Summers Resigns

by Kieran Healy on February 21, 2006

I wonder whether it’ll be possible to preempt the spin that this was all because of his silly remarks about women in science, and ergo Summers was forced out by intolerant liberals. Probably not—even though, you know, Summers is in fact a liberal and you may remember him serving in the Clinton administration. There’s a line from Douglas Adams that I think explains the real situation a lot better: “You’re a clever man … but you make the same mistake a lot of clever people do of thinking everyone else is stupid.” Not a good management style, especially at Harvard, even if your policy goals are worthwhile.



trey 02.21.06 at 4:22 pm

I guess it turns out that economists aren’t smarter than sociologists after all.


Anon 02.21.06 at 4:23 pm

I’m sure D2 will be on this, but I found it sad that the Times article about the resignation didn’t mention the Shleifer affair. Sigh.


Tyrone Slothrop 02.21.06 at 4:35 pm

Apart from his personal style, why was he unpopular?

(Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?)


otto 02.21.06 at 4:46 pm

The Schliefer issue is key:

The basic point is of course that the man had no friends left. Can’t run a big organisation that way.


sd 02.21.06 at 5:00 pm

I’ve seen some scattered speculation that Harvard’s current provost, who is apparently a Summers disciple on the issues but much less gruff personally, is by far the leading candidate to replace Summers. If that happens, then Summers’ faculty critics would have lost – and lost in a big way. They will find themselves confronted with a much more media friendly version of Summers, who can’t possibly be forced out because that would demonstrate that Summers was right along about the faculty being a bunch of childish nits who can;t be reasoned with. Score one for reform at Harvard.


otto 02.21.06 at 5:25 pm

In the interview, Ellison also related a tale in which Summers startled him by saying that those in his own field, economics, are smarter than political scientists and sociologists.


soc anon 02.21.06 at 6:17 pm

“I wonder whether it’ll be possible to preempt the spin that this was all because of his silly remarks about women in science.”

I doubt it. That’s clearly the spin that the BBC article is putting on it: an allusion to the women in science remark appears early in the article, and the Shleifer affair didn’t receive any mention. Granted, the $44 million it cost Harvard (directly) is a drop in the endowment bucket …


Daniel 02.21.06 at 6:35 pm

preliminary research from the sociology and psychology departments suggests that we can be 95% confident that it could have happened to a nicer bloke.


Andrew 02.21.06 at 6:42 pm

That was the incident that got all the attention, therefore it will be cited as the explanation for Summers’ departure. Why would a reporter dig for an explanation when there’s a ready-made one already in place?


Phil 02.21.06 at 10:33 pm

I think people are underestimating the effect of the women in science speech. By themselves the idiotic statements would probably not have forced retirement. But they were an easily explained, clearly identifiable gaffe which most of the other gaffes were not.

Its a bit like the way snow forms. A snow flake starts with a tiny spec of dust or ice that acts as a seed around which the snowflake grows. Without the seed there is no crystal.


gmoke 02.21.06 at 10:38 pm

I believe that Summers was a principle reason that Cornell West left Harvard for Princeton and started the bust-up of the dream Afro-American Department that Henry Louis Gates had been building for years. This is personal as I’d met West a few times around Cambridge and found him to be an open and gracious man whom I had hoped to run into again.

Summers, when he was a Harvard professor, lived in a building where a friend of mine was the custodian. My friend has never been not going to school in the thirty years I’ve known him. He has, I believe, two masters degrees and is working on an advanced degree now. He says Summers couldn’t look him in the eye, refused to recognize him as a human being.

Others I’ve talked to note how Summers always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. The room just got a lot smaller.


Jonathan 02.21.06 at 11:27 pm

One of the things I don’t get about Summers’ remark about the economists being smarter than sociologists, etc. is why, by his own logic, he simply didn’t have a mathematician make all of his decisions for him.


david 02.21.06 at 11:57 pm

The hiring of Pinker is a firing offense. But no story will mention that, unfortunately.


Christopher M 02.22.06 at 12:31 am

As far as I can tell Cornell West is a great teacher but hasn’t been doing a lot of serious academic work lately. That doesn’t mean it was right for Summers to be an asshole toward him. But I’d still be happy to be corrected if I’m wrong on the first point.


daspence 02.22.06 at 12:37 am

Never understood how this Schleifer issue got blamed on Summmers. I know the two were colleagues from way back, but the events in Russia happened in 1992-95 a long time before Summers ever got to Harvard and not sure what Summers was supposed to do (or not do) about the issue once he got to Harvard in 2001. The lawsuit had already been filed in 2000 against the Rudenstine administration and clearly the US government wanted to get money out of Harvard’s deep pockets not just squeeze Schleifer for his couple millions. So Summers could have thrown his friend Schleifer to the wolves but that wouldn’t have saved Harvard any money at that point, since the government was really after Harvard itself.


