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02/26/2006

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Roger Albin

I'm a long time faculty member at a major research university. I'm generally sympathetic to many of these remarks, and those of Prof. Becker. Summers was well intentioned and had good ideas. What I think these commentaries leave out, however, is the relatively anomalous position of the Harvard president. Due to the way Harvard governance is set up, the Harvard president has considerably less budgetary authority than possessed by many university presidents and this limits his or her power. Generalizing from Summers' experience at Harvard to all American universities is a bit risky.
What really brought Summers down was not his interactions with West or his remarks (largely wrong in my opinion) about women in science but the fact that he embodied a threat to the existing structure of governance at Harvard. Summers, unfortunately, displayed a real lack of political acumen. Given the relatively weak position of the Harvard president, effecting major changes called for a degree of political skill and charisma that Summers, despite his formidable intellect, lacked.
Finally, while the issue of tenure somehow always seems to come up in discussions like these, it is only tangential to this issue.

Arun Khanna

Summers was doing all the right things. In hindsight, he should have done all the right things, one by one, to allow Harvard time to adjust. Bringing relatively quick change in an old set in its way system needs solid institutional backing; Harvard Corporation clearly did not provide that kind of backing.
Finally, I don't agree that this sorry saga necessarily implies the next President of Harvard (after the interim President) would be weak. The next President could negotiate a 10-year fixed contract not subject to being revoked by Harvard Corporation.

Enronal

It doesn't sound as though Roger Altman has even
read Summers' comments--a suspicion hard to shake, by the way, of most of those who have weighed in on them. Most of Summers' comments--as he repeatedly stressed--were descriptive, not normative, e.g., men fill the top ranks of the corporate world disproportionately, and males' cognitive abilities are more variable than womens'. He wrapped up by saying he hoped his talk would provoke thought and the marshalling of evidence. Is that a "comment" Mr. Altman or anyone else can "disagree" with? Could it be that part of the problem with many of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and their sympathizers in the media and elsewhere is that they are just plain ignorant of basic statistics, let alone the scientific method?

N Linssen

Kissinger's famous comment on why university faculty disputes are so bitter (because "there is so little at stake") seems particularly insightful in light of the Summers fiasco. I think Mssrs. Becker and Posner make reasonable suggestions for improving Harvard's governance structure, but I wonder if these changes would effectively address the disturbing ideological issues underlying the controversy over Summers.

I am not sure what sort of threat Summers posed to the faculty, but I believe this dispute was really about the fragile self-esteem of precious academics whose tenure and infrequently challenged opinions have insulated them from the harsher realities of the non-utopian world that most of us call home.

The fact the most influential faction of Harvard's faculty is apparently intolerant of diverse viewpoints and insistent on being mollycoddled seems to me an ominous signal of the direction of higher education in this country. Academics should encourage independent though, not squelch it. The faculty's reactionary behavior sends precisely the wrong message to its students, because in the so-called real world, opinions vary, and demands for mollycoddling are unlikely to be met.

I hope that the Harvard's trustees will recognize the larger implications of its decision to cut Summers loose, and exercise better judgment in the future.

Arun Khanna

A better analogy for board of trustees in a university is the board of directors/trustees of non-profit entities like museums, philanthropic organizations etc. Boards of directors of non-profits typically want a risk-averse management so that they can enjoy a quite life or at least a quite tenure on the board.

Arun Khanna

I meant quiet but did not quite convey it accurately.

Arun Khanna

Enronal said: "It doesn't sound as though Roger Altman has even read Summers' comments--a suspicion hard to shake, by the way, of most of those who have weighed in on them."


I think Roger Albin (who I don't know from Adam) meant that he does not agree with Summers' hypothesis. It could either be that Albin does not understand the scientific method or that Albin has good reasons for thinking Summer's hypothesis is not conducive to empirical testing. We should give him the benefit of doubt and not assume that a Professor at a major research university does not understand the scientific method of research.


PS. I think Summer's presented a controversial but empirically testable hypothesis in an academic research setting. So researchers can study the issue and either the data will reject or fail to reject the hypothesis. In any case, I think Summer's primary intent was to highlight lack of science and mathematics graduates which is eroding competitiveness of U.S. relative to other developed countries.

Richard Mason ('92)

I think Summers's forced resignation is deplorable to the extent it was due to the crime of making controversial remarks.

