What happened with Larry Summers, Part 1

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

You know, despite having taught in at least two institutions of higher learning (there was a third, but I didn’t get paid for it), and despite having made a good run for a career in academia, I’m glad in the end that I didn’t succeed.

My sense of these matters, even as a very young man, was that faculty members, or any academicians of any sort, are not deserving of any dispensation (never mind greater status) for their credentials, their intellectual attainments, their collegial stature or approbation, or their intelligence.

They are no less venal, political, or subject to the psychopathology of everyday life than any other man or woman.

I think it’s a damn shame that the right thing to do was for Larry Summers to step down.

As for articles that appeared in The Boston Globe, and particularly the one containing Alan Dershowitz’s observations, I think Alan Dershowitz is a self-serving, sanctimonious, moralizing and sophistical pain in the ass. I prefer to avoid his pronouncements, as I did this one, and so whatever he said is irrelevant to my point of view on this. Fortunately, this particular matter is not about Alan Dershowitz or me, or any one of us, unless we’re on that hapless faculty, or unless, somehow, Larry Summers is reading this blog entry…

For the matter at hand, I have been told nothing of Larry Summers behavior, whether by way of reportage or analysis or opinion by third parties, that justifies this consequence.

I think Harvard and Larry Summers deserve each other. The pity is, they need one another.

The irony is, of course, that officially he is not only resigning the position of President of the University. He is also taking a sabbatical for the academic year 2006-2007, as he is a member of the faculty, and he is slated to return in what would have been his seventh year in his latest tenure on the campus. Yes, he remains a member of the faculty, and I sincerely hope he remains so 2007-8, and remains as big a pain in the ass to those who carried the rail he was carried out on once he returns.

[a friend sent along the remarks attributed to an unnamed Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences member: “I was disappointed in the Globe‘s coverage, which made it sound like a minority of non-far-seeing faculty were behind the resignation.  There is no sense of the chaos, the breaking of promises, the neglect of the humanities, and the many obstacles to moving forward that his arrogant and mulish presidency generated.  Yes, we know he was abrasive, but it was much more than that.”]

I appreciate getting that perspective. Indeed, I thought the headline in the Globe said it, when it referred to the end of the "tumult" at Harvard. That’s not understating it. And remember, I didn’t read the local news stories themselves. I think even less of the Globe than of Alan Dershowitz.

As for this unidentified faculty member, I have friends and acquaintances on the faculties there too. With many different points of view. [Ruth R. Wisse, Professor of Comparative Literature, FAS, Harvard and holder of the Martin Peretz Chair of Yiddish Literature, had some choice and very common sensible things to say in an opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/public/us (requires a subscription or registration for a two-week free trial for access); she more or less said there are some chickens abroad as a result of all this, which will come home to roost once the present student body (3:1 in Favor of Summers staying as President) comes to its majority of influence]

Part of the point with Harvard I guess. The whole school is a mare’s nest of intransigence, rivalry, internecine warfare, xenophobia (fear of other disciplines, never mind other faculties). The university notoriously treats its neighbors like shit (as you and I well know) because there is no degree of federalization, so you never know which faction you’ll be dealing with on an issue. Apparently it’s worse internally. It famously is made up of many fiefdoms, even within the same faculty, and the behavior of the Business School almost makes the University seem Balkanized (especially when considered as well with the medical faculty, whose behavior and stance are at least tempered by their humanitarian mission).

I had some dealings with the former FAS Dean, before Kirby. Hateful, self-important rat bastard. But maybe that’s just me.

[Former President of the University] Rudenstine had what we used to call a "nervous breakdown" over the burdens and stresses of the job.

As for arrogance, in some senses, Harvard has always begun with an "A," if you get my drift. It’s why I say they (Summers and the University) deserve and need one another. We needed Nixon to go to China 35 years ago. Harvard needs Larry Summers, or someone very like him, to end the bullshit of that situation.

In the end, I put little credence in the testimony of the participants. At a place like Harvard, you cannot practice the kind of detachment and disinterest necessary to have a sound perspective. I have to end this observation on a note of irony as well, because, well, it’s precisely these characteristics (and the notion of academic freedom) that is supposed to have been instilled in people being trained as scholars (and that’s about all the training you get, as you know, unless you also collect some education credits, or have a cadre of particularly inspiring professors).

The key terminology in that faculty member’s negative observation is "obstacles to moving forward." I’m sure Larry Summers has something to say on that subject as well, from his perspective.

Finally, as for the neglect of the humanities (my general field), well, it’s the same all over.

What no one talks about in the midst of all this, well, tumult, is that the students are suffering. I observed it with my intermittent appointments, over 20 years, at B.U. I don’t mean they suffer emotionally. I mean these days, universities finish off the job (warning: I’m being sarcastic) that our sterling educational system (with a succession of "education Presidents," and I’m talking about POTUS, and the enlightened school boards of well-informed citizens who sit on them spread across this great country) never actually even begins to do. Producing a great many intelligent, yet unobservant, inconsiderate, inarticulate, inexpressive, half-educated non-introspective dolts, with no sense of culture, history, or when and how to put their brains in gear.

Harvard undergraduate students have at least half a leg up on everyone else, and then they arrive, as they have for the past five years, only to find themselves in the midst of turf battles, and gang wars. The professional school graduates don’t have to worry. As for FAS graduate students in the humanities, there haven’t been real jobs for them for at least 25 years.

Sorry, I don’t buy it — not what I’ve heard from most any faculty member over there, and especially not at FAS.

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