Commentary Magazine


Faculties and Presidents

To the Editor:

Donald Kagan relies heavily on my narrative in Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education in pointing out the symptoms of disease in higher education, but he arrives at a different diagnosis: too much faculty power [“As Goes Harvard . . . ,” September].

I do not spend much time in my book on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, but for Mr. Kagan, Summers’s fate is a cautionary tale about the perils of a university president challenging an imperial faculty. Summers, he says in his defense, “at least tried to shake things loose.” But this has it wrong. No credit should go to the surgeon who, confronted with a sick patient, sticks his knife in here and there to show that he is in charge.

Like many others on the faculty, I was initially optimistic about Summers’s energy, worldliness, and academic reputation. But he failed by almost every leadership principle taught in Management 101. He dispirited senior management by claiming credit for the good ideas of others and distancing himself from unpopular decisions. He squandered his power by using it ruthlessly, rather than convincing others to follow his lead. By pitting members of the faculty against one another, he discouraged teamwork. He gloried in being told he was right, and he dismissed those who cautioned him when he was wrong. He autographed students’ dollar bills and worked the crowds like a campaigning politician, but he communicated in sound bites rather than in the sort of reasoned prose that balances difficult choices.

As Summers’s presidency teetered on the brink of disaster and he badly needed to send a signal of moral dignity, an amiable engineering professor questioned him about a highly public Harvard scandal in which a professor close to Summers was found to have conspired to defraud the government. The case had cost the university at least $26.5 million. In response, Summers claimed, not just falsely but absurdly, that he did not know enough about the case to have an opinion.

Summers’s leadership deficits as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration were so widely known that none of Harvard’s Fellows (trustees) could have made him CEO of their own businesses. Yet they appointed him president of the university for reasons they have never explained. Although lacking educational ideas of any substance, he must have seemed the right man to bring visibility, material success, and global supremacy to Harvard. He also brought with him such vanities as a chauffeured town car parked constantly outside his office and a bloated presidential entourage, including a “chief of staff.” A personal spokes-man advanced the president’s interests with the media even when those interests diverged from Harvard’s.

The faculty assumed the role that the shareholders of a business would play in the presence of an imperial leader using his corporate position for personal aggrandizement. Ultimately, the Fellows did what they had to do, and removed the CEO. Ironically, Harvard’s directors, unlike those of a publicly held company, had no need to disclose how much various mistakes and buyouts had cost the university.

Summers’s inept stabs at what he (and sometimes I) considered totems of liberal nonsense, and his compensatory peacemaking extravagances, retarded conservative educational values more than any Left-leaning faculty could have done.

Harvard, like most universities, forgot that it is in the business of preparing students to be useful to society. Its actions and words should teach students that their lives have significance for the common good and meaning beyond their personal prosperity. The Summers presidency was, by contrast, a study in egoism. The Fellows, ambitious for Harvard to be the best but out of touch with the university, appointed a hubristic president, with tragic consequences. May they now appoint a president able to make the most of Harvard’s immense resources. Mr. Kagan is right that we need to get back to our educational mission, but that cannot happen without principled, wise, and selfless leadership.

Harry R. Lewis
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Donald Kagan accurately describes how and why Harvard has sacrificed its position as the nation’s most elite university. Driven by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the curriculum has degenerated into chaos. Many professors refuse to devote themselves to teaching, leaving such lowly chores to graduate students as they engage in outside activities. Upon receiving tenure, many are no longer even interested in scholarship.

Not surprisingly, the efforts by Lawrence Summers to institute reforms at Harvard were met with opposition from the very cohort that brought about the demise of Harvard as an instructional institution.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, Maryland

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To the Editor:

From the time I began reading his magnificent works on the political turmoil of Periclean Athens, Donald Kagan has been a model for me of what a dedicated professor should represent. I agree with the entirety of his incisive analysis of the ills of contemporary undergraduate education, not least because it dovetails so well with my own experience teaching at both a secular university and a Jesuit college.

But I was also struck by the dog Mr. Kagan refused to let bark in his article—that is, his omission of what must be one component of faculty intransigence toward any proposed reform: lifelong tenure. I recall once attending a faculty meeting in which an administrator was discussing the woes of the existing curriculum. One professor got up and said to this hapless fonctionnaire, “You can do nothing for me, nor to me.”

