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Harvard’s brilliant Summers fails as politician

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WASHINGTON — I met Larry Summers, the Harvard University president who was deposed this week in what some have called an academic coup d'etat, at a conference a couple of months ago. I was struck by how smart he is, how cordial he was with me and others, and how exhausted he looked. He was wan and wary, with none of the swagger and sheen that you often see from powerful leaders of powerful institutions. In retrospect, maybe he already knew it was over.

Summers' defeat at the hands of the restive and determined Faculty of Arts and Sciences is being portrayed by his supporters as a sad triumph of liberal orthodoxy and political correctness. Really, though, it's nothing of the sort. Summers is being forced to resign because, as brilliant as he is — and you don't become a tenured Harvard professor at 28, as Summers did, unless you're ridiculously brilliant — he proved to be a terrible politician. That alone is reason enough for him to have to go.

For once, the old saw about battles in academia — that they're so bitter because the stakes are so low — is wrong. Harvard is the oldest, richest and most prestigious university in the country (says this columnist who's not a Harvard grad), and thus its controversies become proxy fights for larger societal clashes.

Summers came to be seen as the champion of those who believe that elite American campuses are under the evil sway of a smug, leftist, feminist, multi-culti, Brie-eating, Chablis-swilling, Prius-driving professoriat that's hopelessly out of touch with mainstream America. He was portrayed as a warrior who had sallied forth to cut this entrenched, many-headed dragon down to size. For the moment, let's overlook the fact that this comic-book scenario is grossly unfair to Summers and to the faculty members who opposed him.

So how did Summers, who assumed the Harvard presidency five years ago, set out on his epic quest? One of his first thrusts was to dress down Cornel West, at the time perhaps the university's most famous African-American scholar, for spending time recording rap albums rather than doing serious scholarship. On a campus where scores of celebrity professors have extensive outside interests (and none is accustomed to being addressed in such a patronizing tone), starting with West raised immediate questions about Summers' commitment to diversity. West, meanwhile, decamped to Princeton in a huff.

Summers was at least right on the issue, but similarly impolitic, when he lobbed the incendiary word "anti-Semitic" into remarks about what he saw as an anti-Israel bias among some academics. Time and again he used a verbal machete where a stiletto would have sufficed, until the famous disquisition last year on gender differences in which he suggested "intrinsic aptitude" might explain why fewer women than men excel at math and science — spoken before an audience of experts who knew far more about the subject than he did.

Summers never really recovered from the "intrinsic aptitude" misstep. Some of his backers now say he made a mistake in apologizing — he showed his weakness to the enemy, they lament — but I think he was too intellectually honest not to acknowledge that he had been both clumsy in his remarks and wrong on the science.

Most great university presidents are also great politicians. It's not at all the same thing as being a corporate chief executive (although that, too, requires considerable political skill). Tenure makes it impossible to clean house, and a millennium of tradition accords the university a measure of isolation from the rest of the world. There's a sense of the cloister, of sanctuary, on a great university campus. Universities have to be coaxed, not kicked.

His failure as a politician, I think, is enough to explain Summers' early departure. But there's also the question of the direction in which he sought to lead Harvard. I did spend a year there once on a fellowship, and I've got to say that I didn't notice any stifling blanket of political correctness — nor any tidal wave of diversity that was in danger of lowering standards, as some of Summers' most vocal supporters seem to fear. I saw an institution that by no means was turning its back on the Western canon, but trying to expand its field of vision.

Summers' great strength, in the end, was a passionate commitment to undergraduate education. Students liked him and sensed that he cared about them, and it's good that after a sabbatical he will return to the Harvard faculty. I suspect that if I run into him again in a few years, he'll be in his element — no longer an ineffective herder of cats, but once again the big cat he was meant to be.

Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.