josh 02.22.06 at 1:48 am

My own impression (from within Harvard, though nowhere near the corridors of power) is that the women-in-science thing would not in itself have led to this; it was just one offense among many, which Summers might have weathered. I haven’t heard any mention of the Shleifer affair as a motive for the ouster, either. I think that the immediate catalyst was Summers’ forcing out of the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which was just one instance of bullying too many. His tendency to play favourites with departments (reflected in the comment about economists, political scientists, and sociologists, but which also marked hiring and funding policies) probably played a large role. And his general lack of deference — some might say plain rudeness — toward the faculty(one faculty member I know once mused that Summers really should try to disguise his utter boredom better at faculty meetings) can’t have helped.
(In fairness to Summers, he did have some supporters — mainly in the departments he tended to favour, I suspect; and seemed to be well-liked by many undergrads [though not more left-leaning ones, oddly enough]. But of course that doesn’t matter.)
Anyway, exciting times here …


RedWolf 02.22.06 at 2:48 am

Summers is not the first nor only rude, partial, not evenhanded university president. I doubt these traits forced him out. The collision with faculty must be motivated by additional factors, some of them mentioned by other comments. If the mean age of Harvard faculty is indeed 60, for me that is the main source of resentment. Older faculty tends to be less flexible, feel as the place owners, may have totally missed the tsunami of the interdisciplinary trend, and by and large are themselves as arrogant as they come.


Daniel 02.22.06 at 3:11 am

Never understood how this Schleifer issue got blamed on Summmers

basically, the extent to which Harvard picked up Shleifer’s legal bill was viewed as controversial, and then not disciplining or firing Shleifer. Also, Summers had a number of opportunities to settle the case which he didn’t take, and almost certainly made the eventual disaster worse than it needed to be by taking a high-handed approach to the authorities.


daspence 02.22.06 at 7:58 am

I’ve gotten most of my information about Shleifer (apparently the proper spelling) from David Warsh’s blog, Economic Principals which has an anti-Summers spin but presumably gets the facts more or less straight. It appears that Shleifer actually had two posts at Harvard, as both a director of the development institute and a professor of economics. In 1997, Rudenstine fired him from the former post, and presumably had another 3-4 years to take further action against Shleifer but did not. So how can Summers be faulted for showing favoritism toward a friend when he did the exact same thing his predecessor had.


david 02.22.06 at 9:21 am

The Wall Street Journal today reports that Summers urged the dean to go easy on Shleifer, fwiw.


otto 02.22.06 at 9:53 am

“even though, you know, Summers is in fact a liberal and you may remember him serving in the Clinton administration”

Summers is a liberal in the “even the liberal New Republic” sense. i.e. not too liberal at all, and much less so that many on campus. Arguably as right wing as possible for a research university president.


aaron 02.22.06 at 10:02 am

Are you implying that you must be conservative to be victimized by intolerant liberals? It is definately not the case. You don’t have to be conservative to be forced out by intolerant liberals.


Cryptic Ned 02.22.06 at 10:12 am

No, he’s implying that this person is not conservative, and was not victimized by intolerant liberals. Thanks for asking.


Seth Finkelstein 02.22.06 at 10:27 am

“Coup against Summers a dubious victory for the politically correct”

By Alan M. Dershowitz | February 22, 2006

“A PLURALITY of one faculty has brought about an academic coup d’etat against not only Harvard University president Lawrence Summers but also against the majority of students, faculty, and alumni. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which forced Summers’s resignation by voting a lack of confidence in him last March and threatening to do so again on Feb. 28, is only one component of Harvard University and is hardly representative of widespread attitudes on the campus toward Summers. The graduate faculties, the students, and the alumni generally supported Summers for his many accomplishments. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences includes, in general, some of the most radical, hard-left elements within Harvard’s diverse constituencies. And let there be no mistake about the origin of Summers’s problem with that particular faculty: It started as a hard left-center conflict. Summers committed the cardinal sin against the academic hard left: He expressed politically incorrect views regarding gender, race, religion, sexual preference, and the military.”


[Disclaimer - this is reposted only for interest, not for endorsement]


pablo 02.22.06 at 10:31 am

Many forget that Summers caused untold suffering in the third world during his tenure as head of the IMF.


steve kyle 02.22.06 at 10:32 am

Larry Summers never would suffer fools easily. The problem is, he considered a lot of people fools and would let his opinion show even when he refrained from saying “You’re a fool”. The ability of tenured faculty to behave like spoiled three year olds is a phenomenon that has been observed by anyone who has been to a university faculty meeting or participated in a reshuffling of office space. Larry would simply have no patience for that kind of thing – He really is a very smart guy – and he likely had some very good ideas for running Harvard – But the job is as much a diplomatic post as a managerial one. Larry Summers is just not that kind of guy.


