Larry Summers Takes A Bow
One year ago, I spent the better part of the afternoon at a rally sponsored by the Coalition for an Anti-Sexist Harvard, where a hundred undergraduates suffered through subzero temperatures and intermittent rain to demand Larry Summers' resignation. The protest was timed to coincide with a critical meeting of the faculty, which was being covered by media outlets nationwide. It was a convergence of local and national opinion - the back of my head, for example, was featured on the next week’s Independent, but I had friends whose grandparents came across their pictures by way of the Associated Press. Larry Summers probably wasn’t having a fantastic day on February 22nd. Frankly, he’s not doing much better this year, since he's apparently opted for the whole unemployment thing instead of doggedly picking a fight.(more in expanded post)
What surprises me, though, is that I’m kind of ambivalent about the whole resignation announcement. Last year, I felt so strongly about the need for a change in leadership that I stood in an ankle-deep puddle of ice water for an hour and even filled out my own little no-confidence vote to place in the rally’s novelty-sized ballot box. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is. This year, for no apparent reason, I can’t seem to summon up any sort of seething rage.
It’s not like Larry Summers has personally changed my mind; if anything, I’ve been pretty disheartened by the constant controversy over things like Dean Kirby’s resignation and the backsliding on issues that hit closer to home, like Harvard’s refusal to join the lawsuit against the Solomon Amendment, pay its workers a living wage, or include gender identity and expression in its non-discrimination code. I’m convinced that leaders need to lead, and that conviction doesn’t necessarily stem from any sort of progressive belief that Harvard needs to set a global example (although, in an ideal world, maybe it would). Instead, I’d be satisfied if Harvard’s leadership took the initiative to solicit student opinion and listen to concerns instead of waiting until they’ve got dozens of unwashed labor activists calling the New York Times from their office. The student body is incredibly diverse, and almost every student group has concerns that deeply affect their college experience. I’d be refreshed if this was acknowledged by anyone, including Summers’ successor.
I’m invested in a university that functions as a model of academic excellence and democratic ideals, and I don’t believe that we were headed in the right direction – so why am I ambivalent right now? On a visceral level, I feel bad for Larry Summers because he’s human and deserves some degree of sympathy. It’s one thing to watch someone resign in an acknowledgment of bad decisions on his part; it’s another thing, though, to watch him shrug his shoulders and call it quits because a significant portion of his colleagues find him generally unlikable. My guilt complex is fairly overactive, and when I opened my inbox and found Larry Summers’ terse, wistful letter, something in me died a little. In a totally irrational way, I feel bad for wishing this upon him. Clearly, no individual student is responsible for his departure, but I held a sign and let my mullet-like haircut grace the cover of the Independent, so I feel apologetic in an admittedly irrational way.
It’s easy to become apprehensive about the more concrete effects of Summers’ departure, too. First and foremost, I worry about what this decision is going to do to the credibility of the left at Harvard. It was easy to dislike Summers when he had done something that was widely recognized as sexist – or, at the very least, wholly insensitive – by a large audience across the nation. At this time last year, the same announcement would have carried a very different symbolic weight, and it might have suggested that Harvard’s female students mattered more than its feckless president. It would have been a lesson, for better or for worse, in cause and effect and the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own actions – and that could have been meaningful for women and minorities everywhere. Instead, the lack of a single, salient source of discontent at the time of the announcement means that the whole episode is likely to go down as an anecdote about liberal academia’s chokehold on free thought – and that’s a drastically reductionist understanding of the whole debacle.
It makes sense for activists to be apprehensive about the announcement – not necessarily disappointed that Summers is leaving, but disappointed that the whole ordeal is likely to become a retroactive pox on the left at Harvard. Summers is departing at a time when there’s no single error in judgment that might merit his removal from power. Overall, this – more than anything else – is disappointing to those of us who can identify a litany of past frustrations and are still hoping against hope for positive, progressive institutional change. Harvard can easily stand up for its students and develop ethical fiber by divesting from Sudan, by refusing federal money until all of its students are eligible for the same employment opportunities, by updating its non-discrimination code, by fully recognizing underfunded academic disciplines, and by paying its workers a living wage. The feuds that marked Summers’ tenure didn’t have to be political, but the intractability of the university’s position turned them into ideologically charged free-for-alls between liberal academia and a controversial, more conservative figurehead. Now, by avoiding any issue directly and stepping down in a period of general discontent, there’s a good chance that the decision will go down in history as a victory of the implacable left, without really remembering why discontent built over the years. Overall, that’s bad news for those of us who will sacrifice a good pair of shoes and risk frostbite to fight sexism, but can’t seem to get excited about a decisive victory over nothing in particular.