I grant that if tenure were abolished tomorrow by divine decree, many faculty reformers whom Mr. Kagan might admire could find themselves, for politically correct reasons, without a job. Given the views that Mr. Kagan himself has enunciated over the years, I am sure he can imagine times when, but for tenure, his own position at Yale might have been jeopardized.

That said, I still think the whole system of tenure is deeply corrupting. I myself was never more relieved than when, after having been granted tenure at a thoroughly mediocre institution, I was hired by a seminary, where I now serve at the pleasure of the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago. Would doing away with tenure subject professors to the arbitrary exercise of power? Yes, but in that regard professors would join the ranks of most of the world’s employees. Moreover, the problem could be rectified with so-called “rolling contracts,” whereby one is given notice to leave an institution within, say, three or four years. A professor truly worth his salt would be able to find a job within that quite spacious amount of time.

At all events, I agree with Mr. Kagan’s last sentence: “Salvation, if it is to come at all, will have to come from without.” I would only add that such forces “from without” will have no purchase on “salvation,” however conceived, until tenure is abolished. If tenured professors begin to howl at the prospect, just tell them that their putative solidarity with the working poor would demand no less.

Rev. Edward T. Oakes
University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
Mundelein, Illinois

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Donald Kagan writes:

It is impossible not to like Harry R. Lewis and to admire his devotion to his university and to the objectives of a true liberal education. He focuses the blame for what he sees as Harvard’s decline on its leadership, but the only culpable leader he mentions is former President Lawrence Summers. I will not challenge his evaluation of Summers’s presidency, of which I know only what I read in the press.

But the problems Mr. Lewis identifies have plainly developed over the course of many years, including during the presidencies of men he admires; they cannot have gotten that much worse in the few years that Summers was in charge. Most of the issues that worry Mr. Lewis are, in fact, in the province of the Harvard faculty, as he himself has frequently pointed out when not busy excoriating Summers.

Thus, in his book he tells us that Harvard’s “students are unhappy because too many faculty members are not interested in them, except as potential academics, and the curriculum is designed more around the interests of the faculty than around the desires of the students or their families.” About the report of the faculty committee charged with the latest academic self-study he says: “the bottom line was that nothing in Harvard’s curriculum was held to be more important for Harvard students to learn than anything else.” Professors at the great research universities, the indictment continues, “are ever more narrowly trained, more specialized, and more advanced in their specialties. Tenure is given mostly for research, in part for teaching, and not at all for interests or skill in helping students become adults.”

“Undergraduate education,” as defined at Harvard today, Mr. Lewis writes, “allows professors to do as they wish. . . . If professors can define their job as teaching what they wish to those who wish to be taught it, Harvard will not carry the centuries-old ideal of a liberal education forward into the next generation. It will instead indulge students’ inclinations to learn more of what they know already, while avoiding unpleasant but enlightening disagreements among professors about the relative importance of different studies.” Finally: “Today’s Harvard . . . pays lip service to liberal education. . . . Yet it declines to offer an opinion on what knowledge is ‘needed.’ . . . Harvard no longer knows what a good education is.”

The conditions about which Mr. Lewis rightly complains have been created by the faculty and are under its control. The university leader who wishes to improve them will first need to find a way through or around the mighty wall that protects faculties from educational accountability.

I greatly appreciate the kind words of Edward T. Oakes and sympathize with his concerns about tenure, which does pose real problems. Still, even now there are a few professors who do not follow the fashionable party line at colleges and universities and whose jobs are protected by tenure. From time to time, as Father Oakes suggests, I have myself spoken out against the powers that be, and I was grateful not to be risking the well-being of my family to do so.

No less important, I think, is another valuable contribution made by the tenure system. It is the one thing that compels universities to make conclusive decisions on the quality of their faculty—and to have the chance thereby to raise that quality and maintain it at a high level. I believe that without the institution of tenure, universities would repeatedly appoint mediocre professors who behaved themselves and did not rock the boat, and would rid the faculty of those who did not conform to the reigning prejudices.

In practice, the tenure system does not work as well as it should, but the decision about tenure is a key point at which honest administrators with high standards are crucial. They need to monitor the process closely to see that it is honest, consistent, politically unbiased, and has the appropriate standards of excellence. If they fail in this regard, their boards should exercise their responsibility and see that they do better or get others who will.

My thanks to Nelson Marans for his useful observations.

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