However I have some more general comments on university governance.

The Corporation Metaphor

While the board of a corporation is theoretically responsible to shareholders, trustees select their own successors and are accountable to no one. Troublingly, trustees seem to have almost no incentives apart from altruism and self-approbation. Posner claims that the trustees have their reputation at stake, but I think this is hardly true, partly because few people know who the trustees are, and partly because their trusteeship is not likely a defining element of their professional reputation. (They will have a prestigious career in business, etc., apart from being a trustee.) In the extreme of embarrassment, a university trustee could quietly omit the fact from his curriculum vitae, and the subject might never come up again. Even mere alumni of the university have a greater reputational stake, since they cannot excise the university from their resumes.

Perhaps the university-as-corporation would work better if alumni (of whom Posner says little) were the shareholders, and if the president-CEO were made ultimately answerable to them. Harvard, by the way, does have an alumni-elected Board of Overseers, but that board's powers are only investigative and advisory.

The General Partnership Metaphor

Posner describes a self-governing faculty as a "workers' cooperative," conjuring up images of an inefficient Soviet-era enterprise. However, members of a research faculty are not like workers in a factory, cooperating to build a joint product. Rather, they work alone or in small groups to bring in funding for their own individual projects. A better metaphor might be to a partnership of professionals, such as a law firm or a physician's clinic. The tenured faculty are the partners who run the firm. Junior faculty, postdocs, and graduate students are like junior lawyers who hope to make partner one day.

Research grants are made to certain investigators, not to the university in the abstract. If an established professor decamps to another university, he will likely take a certain stream of funding with him. Therefore, established faculty are de facto owners of the research university, because they own an identifiable part of its income stream.

Admittedly, this metaphor is compelling only insofar as the university is a research business which survives by grants. It is less applicable to the other activities of the university which depend upon tuition, or upon the endowment.

Enronal

In reply to Arun Khana's comment, Summers stated early in his remarks that "there are three broad hypotheses [not one] about the sources of the very substantial disparities...." One of them was based on the "clear evidence that whatever the difference in means... there is a difference in standard deviation," between men and women on various attributes, including cognitive ability. This "hypothesis" doesn't even need to be tested, it has been empirically verified beyond question. Yet it seems to be the basis for his critics' claim that he said women are cognitively inferior to men. I stand by my earlier point that much of the original criticism was based on willful misrepresentation of his remarks, and that unless you don't know what a standard deviation is, there's little to disagree with in what he actually said.

David Sucher

It seems to me that the flaw in Judge Posner's view is fundamental -- it is his characterization of faculty as "employees."

Look at it this way: without administration, there is still a purpose for professors i.e. to teach students or to do research orto write books or to do whatever else they do.

But take away the professors -- leaving the administration only its property-management function (which is basically what it does and at which it doesn't even do such a great job, as an aside) -- and what do you have? A campus, a set of buildings, which could as easily be rented out to any knowledge-based company.

If -- for the sake of argument -- you had to do away with either administration or faculty, which one would leave some semblance of a university? Obviously the adminsiration would go as you can hire good property managers and fund-raisers out of the yellow pages.

Btw, I am not in academia, never have been, and have no professional loyalty to it.

Bruce

I'm not sure it's accurate to say that high-handed CEOs face no danger of an employee revolt; that seems to be at least in part what happened at Morgan Stanley last year (granted, several employees voted with their feet, not with a resolution):

http://money.cnn.com/2005/06/13/news/fortune500/moragnstanley_ceo/index.htm

PersonFromPorlock

Corporate analysis doesn't pertain to the academy, which is patterned after feudal society, where every station had both duties and rights. What happened to Summers was more like an assertion of feudal rights than anything else. This is not to say it was justified, or that feudalism is the best paradigm for the academy, but it is the underlying dynamic.

logicnazi

University Goals, Centralization and Trustees

So I've been convinced by the conversation over at Volokh that the remarks on gender preferences weren't the major reason for the pressure on Summers to resign. However, they almost certainly turned some faculty members against him but for all I know they may have made other members more reluctant to vote him out. While Summers remarks were perfectly reasonable and shouldn't have resulted in any blowback this situation just illustrates a point I know all too well. If you are going to push the boundaries of normal discourse or tweak unjustified assumptions in our society you better make sure that you are likable, pleasent and otherwise don't piss people off. Gender is one hot button issue like this but Sex and Religion are even worse. This sucks but it's life.