Hogan 02.22.06 at 11:37 am

Of course Harvard senior faculty can be inflexible, intolerant and full of themselves. Just look at Lawrence Summers.


Hugh Gordon 02.22.06 at 12:16 pm

The Washington Post editorial board is, not suprisingly, also propagating the “poor Larry victim of political correctness” meme. The fact that his own Dean of FAS felt he couldn’t work with him isn’t mentioned. I have no doubt the supposedly visionary reforms Summers initiated will continue under a more competent successor.


Daniel 02.22.06 at 12:18 pm

So how can Summers be faulted for showing favoritism toward a friend when he did the exact same thing his predecessor had.

Because during the Ruddenstine period, Shleifer was not facing fraud charges; during this period, Harvard’s rather risible argument that he was not employed by the HIID and not subject to its rules was still active.


Daniel Lam 02.22.06 at 12:19 pm

“Many forget that Summers caused untold suffering in the third world during his tenure as head of the IMF.”

I confess that I count myself among the forgetful. Can you please remind me when Summers was head of the IMF?


deb 02.22.06 at 12:28 pm

The hiring of Pinker is a firing offense. But no story will mention that, unfortunately.

Why is that?

Larry’s crime was exposing the pseudoscientific rhetoric that passes for economic analysis to a room full of real scientists.


John Quiggin 02.22.06 at 5:29 pm


I think Pablo is referring to Summers’ time as US Treasury Secretary and, among other things, his famous memo suggesting that it would be a good thing all round if poor countries acted as dumps for toxic waste.

It’s this kind of half-smart showing off that gives economists a bad name. It should have been obvious from this performance that Summers was unlikely to be a success as a university president.


Daniel 02.22.06 at 6:19 pm

he also started backpedalling from that memo and telling everyone that Lant Pritchett actually wrote it as soon as the furore blew up, displaying the man management skills that would later serve him well at Harvard.


Jim Miller 02.22.06 at 7:14 pm

Although it is common usage, I think you could add to the clarity of the discussion by labeling Summers’ opponents as “leftists”, rather than liberals.

His opponents do not have the views of classical liberals, limited government, free speech, economic freedoms, et cetera. Nor do they have the views of the “liberals” of my youth, who were mostly social democrats, but were also staunch defenders of freedom of speech and opponents of racial preferences.

Summers himself may be a liberal, but I am not familiar enough with his views to be certain.


Hektor Bim 02.22.06 at 8:11 pm

Is that actually true? Do you know all the reasons that people opposed Summers, and that all were based on political ideologies based on a left/right dichotomy, with the opponents being leftists and Summers the rightist?


Tom Barnet-Lamb 02.22.06 at 9:15 pm

I think Pablo is referring to Summers’ time as US Treasury Secretary and, among other things, his famous memo suggesting that it would be a good thing all round if poor countries acted as dumps for toxic waste.

I think that this memo was written when Summers worked at the world bank, where he was chief economist.


Martin James 02.22.06 at 9:25 pm


I know Lant Pritchett and

1. Lant did write it and
2. Lant thinks Larry has unfairly taken the blame for it for a long, long time.


Ben A 02.22.06 at 9:59 pm

The women in science comments were *huge*. They weren’t a sufficient to undermine Summers resignation, but they were, I think, necessary for the situation to end in his resignation. They were the trigger for the first no confidence vote. And without that, we never get here.

It’s absolutely correct that “PC faculty torpedo Summers” is not the whole story. Summers pissed a lot of (non-ideological) people off. But it’s a big part of the story, and denying that is unsupportable.


josh 02.22.06 at 11:08 pm

There seem to be several basic positions emerging in this thread:
1) Summers was ousted for his political views, which was bad
2) Summers was ousted for his political views (or actions), which is what he deserved
3) Summers wasn’t ousted for his political views, but because he’s a jerk
4)Summers wasn’t ousted for his political views, but because the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are jerks
5)Summers wasn’t (necessarily) ousted for his political views, but he should’ve been
For what it’s worth, I think Summers was ousted because of his political views AND because of his management style; that these two grounds for disatisfaction were both separate, and interacting (that is, the problem wasn’t just his political views, but the manner in which he expressed them); and that whether or not he was justified in holding the views he did, and regardless of the merits of the policies he favoured, his resignation is for the best. If he had been able to pursue his objectives effectively, he might yet have done some good (and some not-so-good) here; but his personality had come to overshadow his ideas and agenda, and seems to have been a barrier to making further progress (To paraphrase one faculty member (from memory): ‘we had planned to review the core curriculum last year, but we wound up spending most of the time complaining about the personal failings of our President. This year we’ve scheduled twice as many faculty meetings — so that even if we spend as much time complaining about the personal failings of our President, work can still get done’).


