Felipe Ferngndez-Armesto

March 3, 2006

In the shadow of Harvard University, I share the Schadenfreude . When the bus whisks me through Harvard Square, with its smart, bourgeois air, I get a sense of how the other half lives. Now Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, has resigned amid backstabbing, donnish revolt and unseemly accusations of organisational chaos, financial chicanery, political infighting and the arrest of vital reforms. Harvard has an endowment worth $26.5 billion (£15.1 billion), and it ought to outclass the 50-odd other degree-granting institutions nearby. For Boston, the home of the bean, is also the most academic city on Earth. The giant's discomfiture has caused a lot of glee to those on the lower leaves of the beanstalk. But, while I can't resist my mede of glee, I can't help thinking, "There but for the grace of God go we." Harvard's ills are those of many modern universities, writ very, very large.

Three main explanations are on the table. The press's favourite theory blames politics. Harvard is divided in the way America is divided. Most of the teachers are viscerally liberal, ageing radicals. But the students, who have to pay fees and compete for jobs, tend to be unadventurously conformist. And Harvard has important graduate schools in law and business, with a huge scientific research establishment working for industry and government, all more interested in collaborating with capitalism than critiquing it. So is Summers - a former Washington apparatchik. He enraged the politically correct by suggesting that women were responsible for their own underrepresentation in the sciences and by driving a famous (but allegedly slapdash) black professor off the campus.

The second theory blames a conflict of culture. Harvard has - not entirely fairly - an unfortunate reputation as a school where star professors go to vegetate. Many are exempt from the supposed tedium of teaching undergraduates. Summers was no iconoclast - but that was one image he wanted to burn, even if it meant disrupting some of the faculty's comforts.

Students rated him highly. Faculty voted "no confidence". So it is easy to see a straight fight between rival constituencies as the germ of Harvard's malaise.

Theory No 3 says it is all a matter of personality and "management style".

Summers was in a hurry to reform an intractably, organically complex institution. You cannot flush 350 years of fur out of the pipework with just a five-year dose of heavy abrasives. The president's can-do attitude clashed with academic ingenuity in formulating objections. In universities, it's always easier to get majorities against things than in favour of them.

Ordinary academics resented Summers's showy limos and impatience in the face of opposition. To advance his agenda, moreover, the president relied on cronies in good Washington style and showed them embarrassing loyalty.

No university has been implicated in financial shenanigans more shameful than those that surrounded Harvard's role in advising on privatisation of the post-Soviet Russian economy. The Government sued the university, alleging fraud. Harvard paid $26.5 million in damages, and one of Summers's associates paid millions more, but he still works at the university. Summers claimed that he knew little of the case. The dons were not convinced.

All the commonly proffered explanations of Harvard's woes, however, miss the real point. Harvard deserves its renown. Its libraries, lectures, galleries and seminars are a blessing in my life, as in those of many other Bostonians of academic tastes. But it is a sad, demoralised place - stunning proof that money can't buy happiness. It is the Real Madrid of academia - awash in cash and tradition but unable to translate that advantage into results. Harvard can hire anyone it likes at inflated salaries, but most of its departments are no more distinguished than in universities with a fraction of the funds. Only 20 per cent of people on the payroll - according to press reports - are there to teach.

Undergraduates feel neglected, teachers feel sidelined, visitors feel unwelcome. Conflicts devour courtesies. Embarrassingly few colleagues turned up to a recent dinner for two visiting professors who are friends of mine; the host arrived late and left early. Meanness and materialism guard every cent of that $26.5 billion. Remission of fees has not gone nearly far enough, and not as far as in some poorer universities. Harvard has lavatories that can be unlocked only by punch-codes and phones in academic departments on which you can't make an eight-cent long-distance call on university business without bureaucratic clearance. Until Harvard unlocks the lavatories, its potential will stay blocked. There is a lesson here for the whole of American academia: money is a means, not an end. The purse is not the prize.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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