Friday, February 24, 2006

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My one post about Larry Summers

I've received a few e-mail queries about whether I would post anything on Larry Summers' resignation as president from Harvard and whether it's an example of:

A) Political correctness triumphing over rational discourse;

B) What happens when an out-of-touch faculty becomes too pwerful;

C) Larry Summers' inability to adapt to his environment;

D) All of the above.

Actually, I have only two thoughts.

The first is that Larry Summers is an exceptionally bright economist who might be a better public intellectual now that he can just speak his mind.

The second is that, much as one may want to buy into the argument that this is Harvard's liberal, elitist, out-of-touch faculty punishing a truth-teller, I strongly suspect there are other parts to this story. So before anyone jumps to conclusions, I'd suggest reading this Institutional Investor story by David McClintick.

posted by Dan on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM


Ah, Dan, because things are never what they seem, are they? Even when they hit you in the face like a ton of bricks.

Of course this is a matter of "Harvard's liberal, elitist, out-of-touch faculty punishing a truth-teller." Use some common sense for Heaven's sake.

posted by: Sophisticated lady on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

"out of touch" being the most relative of terms here. Lets see on this side we have several hundreds of entrenched faculty tarred by accusations of liberal bias ("skewered" some would say!). On the other side we have a fumbling oaf of a University president supported by a mixed nut gallery of neo-liberal pals and the usual cast of idiot-uncle Neo-McCarthyites.

Pardon me if I'm not detecting the pulse of the American mainstream in any of this but that said, the looming crisis of American higher education has far more to do with the knee-jerk assault on immigration visas than with the liberal assault on traditional values.

posted by: Michael Carroll on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

In the LA Times (via Instapundit):

He described Summers commenting, in a private meeting, that "economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists"...

If that quote is accurate, and if it wasn't meant as a joke, it's a dumbass thing to say, particularly if you say it to a sociologist who works for you.

"A growing climate of fear" is mentioned, but the only example given of what that means, is the sociologist above, who says that Summers considered doing something that would've pissed him off. Which, you know, that's, like, exactly what Hitler did. Or something. I mean, "climate of fear", right? Man, what a chilling phrase.

So basically that's just two narcissistic boneheads hitting each other with rhetorical soccer-boppers. Which is why Harvard is such a magnificently prestigious institution, is my understanding.

The last three paragraphs of that LAT article are magnificent. A former Harvard prof explains how Harvard has forgone educational excellence by letting poor kids in who are more interested in learning than in left-wing politics. Or that's what it seems to mean. Hard to be sure. Anyhow, he's upset that the students at Harvard "look more like America" than the faculty. Looking like America seems to be bad.

They're all morons. I can't bring myself to care which one wins.

posted by: P. Froward on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

Economists are very tiresome. The predictive record of current math-based econ is close to zero. And yet they think they know everything. Everything is economics. They're completely unaware of their own assumptions. Summers was one of those, I'll admit that. But surely that's not what got him fired.

posted by: Sophisticated lady on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

Summers alienated lots of people who mattered. The "pc" issues were, I don't doubt, important in limiting his room to manuever, but it seems as if battles over turf, priorities, and resources have more to do with this story than anything else.

posted by: Dan Nexon on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

Reinventing Russia was never going to be easy, but Harvard botched a historic opportunity. The failure to reform Russia's legal system, one of the aid program's chief goals, left a vacuum that has yet to be filled and impedes the country's ability to confront economic and financial challenges today....

What nonsense. As if it was ever up to "Harvard" to reconstitute the entire legal system of a nation of 145 million people! Since when was Harvard, or USAID or any other foreign entity of any size, given the mandate to build from scatch a new Russian society and political economy? By whom? Not by any Russians. Certainly not by the Russian state. Only people with the unique combination of American naivete and arrogance could ever have assumed that a great, large, complex nation such as Russia would hand over its future to little Andryusha from Cambridge MA and his wife.

And only someone with no acquaintance with the Russian capital markets could understand how utterly trivial, in the context of the extraordinary fraud being committed daily across all levels of the Russian state, was Shleifer's wrongdoing. The entire GKO market was a sham, a colossal game of arbitrage the (failing) Russian state.

