- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005


by Richard Bradley

HarperCollins, $25.95,

375 pages



Since conservatives are now happily embracing Harvard’s Larry Summers and Harvard’s faculty is busily rejecting him in official votes, they might want to know a little more about him. If they look into his seeming metamorphosis from establishment Democrat to scourge of the Ivy League, they will discover there hasn’t been much of a change at all. In fact, they’ll find that Mr. Summers has always been the same combative and vigorous rationalist he was as a young economist and bureaucratic brawler in Washington.

To the glee of conservatives, those qualities are fast making him a straight-talking antidote to higher-education political correctness. But there’s more than a political showdown series between Mr. Summers and academia’s Cornel Wests here. Mr. Summers’s real significance has less to do with politics of any stripe, liberal or conservative, than it does with how the modern university is adapting itself to new opportunities for power and self-advancement.

Larry Summers is speeding higher education’s transformation into a place where money and technology matter most. And that means mixed things. On the one hand, it can mean more resources and opportunity for everyone. But it can also mean that the idea of the university as a place for inquiry for its own sake must now compete with other ideas of what the university should be.

To judge by “Harvard Rules,” an unauthorized biography of Larry Summers masquerading as a Harvard treatise, Richard Bradley recognizes this, although his book doesn’t delve deeply into it. Mr. Bradley, it’s worth mentioning, is the old Richard Blow of George magazine, the stealth biographer of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who disavowed a confidentiality agreement to write that book and was roundly excoriated for it in New York publishing circles.

He has since changed his name from Blow to Bradley, but denies doing it to deflect ire. As he explained to the New York Times in February, “When you introduce yourself as Richard Blow, people have a reaction that they can’t help.” Whatever the reason, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Bradley seems better suited for a gossip column than a treatise on higher education. Still, Mr. Bradley is the only biographer of Larry Summers around, and he timed this first hack at Mr. Summers perfectly.

The book has many flaws, not least of which are a flatteringly biased portrait of Cornel West, fawning passages on Mr. Summers’s enemies on the faculty and a surfeit of gossip and innuendo. For a sense of the latter, consider that Mr. Bradley can’t avoid recounting episodes in which Mr. Summers gags on meat and requires the Heimlich maneuver to eject it and slops pizza on his shirt in front of apparently lily-fingered students. Without much basis, he asks whether Mr. Summers has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Mr. Summers’s press secretary has justifiably called this “sensationalist gossip.”

Despite that, Mr. Bradley gets much of the essence right. The picture he haphazardly pieces together is of an economist first, a do-gooder economic determinist second and a relisher of bureaucratic politicking third. On the first, as Mr. Bradley shows, Larry Summers approaches the world as a confident rationalist and quantifier, and has seemingly little patience for those who aren’t.

Mr. Summers was born into a family of economists that included the Nobel laureates Ken Arrow and Paul Samuelson, and was a whiz with numbers and logic from an early age. Admitted to MIT in his junior year of high school — Harvard turned him down, in a turn of ironies — he excelled in statistics, showed little interest in history, literature and art, and ended up studying economics.

As one graduate-school classmate remarked, he was “by far the most technically brilliant” graduate student. As Mr. Summers himself would later explain his approach to the world: “I believe in trying to find the essence of issues, to probe different positions in a very strong way to discover the right approach.” To his critics, “very strong” was the operative phrase. “I’m sorry when that way of thinking gives offense,” he explained.

Mr. Summers is secondly a crusader against poverty and views the world through the prism of an economic determinist who believes the North-South divide is humanity’s greatest problem. “The reason I decided … to become an economist is that I wanted to work on solving what felt to me the most important problems in the world: poverty, unemployment, helping poor people,” he said in 2001. “But I knew that I didn’t want to just shout and rant about them… . I wanted to carefully study what worked and what didn’t work.” He took a leave from Harvard in 1991 to work at the World Bank and then moved to the Treasury Department, where he put those principles to work.

Mr. Summers the anti-poverty crusader is also a politico who relishes bureaucratic wrangling and institutional advancement. At some point during his stint at Treasury, Mr. Bradley explains, he fine-tuned his style and by Harvard had become a personal empire-builder of sorts, centralizing authority in the president’s office and reining in independent deans. The Harvard Corporation, the body that oversees the university, reportedly chose him as much for his fundraising acumen as anything else.

How does all this add up to a Harvard University president? Surely Mr. Summers is a man of great intellect, academic achievement and worldly success. He is an economist, a development expert and a empire-builder. Larry Summers is “the most outstanding of the major university presidents now on the scene,” Harvey Mansfield says. He’s probably correct on that account.

If he is, that says something about the state of higher education, because Mr. Summers lacks some important things, too. First off, he’s undoubtedly the first Harvard president to admit that he doesn’t read serious fiction. He never studied literature, art, language, history or philosophy.

If that seems unimportant, consider that Mr. Summers has said in so many words that his chief aim as president is to promote the sciences and make the university more “international.” As he explained it, he wants “to create a culture in which it is as embarrassing to not know the difference between a gene and a chromosome as to not know the names of five plays by Shakespeare.” That’s significant for its omissions: He didn’t say he wants to advance knowledge and education, for instance, only particular types of them.

Mr. Summers backs this up with money and resources. He announced last year Harvard would create a multimillion-dollar stem cell institute, even though such research is speculative and frought with ethical and legal problems. In fact, it’s probably not too much to call him a technocrat. He seems to view the university as a means toward social ends, not as a place of learning valuable in itself. Inevitably, this means other important things like educating students are falling even further by the wayside. The long-ailing Core Curriculum, for instance, purportedly the centerpiece of undergraduate education, was due for a thorough review under Mr. Summers. It has met with a lackluster effort, as Mr. Bradley shows. Even its authors have began to distance themselves from it.

Should he continue on his current path, Mr. Summers will continue to steamroll calcified Harvard lefties and give conservatives reason for glee. But he’ll also continue to change the university rapidly, and he won’t solve longstanding problems like declining standards in undergraduate education.

And that, in the end, is a mixed bag. It means more wealth, more technological advances and presumably more resources for everyone. But it could also mean stripping intellectual pursuits of their primacy of place.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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