Harvard president

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(HOST) Harvard’s president recently resigned, and commentator Olin Robison has been following public reaction with great interest.

(ROBISON) Who would have thought that the resignation of a university president would cause such a public fuss? But of course, this time it wasn’t just any university. It was Harvard.

Some days ago the President of Harvard University, Mr. Larry Summers, announced that he was stepping down. The faculty of arts and sciences, the core of the university, had already, some months ago, voted no confidence in Mr. Summers and a second vote was only a few days away. A similar outcome was expected the second time around. So, Mr. Summers raised the white flag.

Since then, his resignation has been the subject of endless newspaper editorials and radio and television talk shows. In these public discussions, Mr. Summers is usually portrayed as a would-be dragon slayer; a man of uncommon good sense sallying forth against a faculty whose main characteristic is political correctness run amok.

In my opinion, almost none of this is accurate.

I got in terrible trouble at a dinner party last week where I was the only academic. It all started when I was asked what I thought about the situation at Harvard – an institution I know reasonably well. My response was that the faculty had behaved pretty much as you would expect and that Mr. Summers, regrettably, turned out to be the John Bolton of academic administrators.

Oh my, I really caught it. I was accused of all sorts of unflattering things.

A word is in order here about college and university faculties. The popular mythology is that faculties, especially at the country’s more elite academic establishments, are hotbeds of radicalism. This simply does not stand up to close scrutiny. They are like any other special interest group.

Now, no one I know doubts that Mr. Summers is an exceptionally bright man. He was a tenured professor at Harvard at the age of 28 – an extraordinary accomplishment. He went on to be Secretary of the Treasury in Washington. But in today’s world, a college or university president needs to be both smart and politically adept. And on the last point, Mr. Summers did not get a passing grade.

College and university politics are unusually intense and often mean. On this point I have stories to tell. On the other hand, higher education remains one of the few “industries”, if you will pardon that designation, where the United States is the undisputed world leader.

I rarely agree with William F. Buckley on anything. But I do stand with him if he really did say what he is reputed to have said years ago, which is that he would prefer to be governed by the first 3000 names in the Boston telephone directory rather than the Harvard faculty. Me too – but not because of the sins currently attributed to them.

I would prefer the randomness of those 3000 names because of their exceptional diversity and therefore balance. They are not an interest group. They will have competing interests, which will make them more broadly based than the faculty of Harvard or any other good academic institution.

But this isn’t because the faculty isn’t plenty bright. Of course they are. But, in the end, like any other interest group, they will defend tenaciously what they perceive to be in their own self interest.

It happens every day from coast to coast. It is just that this time it happened at Harvard.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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