Universities are quite dull places in which to work. In terms of excitement, they compare badly with intensive care units or operating theatres, let alone the trading pits of major commodity exchanges. The damage that even the worst of us does to the young brain hardly compares with what a neurosurgeon can do. And we cannot lose half a billion dollars by hitting the wrong key on our computers. Most academics live quiet lives and do not much bother the world beyond their offices.
A low-impact career suits most of us. We are risk-averse. We do not fancy the threat of the sack that the commercial world brings with it; if we enjoyed the roller-coaster ride of the market, we would be entrepreneurs. Those who do enjoy it become entrepreneurs, and they are not much seen on campus. It is, therefore, surprising when outsiders get interested in the peculiarities of managing such a low-key, low-risk enterprise. There are exceptions; the story of Clark Kerr and the glory days of the University of California system ranks with the history of Henry Ford and the Model T. But that is what they are -exceptions.
And yet... When Lucy Kellaway told the readers of the Financial Times that academics were not a fit subject for management - that they were unmanageable in any of the ways known to business schools and management consultants - she sparked almost as much controversy in the letters page as the scandals of Enron and WorldCom had managed. It was as though everyone had a view on the manageability of universities - whether they were impossible, no more difficult than other enterprises or perfectly easy.
Consensus was notably absent.
The provocation for the article was the resignation of Lawrence Summers from the presidency of Harvard University; the sub-text was the bumpy ride that John Hood has had at Oxford University. Summers's departure has been the subject of a great deal of high-flown tosh, much of it from people who should know better. Pace a whole host of commentators, Summers was not hired to cut Skip Gates, Cornel West and "Afro-Am" down to size - the fight against underperforming departments of Afro-American studies has been going on for years in urban public universities. Nor was Summers hired to slay the dragon of political correctness by reminding us that there are gender differences on tests of spatial awareness, and that these may (or may not) have some bearing on the relative scarcity of women in some branches of mathematics and the sciences, as well as among chess grandmasters.
The fact that Summers was a bit of a bruiser was no secret even before he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by former US President Bill Clinton; and his capacity for chewing out his subordinates in that job was well known. The Harvard Corporation - the seven fellows who really run Harvard - must have known they were taking a gamble. But why should they not take one? Harvard has long since ceased to be a university in any ordinary sense. It is perhaps more a collection of disparate businesses, of which only the "faculty of arts and sciences" engages in straight up and down teaching and research. And they have great plans afoot.
Harvard intends to move about a quarter of its operations out of Cambridge and across the River Charles to the Boston suburb of Allston. This is a colossal undertaking. It is just the sort of task that you might reasonably want a former Secretary of the Treasury to look after. How much it will all cost is conjectural, but nobody seems surprised by the thought that it might be $5 billion (£2.85 billion). That is almost half of the annual grant that the Higher Education Funding Council for England hands out. It is more like building a new city than expanding a university.
How does that bear on the departure of Summers? Rather simply. Heads of institutions do not manage them in the sense of making sure the floors are swept and the air-conditioning fixed. Their task is political, what Walter Lippman described in 1921 as the "manufacture of consent". It is far from a disreputable activity; indeed, it is indispensable. Without general consent to the way an institution is working, it works badly; and if you are proposing major reorganisation, you need to manufacture a lot of consent - as the failed merger of University College London and Imperial College London reminds us.
You do not have to be nice to do it, though being nice can help; and you do not need to be clever, though that can help. It is not even clear that you have to do it self-consciously. But if you want to achieve more than mere tick-over, you have to do it. Summers either could not or would not. Marx looked forward to the day when "the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things"; but if you do not take care of the first, the second is impossible.
Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.