Harvard's real crisis.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 28 2005 7:28 PM

Harvard Inc.

A new book on Lawrence Summers and the crisis of meritocracy.

Book cover

Setting aside—trust me, only briefly— the flap over Lawrence Summers'recent remarks, it's hard to think of Harvard as a university in crisis. Harvard remains what it always has been: the principal ratifying institution of American elitism and an unsinkable dreadnought of a brand. With a $19 billion endowment, the school is also spectacularly rich, by some reports the wealthiest nonprofit in the world after the Catholic Church. Harvard is awash in three things that don't often go together in American life: prestige, money, and power. But over the last 20 or so years, higher education in America has been redefined by two trends: the sharply rising cost of college tuition, and the sharply rising cost, in forgone future income, of not getting a college degree. Put another way, as college has become less and less affordable, the rewards for graduating from college have risen dramatically. Is it any wonder that the mania to denounce universities as overpriced corrupters of the young is rivaled only by the mania to get one's children in? The so-called "meritocracy" is in crisis—and Harvard, its flagship brand, is hardly being spared.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

Quite the opposite. As Harvard can afford to staff its faculty almost exclusively with superstars, and as superstars are loath to teach, the gap between the global power of the brand and the actual quality of the education delivered is quite large. If you want to impress a shopkeeper in Yemen, by all means go to Harvard. If you want the best education for the money, you might want to consider Swarthmore or Williams. But for many of its students, Harvard is not so much an experience as an entrée. For them, the Harvard name doesn't represent Veritas, but the current education mania on steroids, whereby the hyper-deserving earn the chance to enter the ranks of the hyper-rich. These days the importance attached to a specifically liberal and humanistic education has hit an all-time low. Economics is now the default major at Harvard; and so overspecialized are traditional humanities departments, they seem unlikely to produce the kind of synoptic visionary, a thinker on the order of Northrop Frye or John Rawls or Richard Rorty, that once helped define a campus as an academic community. Against careerism and scholarly make-work, what pushes back? Even the "idea of the idea of a university," to borrow a phrase from the historian Sheldon Rothblatt, feels a little played out.

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With its non-utilitarian ideals wearing thin, what did Harvard do? In 2001, the university's governing corporation elected an economist to be its new president. Let's walk through this slowly. The president of Harvard is many things—a fund-raiser, a gladhander, an educator, a politician, a bureaucrat. But at least partially, in his person, he ought to embody the question "What is a university for?" Now take Lawrence Summers, the economist Harvard asked to be its new president. Summers is not just any economist. He embodies in his person the anti-anti-globalization position. He is the avatar of "globalization, technology, and the power of markets," as he himself once described the conditions for success in the 21st century. To the question "What is a university for?" Harvard's new president posited, from his first day in the office, an answer: It is for empiricism, rational choices, data, numeracy, and above all, measurable successes; it is not for posturing, liberal dogma, or sentimental appeals to evidence of things not seen. A new book on Summers' tenure to this point, Richard Bradley's Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University, is little better than a hatchet job, built on scuttlebutt and Nexis searches. But it's hard to argue with one of its central premises. "Instead of considering a president who might present a moral or philosophical counterweight to the economic trends of the 1990s," Bradley argues, "the search committee wanted someone who could exploit them."

Be forewarned, the transom here is set pretty low. Bradley leans heavily on unnamed sources and any rhetorical ploys that inflate the case against Summers. Nonetheless, a carefully skeptical reader can piece together a plausible storyline. Assuming the members of Harvard corporation did their due diligence, to have chosen Summers they must have wanted three things. The first can be summarized as ABR: Anyone But Rudenstine—that is, Summers' predecessor, Neil Rudenstine. Rudenstine was a wilting professor of Renaissance literature who proved to be an almost uncanny fund-raiser. The adjective Bradley uses to describe him is "deferential," and for the president of Harvard, Rudenstine cut an almost absurdly humble figure, composing longhand thank-you notes on the slightest pretext. (This seems to have offended some people's idea of Harvard. "Neil Rudenstine was an aspiring socialite from the working classes," Bradley quotes Martin Peretz as saying.) In 1994, an overstretched Rudenstine suffered what appears to have been a mild nervous breakdown, and for about three months he disappeared entirely. Upon returning, he continued fund raising at a feverish pace, but dropped a controversial attempt to centralize Harvard's financial power in the office of the president.

In tapping Summers, the corporation intentionally chose someone who could stand to be unpopular: Summers and his infamous moxie were clearly brought in by Harvard to complete what Rudenstine had palled on finishing—the centralization of power in the president's office—and Bradley marshals plenty of evidence that Summers has done just that. Secondly, Summers was recruited not in spite of but because of his personality. Like Dr. Johnson, who was said to "talk for victory," Summers is an intellectual pugilist who relishes the fight. Bradley quotes a former colleague at Treasury as saying, "There'd be occasions where Larry would take a position and argue it very effectively. And then the next meeting he'd argue the other side, just as effectively. His job was to win the argument at every meeting, not to arrive at a consensus decision." Of course, Summers did not arrive at consensus; economists detest consensus. Consensus is boring. Economists live to congratulate themselves on their own brusque candor, by which everyone else's cherished assumptions are revealed to be total bunk. They are bulls in search of fine bone china. Larry Summers was clearly brought in to Harvard to play the bull. So, what was the china shop?

