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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

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.


At 5:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's why you shouldn't feel bad, Ryan. Larry is not leaving Harvard, and is not opting for unemployment. He was given a year's leave (paid i'm sure) after which he'll be named University Professor (a much coveted faculty distinction). He's counting on Hillary being elected and taking him back to Washington. Do NOT feel bad, regardless of how "human" Larry is. He's still a prick.

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well well, ms. lewis makes an appearance at last.

there is no way summers is asked to be in a cabinet - why would he want to? There is not a whole lot of room to move up after being treasury secretary. Fed Chair has been mentioned but I don't think he ever had experience in monetary policy.

It's true that U. Prof. is a sweet gig, but so what? He deserve it.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Ryan, thank you for writing this. It really helped me to wrap my head around some of the implications of this affair, and to understand why I can't seem to muster a whole lot of passion even though I recognize that it's a momentous event.

Do you see any way of converting our apprehension into positive energy? When the new president comes, what will be some effective ways of voicing our legitimate concerns without either putting the new appointee on the defensive (which could lead to ear closing and heel digging) or appearing as though we're trying to piggyback off of the faculty's power surge? And given that most of the issues you mention have some financial aspect (except changing the non-discrimination code), should we think about redirecting our lobbying energies toward the corporation more than toward the new president?

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous RK Popkin said...

Dude, my 75 year old great aunt in Napoli saw my picture in the Italian press. 15 minutes of fame indeed - I was the poster-angry-Harvard-woman for a good month.

And now, like Ryan, I feel strangely guilty - even though I'm glad that this finally happened, and I'm hopeful that the next administration while be more friendly to campus progressives.

Another weird thing about this post-resignation week: is it just me, or are their suddenly many more Students for Larry than there were a week ago? I think that many students who were ambivalent about Summers before the resignation have just chosen a side. So in addition to dealing with national perceptions of Harvard's left as reactionary and out of control (and as a BGLTSA member, I have to inject a bitter "what else is new?"), we may be faced with a some anti-left reaction in our own student body.

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

give me a break--summers is playing the sad, hurt little guy and people are buying it? this is the guy who said, sans irony, that poor countries should sell themselves to rich countries as toxic waste dumps because their people don't live long enough to get cancer. this is the guy who wouldn't ask his personal friend to do the university a favor and resign when he was found guilty of defrauding the us govt (meaning the taxpayers) and the people of russia. this is the guy whose friend on the corporation tried to help Enron and Ken Lay get a taxpayer funded bailout when it was already clear they had commited massive fraud. you know what's wrong with this picture of the poor martyred larry? every goddamn thing about it. stand your ground, people of conscience!!

At 11:35 PM, Blogger R said...

I think that's precisely the problem - Larry Summers has done so many things that people found offensive, but none of those are being articulated as reasons for his departure. Instead, he's leaving at a time when the major criticisms of his leadership are apparent to the faculty and many students, but not very obvious to the public at large. If you tell the global media that Deborah Foster is a damn good professor and should absolutely continue in her position in Folk and Myth, nobody knows what you're talking about. Instead, they chalk Summers' departure up to the bruised egos of liberal academics, which is wholly unrepresentative of the actual chain of events.

I think that the arrival of a successor offers students a chance to make reasoned, thoughtful requests - and the student body has plenty of these, from renewable energy to divestment to an updated non-discrimination code. I think Katie's got a great point - the new president has to strike a delicate balance between assertiveness and a willingness to compromise, and part of the challenge for students is to find the issues where democratic collaboration is viable. Personally, I'm kind of optimistic - a lot of the changes that progressives would like to see are economically and ethically feasible in the long term, and ran aground of a specific leadership style instead of any concrete objections. By making a reasoned case for things like a living wage and offering clear suggestions, we've got a chance to make a difference and the new president has a chance to exercise a new governing framework that prizes deliberative, transparent collaboration.


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