Jeremy 02.23.06 at 12:03 am

Is it too late to note that the BBC (and other news outlets) continue to misreport what Summers said about women and science?


Dylan Thurston 02.23.06 at 12:35 am

I was a junior faculty in the math department at the time of the first vote. Both the junior and senior faculty in the department seemed quite opposed to Summers on the whole, although perhaps for different reasons; one senior faculty member commented to me that many of the most outrageous things he had done were not public knowledge, so he was surprised the junior faculty were so opposed.

For myself, I thought he was doing a bad job for a number of reasons, including some which have not been discussed much, like the planning for the Allston expansion or the treatment of the non-prestigious schools like the School of Public Health.


Martin James 02.23.06 at 2:24 am

I’m amazed at how unsophisticated the analysisnasbeen regareding whether Summers was a success at Harvard.

If a univeristy is an institutional relationship between money ( endowment, grants, and tuition), professors and students and a university community has objectives regarding the future of its money, professors and students, then the measure of his success would be evaluated in those terms.

The anecdotes against Summers here have been primarily that fundraising was imperiled and the faculty were unhappy.

The anecdotes for Summers have been that fundraising was good and the faculty were unhappy.

As an outsider, the general direction Summers seems to have been pushing was more support for science, number crunching and a drive for younger star professors and less support for the humanities at least as it pertains to politcal causes or minority/gender diversity.

So what is the opinion of the board on his priorities. Is Summers vision of what makes for a top institution correct or incorrect?

Despite the enemies and resignation, did he or did he not further Harvard on the path towards the objectives he supported?


Seth Finkelstein 02.23.06 at 2:57 am

Hmmm … isn’t there something very interesting going on here, where deep issues of governance and corruption are being hidden by noise about “culture war” issues? The noisemakers get to stir the pot, pulling out Orwell and Stalin and PC CONSPIRACY!!!, thus driving the relatively less powerful to not speak at all, else be attacked, and of course a few will always rise to the flame-bait. Then it’s talk-show time and pundit-frenzy, while the economics swindle proceeds with almost no notice.

Someone could write a very interesting analysis about the tactics at work.


pablo 02.23.06 at 6:30 am

Thanks for fixing my screw-up Tom. I was referring to the World Bank.


abb1 02.23.06 at 12:32 pm

What happen to that fella (Harvard professor of economics, IIRC) who was caught stealing horse manure on cape Ann – anybody know?


garymar 02.23.06 at 7:44 pm

Harvard is a private university, right? None of my tax money goes to its support, except through NIH, NSF, etc and I believe that money goes to individual researchers, and there are review committees overseeing those grants. So it’s hard to get upset one way or another, since I’m neither student, faculty, nor alumnus, nor a relative of one.

So I shouldn’t even be posting this comment. But I couldn’t help myself.


vivian 02.23.06 at 9:05 pm

According to some senior faculty of my acquaintance, more than once Summers singlehandedly vetoed tenure decisions that had been recommended not only by departments but all the way up the academic chain. Many rejectees were women. With impressive publications. To the point where some senior faculty feared lawsuits.

Quite the departure from his stated goals. He didn’t really want to shake the place up, he wanted the same inscrutable elitism, only his elites were folks like Pinker and Dershowitz.

I cannot confirm this, however – #41 do you have any more data?


burritoboy 02.24.06 at 4:45 pm


The amount of government aid that goes to Harvard (or any other major research university, public or private) is actually quite massive and for some institutions goes well into the hundreds of millions or more per year (I don’t know what Harvard’s numbers look like specifically, but we’re definitely talking very large amounts of money). Not all of that aid goes to individual faculty members, some of it goes to groups of faculty members and lots goes directly to the university itself (generally, the university can take up to half of the grant money granted to it’s faculty for “overhead”).

Beyond that Harvard receives massive tax-breaks due to it’s non-profit status. How running several very large internal hedge funds (which are then spun off to be private for-profit funds to the monetary benefit of Harvard), real estate speculation and so on fit into a non-profit are questions for minds far more elevated than mine.


David Davenport 02.26.06 at 12:20 pm

… and started the bust-up of the dream Afro-American Department that Henry Louis Gates had been building for years.

Is that supposed to be a bad thing?


darcy 02.26.06 at 6:35 pm

FYI, some of the stories about Larry Summers that aren’t public knowledge (referred to in Dylan Thurston’s comment) might be in these comments on Bitch Ph.D. In one case, Summers unilaterally switched grant rights from one PI to another, over the grant agency’s original decision.

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