The question of the best conception of a University president is far more interesting. I know you got many comments last time on University government but some thoughts I had on your reposted argument. In particular you argue for more centralized control like a corporation and suggest that the interests of the University in the long term align most closely with those of the board of Trustees. I disagree on both counts and instead would suggest that the long term interest of the University are best servered by the effects of a mostly decentralized collection of professors each doing their own thing. So while the individual faculty member's interest are not likely to track the universities ultimate goals neither is the Trustees and rather than competition between universities making sure quality is maintained it is standard academic competition for recognition and prestrige which will maintain quality. Like the US Government university structure should be designed to make sure that executive power is limited by another branch. Rather than having a small group of people (trustees, the president etc..) have ultimate say so we want deciscions to be made by some combination of all branches of university governance (faculty, president trustees). Also like the US government we expect the interests of the university to be best servered by the interplay of the different branches of government not identified with the interests of one branch. You could argue rightly that the US president's interests are more closely aligned with that of the country at large than those of any individual congressmen but it doesn't follow that congress as a body doesn't serve the interests of the country as well as the president or that the presideny ought to be given more power. So rather than seeing professors as either employees or owners I'm suggesting that they ought to be seen as something like representatives of their departments/academic communities and that all the arguments against concentrating (more) power in the US prez or the supreme court (okay it is a bit of a stretch to anaolgize them to the trustees) apply just as well in the university context. To complete the analogy the various departments are like the states and something like a principle of federalism should apply. In other words, like a governement, the principle task of a university is to protect freedoms (academic in this case) and just like western governments this is best accomplished by giving some legaslative body significant power.

In practice this means a university should pay professors well, hire good people at the begining and then mostly leave professors and departments alone to do their thing, only overriding the deciscions of the departments when there is some compelling issue that faces the university as a whole and then the collective will of the departments should be consulted. I think you actually make a strong point in favor of this position when you say:


The academy does not select for people who have interpersonal skills, because most academic research is either solitary or conducted in groups of two or three, though there are exceptions, primarily in the hard sciences.

This is a major difference from a corporation where the individuals at a corporation aspire (or at least the corporatation aspires) to work as a unified whole. In other words a university is fundamentally more suited to a decentralized style of management. Also unlike a corporation the work-place freedom of academics is of vital importance. So like with the US government sacrifices in efficency must be made to protect that freedom. While it would be silly to deny that there are some issues that the university needs to decide as a whole (expanding campus, tuition, undergrad admissions in some places) I would argue that departments function better as a loose federalist collection than as a top down corporate structure.

Also professors differ from regular employees. Professors tend to be committed to certain sorts of academic ideals and the advancement of their discipline in a way which Joe Schmo in middle management isn't committed to the corporate bottom line. Thus it isn't quite on target to compare a university to a worker owned collective. Additionally I would argue that the trustees interests are not well aligned with the longterm goals of the university. At least no more so than those of the professors. Trustees are not immersed in any particular academic discipline and while it is important to have this perspective it also means they are more likely to look at university issues in terms of general public relations than in terms of the principles of academic investigation in that discipline. Also because a trustees life is short compared to the lifetime of the institution (and unfortunatly don't usually have enough young people who have longer time horizons) they are going to be more inclined to sacrifice the underlying principles of academic investigation in favor of immediate public relations gain.

More concretely I think Summers was an anomoly and in general we should expect presidents and trustees to be more willing than faculty to discourage research with uncomfortable implications. As a trustee my only personal motivation is the effect of public perception of the university on my social status and unfortunatly public perception is more likely to be outraged by research whose results they don't like than abrogations of academic freedom. I mean suppose the biology department at some famous university started turning out papers showing that black people lacked some genetic mutations that increased intelligence/reasoning ability (they could have other mutations that accomplish the same effect of course but the public at large won't understand this no matter how careful the scientific papers are). I suspect the biologists in the department, and the professors at large who have significant personal interest in protecting academic freedom are going to be less inclined to discourage such research than the trustees whose social status is imperlied by an association with "that univeristy saying black people are inferior."

