Summers and discontents

March 10, 2006

Harvard staff's disillusionment with their ex-president wasn't just over PC politics. Their doubts over his frankness came to a head last month, says Stephen Phillips

The resignation of Harvard University president Lawrence Summers on February 21 after a stormy five-year tenure has been thoroughly picked over by the media, especially in the US. Disgruntled faculty members have reeled off a list of precipitating factors, including Summers's perceived arrogance and his supposed skill at putting his foot in his mouth. Also on the list was his suggestion last year that women may be less suited than men to advanced science and Summers's treatment of Cornel West, star African-American studies professor now at Princeton University, over his extracurricular political activities. Despite apologies and bridge-building attempts, Summers never really patched things up as far as many faculty were concerned.

Summers's management style has also been criticised for being perhaps more suited to the cut-throat corridors of power in Washington DC - where he had previously been assistant US treasury secretary - than to the stately world of university administration. One example of his management style put forward is his alleged handling of the resignation in January of William Kirby, arts and sciences dean. News of the resignation was leaked before Kirby had announced it himself, and Summers said he regretted "mischaracterisations" in a student newspaper that suggested Kirby had been fired and cited sources "close to the central administration". Matters came to a head at a tumultuous faculty of arts and sciences meeting on February 7 at which a chorus of academic voices accused Summers of presiding over an administration that had seen an alarmingly high turnover of senior administrators and a damaging breakdown in collegial relations.

But Summers's supporters have hit back. They say Summers resigned because his reformist agenda threatened powerful vested interests at Harvard. They paint him as a martyr to political correctness whose only mistake was to go against the sacred canons of campus orthodoxy on gender, race and, in his support of Israel, the Middle East. But there may yet be more to the story of Summers's departure.

Perhaps the most dramatic and, according to some, most fateful exchange at the February 7 meeting concerned an issue that was, in principle, old news.

Still, Summers's role in the matter has been under scrutiny in the past week and has left many feeling uncomfortable. The so-called Shleifer case involves the largest financial settlement in Harvard's history and one of its brightest academic stars, economics professor Andrei Shleifer. The university had to pay $26.5 million (£15.1 million) to the US Government last August, although it admitted no wrongdoing.

Harry Lewis, computer science professor and former Harvard College dean, says most faculty were only dimly aware of the details of the case until the publication of an exposé in the January 13 issue of Institutional Investor magazine. Copies of the magazine were deposited anonymously in at least two faculty members' pigeonholes.

Author David McClintick, a former member of The Wall Street Journal 's investigative reporting team and a National Book Prize finalist, was the first to comb through what he says were "thousands of pages" of paperwork generated by the US Government's four-year-plus fraud case against Harvard and preceding three-year investigation.

His expose is a riveting account of financial chicanery that, at 18,661 words, is perhaps the journalistic equivalent of an epic 19th-century Russian novel, an apt analogy given the subject. "How Harvard Lost Russia" chronicles how Harvard's "best and brightest", led by Russian emigre Shleifer, were asked by the US Government in 1992 to help establish a market economy in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they allegedly used their privileged position for personal enrichment instead.

The affair involved more than just alleged personal wrongdoing, McClintick's article contends. Despite Harvard's defence of it in the court case, the article asserts that the "Russia Project" squandered a "historic opportunity" to set an example of probity to Russia's nascent capitalist class. Summers is only a bit-part player in the main drama, with no direct involvement.

But what the article discloses about his relationship with protege and close friend Shleifer - who was accused of conspiracy to commit fraud and agreed to personally pay $2 million under Harvard's settlement, with no admission of guilt - is the matter that the university's faculty may have found most disturbing. Summers recused himself from the case, but the article suggests that he interceded on Shleifer's behalf and told former arts and sciences dean Jeremy Knowles to keep Shleifer at Harvard. Shleifer has faced no public censure from Harvard over the case.

McClintick says that one of his biggest challenges was "getting people to speak". "People at Harvard are afraid of Summers and Shleifer," he says. But no one held back on February 7. Farish Jenkins, a zoology professor who forwarded a copy of the remarks he made at the meeting to The Times Higher , said: "The... tawdry Shleifer affair... would have been unthinkable under the previous two presidencies."

According to those present, Summers replied that after his decision to recuse himself from the case, he had taken no hand in Harvard's handling of it. Pressing Summers - in comments also passed to The Times Higher - Frederick Abernathy, engineering professor, said: "The story, if true, portrays Harvard defending activities that at the very least are not consistent with Harvard's Statements of Values."

Abernathy says he asked Summers: "How do you feel about this episode?"

Summers reportedly responded that, due to his recusal, he was unfamiliar with the facts of the case, despite it leading to the largest payout in Harvard's history. This, says Lewis, elicited "a low murmur" from those at the meeting in contrast to the stony silence that greeted other statements.

Last week, John Longbrake, communications director at Harvard, reiterated that Summers's recusal had left him out of the loop and made it impossible for him to comment on the matter. Alan Dershowitz, law professor, says Summers's conduct in recusing himself was beyond reproach and that the Institutional Investor article was seized on by malcontents who had already made up their minds. "It's now playing an after-the-fact role, justifying decisions [to withdraw support for Summers] taken primarily on political grounds," Dershowitz says.

He suggests a more innocent and entirely plausible reading of Summers's remarks to Knowles about keeping the young economist on. "There are very few who want Shleifer to leave. He's a brilliant, successful, innovative thinker," Dershowitz says.

That doesn't mean Shleifer should not be held accountable, suggests Jenkins. "It's surprising to me that Shleifer hasn't been hauled before (the university's) professional conduct (board)."

Harvard declined to comment on Shleifer last week and Shleifer's office did not respond to interview requests. Jenkins says McClintick's article on its own wasn't a catalyst for Summers's resignation. David Blackbourn, a history professor who calls it "persuasive and damning", agrees. "No single issue brought about the faculty's loss of confidence." He says the main issues were Kirby's resignation, allegations by Peter Ellison, former graduate dean, about his professional relationship with Summers and the "drip, drip of smaller instances of bluster and overbearingness".

But Lewis suggests Summers's refusal to comment on the Shleifer case at the February 7 faculty meeting may have been more pivotal. "I had the sense, walking out of the meeting, that people were shaking their heads, saying, 'How could he say he wasn't familiar with the facts?' It became a question of whether [he] was being truthful about what wasn't a legalistic question.

There were a lot of different answers he could have given without passing judgment."

Dershowitz for one, doesn't disagree. "It was a really stupid answer. Of course he knew a lot about it... It was inartful and that made a lot of people angry."

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