of no confidence, which is also a vote of no consequence, since only Harvard's corporation can replace him. Still, the faculty's displeasure was news on many front pages.

Why, after so much back and forth on Summers's controversial remarks, do certain parties still feel dissatisfied? The reason is that the real problem with Summers keeps getting buried. The problem isn't any one hurtful comment. Rather, it is the accumulating damage from years of mouthing off.

Getting along with various constituencies is job No. 1 for a college president. Simply put, Summers is a lousy manager for a place like Harvard. And all this babble about his right to free speech - or whether his observations are valid - is beside the point.

No one questions Summers's constitutional right to say that roughly half his student body may be genetically handicapped in the hard sciences. He had every right to say that. He just can't say such things and expect to remain president of Harvard. There's a difference, you know.

The president of McDonald's has every right to say that he prefers Wendy's burgers. The First Amendment shines on him as it shines on all Americans. But that doesn't mean that the McDonald's board can't fire him by sundown for expressing an honest opinion.

Consider the recent story of Boeing's chief executive officer. In many ways, Harry Stonecipher was superb in his job. He knew aerospace inside and out, and in his 15 months as Boeing chief, the company's stock rose 50 percent. But when the board learned that Mr. Stonecipher was having an affair with another Boeing employee, he was out on his ear. You didn't hear the personal-freedom crowd rush to his defense. Why not? After all, the tryst involved two consenting adults. The intra-office adultery, itself, wasn't against company rules. Furthermore, the liaison did not directly affect any of Boeing's business dealings.

But given the context in which Stonecipher operated, his behavior was unacceptable. Previously led by a CEO who was a notorious womanizer, Boeing had just gone through the wringer of corporate scandals. Boeing's new chief had to scrub the company's image. His firing offense was bad judgment.

Now consider the context of Harvard. Sure, the place is full of people with a high opinion of their opinions. If they weren't the smartest people where they came from, they think they were. A lot of prima donnas? Sure, but that comes with the territory. The Metropolitan Opera would never hire a manager who couldn't deal with a tantrum.

Summers didn't get this. He really thought that all those big egos wanted to sit at his knee and hear him expound on all manner of knowledge beyond his discipline, economics. (At the same time, one doesn't imagine that Summers has much patience with biologists who want to lecture him on economics.) He also lacked the verbal skills to wrap tough words in diplomatic velvet, and so made enemies unnecessarily.

By the time Summers got to the subject of women's "innate" deficiencies in the sciences, his store of goodwill was empty. And his last line of defense was an irrelevant appeal to free speech.

So the busloads of pundits, mostly of the conservative persuasion, arrived to "help" Summers, by trashing the people he's supposed to work with. Summers was the victim, according to their playbook, and the victimizers were not faculty members tired of hearing Summers flap his lips, but authoritarian liberals who would deny a fellow his First Amendment rights.

The pundits dusted off their "censorship in academia" columns, changed a few names and lines, and took the afternoon off.

"In today's academy," George Will wrote, "no social solecism is as unforgivable as the expression of a hypothesis that offends someone's 'progressive' sensibilities." That sounds familiar.

The reality remains that the Harvard Corporation is a corporation. The president of Harvard is the head of a business. He is not intellectual in chief.

And that's where the trouble is. Larry Summers is no big villain. He just doesn't understand the job.

Froma Harrop is an editorial writer at the Providence Journal. ©2005 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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