Finally I would point out that a university does not need to exercise as much quality control or oversight over faculty because the grant making agencies that supply a huge fraction of the money spent at any university perform this function. As long as these bodies are working properly and universities tend to hire professors who get grants (as they do) then there is already an automatice quality control mechanism. I suspect there are other external mechanisms present in controlling the selection of law professors and while such mechanisms might be lacking in the real humanities (not sociology) I'm not convinced that quality control is really that important in these areas. It may be somehow important to have professors doing literary criticism but I'm not sure if it makes much of a difference how they do it.

Ultimately the short version of my argument is this. It seems all the arguments you make would equally well apply to the US government if we substitute POTUS for university president and SCOTUS for the trustees (both are unappointed and their rewards are mostly social/reputational). Presumably you do not advocate making congress subservient to the president and supreme court (e.g. give them only minor influence over things like the appointment process to supreme court and give congress's normal power to the SCOTUS). So what is the difference that justifies giving power to a diverse body whose members may be more concerned about their particular area than the health of the institution overall in the US government but doesn't apply to set of professors at a university.

Philip Meguire

My comments on Posner's recommendations follow:

1. The members of the Harvard Corporation should resign; their successors should rescind Summers' resignation.

PM. Utterly impossible, because it can safely be assumed that the members of the Corporation have egos! ;
My comments on Posner's recommendations follow:

1. The members of the Harvard Corporation should resign; their successors should rescind Summers' resignation.

PM. Utterly impossible, because it can safely be assumed that the members of the Corporation have egos! ;

snowball

It is ludicrous for English professors to think they have a useful contribution to make to decisions involving budgetary allocations . . . .

This little Posner chestnut reminds me of a scene in Remains of the Day. Lord Darlington's guest--a very proper gentleman who looks down on the unwashed--asks Stevens the butler various questions about foreign and monetary policy. Stevens can answer none of them. The guest's conclusion from this "experiment" is that it is absurd to seek approval from the public on important matters, since the public is largely ignorant of the intricacies of public affairs. I can hear Posner in the background applauding the gentleman's statement.

Of course, no American university is run on the model of American representative democracy. But the high-handedness of telling people (especially generally clever people who have tenure) that they're too incompetent to have a say in the governance of their own institution is amusing.

Even more silly is Posner's idea that profs have no useful expertise in resource allocation. The resource allocation in controversy appeared to turn on Summers's personal assessment of the relative worth of various established academic fields (i.e., economics is better than sociology), not green-eyeshade budgetary calculations. It's one thing to say that a Sociology prof has no expertise in how to invest the Harvard endowment to maximize returns. It is quite another to say that a Sociology prof has nothing useful to say about the value of Sociology as a field of academic inquiry that deserves a share of the university's resources. On *that* question, I'm sure she would have something meaningful to say.

Aaron Bergman

For those people talking about the elimination of tenure, how on earth do you expect to get anybody to go into academia if not for the promise of tenure?

Raw Data

I don't know any Sociology profs but maybe they might have something to say about investments insofar as they are watching popular taste. Because when it comes to consumer brands, insights into pop culture might just have something to do with making money. For example, there are profs out there who predicted (as a general matter) the success of coffee chains like Starbucks et al (because of the lack of common social spaces in the USA.) So this idea that an academic can't have anything practicalto say is crazy.

Judge Posner is a smart guy but he also seems to be an academic and so himself not very practical?

Bruce Hayden

Why would someone want to go into academia without tenure? I would think that the obvious reason is that it is for many a fairly easy existance with relatively high pay, esp. in comparison with what they would earn elsewhere and that it allows many with otherwise nonsalable skills to make a very good living doing what they like.

I think the reality is that in some disciplines, such as Electrical Engineering, faculty pay is often lower than industry pay, thus resulting in difficulty in retaining faculty, whereas in others, such as the humanities, faculty pay is far better than they can get elsewhere with their degrees, resulting in long lines waiting to get into what are now tenure track positions.

Aaron Bergman

I would think that you would lose people much earlier in the pipeline. Graduate school is almost universally an awful experience. Being a postdoc or an adjunct isn't terribly much better. If there's no tenure waiting at the end, all of a sudden you could end up in your mid-40s with no marketable skills and not much chance in a relatively small academic job market which would much rather hire a young researcher.

Right now, that happens before the mid-30s which is awful enough. If you make it worse, you'll get a lot more people trying to get those marketable skills and not bothering with the whole suffering grad-school thing in the first place.

And the pay ain't that great.

