Posner's Reply to Comments on the Summers Resignation
There were many interesting comments. I respond to a few.
A number of commenters suggest that Summers' resignation was due to his lack of tact in dealing with the faculty (and perhaps to particular administrative decisions that he made that provided talking points for opponents) and perhaps also to his fulsome apologies for his perceived failures of tact, apologies that may have signaled weakness and invited further opposition (his opponents sensing blood). I am inclined to be skeptical. Effective leaders are often tactless. Where tact is important is where the leader is weak, in Summers' case not because he personally is weak but because the position of the Harvard president is weak. But if a leader is institutionally weak, the notion that he can achieve strength through tact is unrealistic; it suggests a kind of sleight-of-hand, in which weakness becomes strength. I think the reason for Summers' resignation is that the Harvard Corporation would not back him against the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. If as I believe institutional weakness is the problem, finding a "tactful" version of Larry Summers to be president of Harvard is not the solution. Appointing Derek Bok as interim president is likely to be interpreted as a signal that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has a veto over presidential decisions.
I agree with the comments that point out that university trustees cannot be expected to "manage" the university; they are part timers and outsiders. The one thing they should be able to do is pick a good president and back him up.
I do not as some comments suggests advocate presidential dictatorship or believe that rseource allocation decisions in a university can be made without consultation with faculty. But it is a president's duty to identify weak departments and make efforts either to strengthen them, or, if that is infeasible, to curtail or terminate them. Sociology is a notable example of a field in decline, where an institutionally strong president should be authorized to take strong corrective measures in the face of predictable opposition by the sociology department and other weak departments allied with it. As I emphasized, moreover, faculty are not selected for their interpersonal skills, unlike executives of business firms, and as a result tend to lack a corporate or cooperative view of their endeavor; they are not pulling together in service of a common objective. This makes them uniquely ill-equipped to manage the university with a view toward the common good.
Nor is the fact that university faculty are "knowledge workers" a compelling reason for a weak presidecyt. What is true is that faculty should be enouraged to follow diverse research paths. But the interest in diversity as the efficient means to producing knowledge under conditions of uncertainty is equally great in the case of software companies and other commercial producers of knowledge (including law firms). These enterprises are able to combine intellectual diversity with strong management. So should universities.
A few comments portray Summers as a political reactionary, noting for example his effort to bring back ROTC to Harvard. Summers is of course a Democrat who served in the Clinton Administration. He recognized that it was not good for Harvard to be monolithically left wing. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, a person's critical faculties are apt to atrophy if he is surrounded by like-minded people who do not question his ideas and opinions. Nor would it be inappropriate for Summers to believe that Harvard's influence on public policy is needlessly diminished by unpatriotic institutional decisions, such as excluding military recruiters and instruction from the university.
I am intrigued by the suggestion that alumni should be given a greater role in university governance. Alumni have some real knowledge of and often great loyalty to their alma mater; in addition, they have a stake in the university's maintenance of its reputation. Perhaps they should be allowed to play some role in the selection of the university's trustees. Harvard alumni do vote for members of the Board of Overseers, but the board's role in the governance of Harvard is peripheral.