From Bradley's descriptions—and from my own experience—academia has devolved into a series of now highly routinized acts of flattery, so carefully attended to that one out-of-place word is enough to fracture dozens of egos. Flattery is the appropriate mode of address from a blushing acolyte to a name-brand professor. Flattery is also the principal mode of address from an advertiser to a consumer, and by the time they reach college age, students have become well-accustomed to it. But Bradley doesn't seem to understand that in presenting Summers' every campus adversary as an uncomplicated hero, he only demonstrates how extensive and self-reinforcing the culture of flattery has become. Against each of these adversary-heroes Bradley arrays Summers, the literalist ogre whose narrow conception of academic excellence prevents him from seeing the beloved pedagogue's true value. The basic outline of the Cornel West saga is well-known: West is an African-American scholar—his first book, The American Evasion of Philosophy, remains a serious contribution to American intellectual history—who over time has converted himself into a minor cultural icon. West combines NASA eyeglasses with a tremendous ABA 'fro and speaks his own inimitable patois, a provocative mix of street talk and the queen's English. Undeniably brilliant, he has nonetheless tested the protocols of scholarly discourse, producing a quasi-rap CD and appearing (as Cornel West) in the Matrix sequels.

The now-notorious incident, in which Summers called West into his office and essentially dressed him down for lack of proper academic gravitas—upon which Professor West decamped almost immediately to rival Princeton—is here retold, with some fresh rumor and innuendo added in. The account is almost certainly one-sided, but two conclusions still seem warranted. The first is that Summers knew precisely what he was doing when he, properly or improperly, upbraided West. According to Bradley, Summers avoided paying fealty to Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the African-American studies department at Harvard and unofficial dean of African-American intellectuals everywhere, because, as he confided in Gates when they finally met, "Everyone told me to." Rudenstine had been famous for his recruitment of black faculty, and Summers was announcing that an era was coming to an end. "I believe in diversity," Bradley quotes Summers as saying in his first meeting with prominent black faculty, "but I also believe in excellence." I think it would be wrong to put the stress entirely on race here. Summers wanted to end an era, not of aggressive minority recruitment, but of a certain style of automated obeisance now common on college campuses.

Blind to how pervasive the culture of flattery is, Bradley's storytelling often works against his own thesis. At great length, he relates the history of two obscure lecturers, Tim McCarthy and Brian Palmer. McCarthy's final class at Harvard is almost an SNL skit, in which McCarthy plays Tupac, enjoins the class to realize they will "never be alone," then stands as students applaud, cry, and snap his photograph. The format of Brian Palmer's class, meanwhile, will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an afternoon chat show on TV. Palmer would pace the aisles with a microphone while students stood and asked questions of that day's featured guest. Palmer invited a stream of celebrities and demi-celebrities—Robert Reich, a Tibetan nun, the head of PETA, a Beastie Boy—to address the class about "Personal Choice and Global Transformation." Bradley's narrative culminates in Summers' appearing, after turning down multiple invitations, as one of Palmer's guests. Bradley tries to make some hay out of Summers' surprise at the students' questions, but here the prosecutorial brief that is Harvard Rules falters. Summers isn't emotionally ill-equipped to deal with the students; the students are emotionally ill-equipped to deal with Summers, whose disdain for advocacy pedagogy in the age of Oprah he can barely hide. Bradley, Palmer, the students—all seem affronted by Summers' refusal to flatter them and capitulate to the course's central premise: that good intentions produce just results, and that simply by acting as a more conscientious consumer—by making the right "personal choices"—the world will automatically emerge a more decent place.

Harvard Rules drives home one point missing in the debate over Summers' ill-considered remarks about the relative dearth of women in the sciences. In arguing that one possible explanation for women's chronic under-representation might be intrinsic biological, and not extrinsic social, restraints, Summers was playing the talk-to-win pugilist; but he was also engaging in his pet crusade—the crusade to stamp out the culture of self-flattery. That culture's tendency is to start with the most morally self-pleasing conclusion, then argue backwards at any cost. Its first victim is the commitment to disinterest, a commitment that unites a university as a university, as a haven from utilitarian self-interest. But in wildly over-arguing a fallible case, Summers seems to have fallen prey to self-flattery's ugly twin: Because what I say offends the liberal dogmatist, it must be true. (And not only true, but courageous.) So it is that Summers persisted in claiming that in 1970 there were a million child prostitutes in Seoul, South Korea, while today, after decades of free market capitalism, there are "almost none." But in 1970, the total population of girls ages 10 to 19 in Seoul was only 680,000. It's surprising that in all the recent kerfuffle no one has made an obvious point about the brusque economist and the culture of self-flattery he has run up against at Harvard: The two deserve each other.

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