Just five years ago, when he became president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers was hailed as the man who could bring the decentralized university under control — his control. But things didn't quite turn out that way, and this week, Summers announced that he was resigning.
Some commentators inside and outside academia are pointing to Summers' brief and contentious tenure as evidence that Harvard — and universities in general — have become ungovernable, thanks to out-of-control, left-wing faculties. They argue that Summers was unfairly pilloried by blacks for allowing African-American studies professor Cornel West to leave for Princeton, by peaceniks for encouraging the return of the long-banned ROTC to campus and by feminists for questioning whether "intrinsic aptitude" rather than sex discrimination explained the lack of female professors in science and math departments.
But the real lesson of Summers' failure at Harvard is very different. Summers was ousted not because of a clash of conservative versus liberal ideologies. After all, Summers was Bill Clinton's former treasury secretary. He is a liberal. The real problem was that Harvard's faculty rejected the encroachment of Washington politics.
Back in March 2001, Summers' D.C. experience was a big reason why Harvard's presidential search committee chose him. He'd served in the Clinton administration for the better part of eight years, and when he returned to Harvard in June 2001, he carried the culture of his adopted city with him. He hired a press secretary fresh from the employ of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. That raised eyebrows; no Harvard president had ever had a personal press secretary. He hired so many Clintonites that when the ex-president visited campus, Clinton joked that he couldn't count all the D.C. alums. Summers rode around in a stretch limo frequently seen illegally parked all over campus, with the chauffeur standing by.
Worse yet, many professors thought Summers spent too much time positioning Harvard to suit prevailing political winds rather than advocating for the university's traditional separation from the corrupting worlds of politics and commerce. When Summers urged the return of ROTC, for instance, some professors suspected he was trying to score points with conservatives.
This issue — the politicization of American universities — is one that goes well beyond Harvard. Universities across the country are becoming more politically engaged and savvy in part because of the increasing need to fund-raise. They can't survive without federal aid; Harvard receives more than $400 million a year in federal grants. In a time of war and budget deficits, that aid can't be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, congressional Republicans, who have little affinity for generally liberal campuses such as Harvard's, use their bully pulpits to blast campus priorities and politics. So it's the rare university president who ignores the political powers-that-be and jeopardizes the precious lifeblood of his university.
These days, every university president has to be concerned about the conservative critique of academia as a hotbed of left-wing radicalism. Bill O'Reilly is quick to jump on any perceived left-wing campus outbreak. Conservative activist David Horowitz has launched a nationwide campaign to combat liberal bias at colleges.
Meanwhile, social conservatives campaign against university research into stem cells and the teaching of evolution. The intellectual freedom that university presidents are supposed to defend has increasingly come under attack — and university dependence on federal cash makes the temptation to compromise all the greater.
If any university can hold out against the pressures of big money and national politics, it is Harvard, with its enormous $26 billion endowment. Professors there still remember when, in 1954, President Nathan Pusey publicly lambasted Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who saw a Red under every Crimson Ph.D. Yet Summers never articulated how Harvard could retain its independence from Washington; he didn't seem to care. The very fact that he'd been chosen as president suggested that his university, and by extension, all universities, needed to be more like Washington.
In the end, that suggestion helped doom Summers. The faculty sent a message: Our way of doing business might not be perfect, but if you replace it with Washington-style politics, what does the university stand for? Summers may be gone, but that question remains.
Richard Bradley is the author of "Harvard Rules."