Add to the utter silliness of this article the complete insignifcance of the fund in question. Anyone who worked in Moscow financial markets in the late 1990s knew that Beth Hebert and Pallada were a joke: tiny players in what was itself a tiny market. This passage made me laugh out loud:

Hay and Hebert's relationship blurred the line between personal and professional. He let her use his AID-financed car and driver and sank $20,000 into the Fleming Russia Securities Fund, which she managed

$20,000, boys and girls! A outrage, I tellya. And he drove Bethie's car!

posted by: thibaud on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

I missed the title of the piece: "How Harvard Lost Russia". Is this author a comedian in disguise? It was always a completely asinine charge that America or the Clinton administration "lost" Russia, but Harvard?! Pu-leeze. I liked Institutional Investor better when they were simply handing out awards to equity analysts. Investigative reporting's obviously not their forte.

posted by: thibaud on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

Here in Cambridge, the word on the street from people who worked with & around Summers is that he was socially inept. Apparantly he would routinely say the most caustic & offensive things to people, and lacked common sense about interacting with others. One observer even suggested to me that Summers might have a personally disorder or even be mildly autistic. Note that these comments were from people who supported his policies & vision 100%. Not sure what to think of it all, but this is what's going 'round town in Cambridge.

posted by: jprime314 on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

I combed through that endless piece searching for Larry Summer's damning involvement in a scandal which happened before he took office.

All I learned is that Summers warned a former protege of his (Shleifer, a tenured Harvard economics) professor) to mind his legal and ethical status. Later, as President of Harvard, Summers may have asked a Dean to 'make sure' that Shleifer stayed at Harvard at a time when another university was pursuing Shleifer. Apparently Summers regards Shleifer as 'brilliant' and did not wish Harvard to lose him. That sounds very much like Summers, who tends to leave legal issues to the lawyers. The man is brilliant but no polymath or Washington sophisticate.

Apart from that Summer's major failing seems to have been not invoking an obscure and abtruse set of rules to remove Shleifer from the tenured faculty of Harvard.

"Dismissing or forcing the resignation of a tenured professor at Harvard is very rare, but it can be done under the so-called Statutes of Harvard University, the school's venerable governing tenets, originating in 1650, 14 years after Harvard's founding. The Third Statute provides for dismissal for ". . . grave misconduct or neglect of duty . . ." The procedure, which is called "invoking the Third Statute," is so rare that few at Harvard have even heard of it."

When I read this for some reason it reminded me of Professor Ward Churchill of Colorado. Professor Churchill could not be dismissed from his tenured post even though he had misrepresented significant portions of his personla record which caused him to be offered tenure!

I also think poor Larry Summers is damned both ways. Does anyone really believe that instituting legal procedures to fire a tenured faculty member would have somehow endeared him to the faculty body which ended up 'firing' him?!!!!

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

Peter Beinart gives Harvard a failing grade in The New Republic. Beinart says that the problem was summers attempted reform of the undergraduate curriculum - the tenured undergrad
faculty doesn't wish to teach large survey courses.

Students at Harvard often graduate without the kind of core knowledge that you'd expect from a good high school student. Instead, they meet Harvard's curricular requirements with a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all. Summers wanted to change that, perhaps by making students take overview courses that gave them a general introduction to different disciplines. The problem is that those are exactly the kinds of courses Harvard professors don't want to teach. Most professors are specialists. They want to delve ever more deeply into their particular research areas. The more their teaching tracks that research, the easier their lives are. So they offer classes on obscure micro-topics. The last thing they want is to bone up on introductory material they forgot in graduate school.

I don't know whater it's true but this makes a lot of sense to me. It also makes me wonder whether I wasn't very fortunate in attending a less-regarded college where undergraduate teaching was regarded as the core mission? Any comments from faculty lurkers here? Do tenured faculty have an obligation to provide good teaching tailored to the undergraduate student's needs? Ought they be obliged to teach these survey courses?

posted by: Don Stadler on 02.24.06 at 12:14 AM [permalink]

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