Jeff

Recently, I went back to grad school at the University of Chicago. It has been a tremendous exerience for me. Many of the professors I have been taught at were educated, or have taught at Harvard. They all say you do not want to go there.
While they respect the institution, they say there are better places out there, and U of C is one.

I have two kids that will be matriculating to college soon. I was always skeptical of sending them to Harvard, should they be fortunate enough to qualify. I have read many articles about academia in recent years, and the situation at Harvard reinforces what I have begun to believe.

Instead of freedom of expression and freedom of thought, schools are now censoring it. Paranoia
makes me think it is the left wing academia that is most responsible for this. If a college president at the supposed number one place of higher learning in the US is not able to freely express ideas and thoughts, what are students supposed to think? How are they being prepared for the world?

I appreciate the many thoughtful posts on this board. They make me think.

By the way, a lot of those tenured academics would be able to make it in the real world, it's just that they love teaching-and making a pile of money is not generally a part of being a professor.

I also think it is funny how the Harvard faculty is trying to paint Summers as a neocon! Only they could take a Clinton appointee and do that.

Aaron Bergman

The amount of censorship and "PC" in academia is greatly exaggerated.

Roger Albin

enronal,
I did read Summers' remarks and I'm sorry to point out, probably more carefully than you read my comment, as evidenced by your misspelling my name. I think a brief paraphrase of Summers' remarks is that he suggested that women were less likely to excel at the highest levels and he cited the greater variation in men as supporting data. I think this suggestion is likely to be wrong for a number of reasons. I've reviewed some of the literature on this subject and I find a lot of it unconvincing. I also happen to work in a field (neuroscience) which has an unusually large number of prominent women scientists and in which about 50% of the easily identifiable rising stars are women. In Neuroscience, which is generally acknowledged to be one of the most exciting areas of contemporary science, it appears that greater than 50% of the recent graduate student intakes are women. My prediction is that in a generation, greater than 50% of neuroscientists will be women.
I agree that many of the Harvard faculty at Arts and Sciences probably don't understand statistics and the scientific method but its worth recalling that some of the individuals offended by Summers remarks were prominent female scientists, including one whom I think is now a member of the National Academy. These individuals are at least as likely as Summers to understand scientific and statistical methods.
The issue isn't whether Summers was correct or not. The big problem with his remarks on this topic, and this was not described in the media, is that a large fraction of the disquiet engendered by the remarks occured because of the anomalous position of the Harvard president. Again, the Harvard presidency is a funny position, and it has less administrative and budgetary power than most university president positions. One of the Harvard president's primary levers of power is his/her say over faculty appointments and promotions. Because of this, Harvard presidents have historically been significantly more involved in faculty appointments and promotions than most university presidents. This is well known to the Harvard faculty and was known by the audience he addressed. Now, picture a situation in which a man and woman with similar qualifications come up for promotion or tenured appointment and there is only one slot. Based on my experience with promotions and recruiting faculty, this is not implausible. And once tenured, they could be there for 30 years. How to decide? All other things being equal, Summers' decision rule might be to pick the man. Could a decision rule like this work to the disadvantage of women candidates? It could.
Its simply foolish for someone intimately involved in faculty hiring and promotions to make remarks like these, unless they can be defended very, very well, and they can't.
It apparently never occurred to Summers that there are certain things that are impolitic for the Harvard president to say. He seems to have behaved like he was still a professor at MIT. This is a primary example of his self-defeating behavior.

Raw Data

"All other things being equal, Summers' decision rule might be to pick the man."

Uh...how do you get there? No one has accused Summers of bias. And you have just said that the two candidates are of equal professional qualifications. So why do you even hint that Summers would pick the man?

David

I don't thing Kissenger's aphorism applies in this case. Look at it this way:

Harvard is immensely valuable, with an endowment in the billions, an unparalleled reputation, a stupendous staff, etc. Yet, nobody really owns or fully controls Harvard. It's sensible for the faculty (or any other party) to put considerable effort into increasing their power over this valuable entity.

Kirk Parker

Aaron Bergman,

Graduate school is almost universally an awful experience. Being a postdoc or an adjunct isn't terribly much better. If there's no tenure waiting at the end... you'll get a lot more people ... not bothering with the whole suffering grad-school thing in the first place.

You almost make this sound like a bug instead of a feature. Surely you don't really think we're undersupplied with academics, do you?

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