Summers‚Äô Resignation and University Governance-BECKER
I will follow Posner's example, and compare my present views with what I said a year ago in our discussion on February 27th about the opening controversy between Harvard President Larry Summers and his faculty critics. My views remain close to what they were, but some of my statements then need to be clarified and even changed somewhat.
"As Harvard's president, Summers has shown vision, enormous ability, and strength, qualities typically lacking in university presidents‚Ä¶. If allowed to persist in his endeavors, he will go down as one of the great university presidents of recent decades."
Alas, he was not allowed to finish his agenda, although it was a breath of fresh air and long overdo not only at Harvard but also at many universities. He made promising starts in revitalizing sciences at Harvard, recruiting a younger and more balanced faculty, holding faculty to higher responsibilities for teaching and research- the Cornell West episode is one good example of this- and beginning the process of giving Harvard undergraduates a better education.
It is not clear to an outsider how to weight different aspects of the faculty opposition that led to his resignation. But I believe it is a combination of the inherent tendency of all faculties to resist changes in what they do, despite their radicalism on many political issues, a concern that he was usurping some of the authority that faculties claimed for themselves, and Summers blunt style. Those overly sensitive faculty members at Harvard who consider his style blunt and confrontational should attend some of the seminars in the department of economics at the University of Chicago. Summers would appear relatively mild in comparison. Summers has an inquiring mind, and he ran up against faculty members with closed minds on issues like explanations for the differences in male and female achievements, or the contribution of some members of the African American Studies program.
"Posner argues against the view that faculties should be running universities. He points out several problems with such a system, including that professors pursue their own narrow interests instead of the universities long-term goals, that professors are not selected for interpersonal skills, and that universities have become too complex to be run by a faculty collective. Strangely, he comes down in favor of university trustees as having interests that are better aligned with those of universities. Yet my experience is that trustees typically know little about, and generally do not have much interest in, the universities they oversee, they are intimidated by professors, are not very brave in their trustees' role, generally go along with whatever is presented to them by university administrations, and very seldom force a university president to quit."
The Harvard experience has strengthened my views on university trustees. Perhaps one reason why university trustees are usually so ineffective is that they are mainly drawn from business, with an eye to fundraising and their own financial contributions, and have had little experience with university administration. By contrast, corporate boards usually contain many members who do or have run companies, so they know a lot about corporate administration.
That said, I failed to mention last year my long-standing belief in greater power for presidents, deans, chairmen of departments, and other administrators than found at most American and foreign universities. A faculty-run university is usually biased toward compromise and the status quo, while a president and his administrators will sometimes take bold actions when given the power. Power and boldness can lead to major blunders and great variability in outcomes, but it can also lead to university greatness. The great presidents of the past, such as James Conant of Harvard and Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, were not reluctant to use their power to transform the sluggish universities they headed. Since it is so hard to be a really great university, that risk is well worth taking.
"Still, I believe the only satisfactory way to evaluate how universities (or businesses) are run is by their success or lack of it in the long run. Although there is no simple way, like profitability, to judge universities, there is an effective way to judge a university system. The American college and university system is widely accepted as the strongest in the world. This is why American universities are filled with students from abroad, including those from rich nations with a long history of higher education, like Germany and France.
I conclude from this that the American university system must be doing many things right, at least relative to the other systems. And what is right about this system is rather obvious: several thousand public and private colleges and universities compete hard for faculty, students, and funds. That the American system of higher education is the most competitive anywhere is the crucial ingredient in its success.
Competition tends to weed out the inefficient and the ineffective, regardless of whether competing enterprises are private profit ‚Äìmaximizers, as are most business firms, private non-profits, as are many American universities, or public non-profits, as are the majority of universities. In any industry, including the education industry, many different approaches are tried, as in the Robert Hutchins great books approach to undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Many of these approaches fail, as the great books approach failed because it turned out to be a poor way to teach science, economics, and many other subjects.
The basic effect of competition is that only the successes tend to survive in the long run. What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas.
Given the effectiveness of the American higher education system, its governance, including the role of faculty, is probably on the whole along the right lines. Some literature has even shown that an industry composed of workers cooperatives, Posner‚Äôs analogy to faculty-run universities, in a competitive environment tends toward efficiency because these cooperatives have to bid against each other, and against other industries, for labor and capital. Much of that literature would apply to universities run by professors, and to other aspects of the structure of American universities.
Yet enterprises in even the most competitive industry often appear to be inefficient when looked at under a microscope. This is why the many best sellers every year on how to improve the management of American companies before long pass into the market for shredded paper. I am dubious about proposals to improve a competitive system that is working. The American university system is competitive and it is working well, at least judged by its ability to continue to attract the best students from abroad, that few Americans go abroad for advanced degrees, and by the current efforts to imitate the American system of higher education in many other countries. We should not be complacent, but that is pretty effective evidence in its favor, including the approach to governance."
I still support these claims about the beneficial effects of competition, and that the American system is superior to other higher education systems. But I should have been clear that this does not mean that every organization even in a highly competitive industry is doing well and cannot be improved. Defective companies can continue to survive for quite a while even in competitive environments (look at General Motors). This is especially true among universities. Past reputations count for much more at universities than at say car companies, which is why the ranking of universities is much more stable over time than is the rankings of firms in various other industries (an observation on rankings that Summers once brought to my attention).
I support many of Posner's proposals for change that he lists at the end of his post, but I weight them somewhat differently. The following are to me the most important:
1. The Arts and Sciences faculty has too much power relative to professional schools at Harvard, as shown by what happened during the Summers controversy. An overall University Senate would have helped Harvard during this crisis, as it would have helped Columbia during the student disturbances of the late 1960's (where I taught at that time). It was crucial in the University of Chicago getting through those disturbances in much better shape than Columbia and many other universities.
2. Presidents should have more power and faculties less, for the reasons I gave. Universities will continue to be run mainly by faculties, but their power is excessive at Harvard and many other universities.
3. In light especially of the Federal law of the 1990's that prevents universities from forcing faculty members to retire, and because of the great competition among universities for faculty, a competition that in many fields is becoming worldwide (see my post on tenure of January 15th of this year), academic tenure is excessively strong. It should be greatly weakened, if not abolished.