Incisively, Larry Summers

Larry Summers, sardonic economist, former Treasury secretary, and short-time president of Harvard University, spoke at a meeting of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) on November 4. Summers lived up to his reputation of speaking bluntly—he even challenged the priorities of the organization that hosted him. At the same time, nearly every bold statement was balanced by a caveat, and his comments were sprinkled with words like “complicated” and “problematic.”

In a nutshell, Summers is not happy with a lot of things about academia but doesn’t always see ways to fix them.

ACTA’s annual gathering (called the Athena Roundtable), held in Washington, D.C., offered a full day of lively commentary, kicked off by Brown University emeritus historian Gordon Wood. His talk on the American Revolutionary underpinnings of the Civil War exemplifies the quality of thought and content that reformers at ACTA would like to see in college lectures.

But most of the conference was about explicit efforts to improve higher education. Several education innovators participated, including Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, but Summers was the rock star. As most people know, his tenure as president of Harvard from 2001 to 2006 was explosive—riddled by conflicts with faculty and ending with a crash-and-burn furor over speculative remarks he made about women’s abilities in science. He has seen higher education up close (at least its elite levels).

Rather than give a formal speech on Friday, Summers was interviewed by Washington Post higher education columnist Daniel de Vise.

Summers sees three main problems with academia today: its elevation of relativism (obliterating even the attempt at seeking truth—everything is “opinion”); the fact that universities are run “for the convenience of the providers” (the faculty); and the absence of mandatory retirement. He also noted, but not all that forcefully, that there is ideological imbalance, with a disproportionate share of faculty who are “less than wildly enthusiastic about capitalism.” 

Universities’ inability to require retirement seemed to bother Summers the most. He noted that there are excellent teachers in their seventies (who could be rehired under a mandatory-retirement regime), but the rule against mandatory retirement perpetuates the jobs of those who aren’t excellent as well. The average age of the faculty at Harvard is 58; he doesn’t think that is good when most students are in their 20s or younger. Furthermore, faculty can use their hiring power to control the nature of their department for the next thirty years.

“A virtually endless tenure is deeply toxic,” he said.

Journalist de Vise asked about grade inflation, which has been documented around the country, including at Harvard. Summers called it “problematic” and an “ethical issue.” When he became Harvard’s president, 90 percent of all Harvard students were graduating with honors—an extreme illustration of grade inflation. Summers reduced that to just over 50 percent, which he acknowledged is still high. He has yet to see an effective method of eliminating grade inflation.

On the other hand—and this is where Summers showed his iconoclasm—he was quick to contend that people today (including students) are smarter than they used to be. There has been a “general cognitive progress in society.” His evidence? Compare The Beverly Hillbillies, the most popular television show in the 1960s, with West Wing, the most popular show of the first decade of the 2000s. Q.E.D. (Beyond that, he didn’t elaborate.)

De Vise asked Summers about restoring the core curriculum, a fundamental issue for ACTA, the sponsoring organization. The goal of ACTA’s campaign is not to return to a sequence of courses in Western civilization (as some people define a “core curriculum”); rather, it is for colleges and universities to insist that students study certain basic subjects. Specifically, ACTA wants students to take freshman composition, a comprehensive literature course, three semesters of a foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics, and a natural or physical science course. (ACTA reports that fewer than 2 percent of the 1000-plus schools it surveyed require them all.)

Summers doesn’t agree with this schema. In his own case, he said, he would have been wasting his time to take three semesters of a foreign language, because he’s simply not good at foreign languages. And some students, he said, may not need college-level mathematics.

That doesn’t mean that Summers is happy with today’s curriculum at Harvard—or elsewhere. He said that it’s “hard to get a group of faculty to agree” on a set of core courses, so he offers a “more modest goal”—more courses like “the history of art,” rather than a course on “Matisse in the nineteenth century in Paris.” Faculty have become so specialized and have such control over the curriculum that they have discarded fundamental survey courses in favor of letting students choose among esoteric ones.

And even then, important topics are missing. Summers recalled a conversation in which he expressed frustration that Harvard didn’t offer a single course on the American Revolution. A colleague quickly responded that yes, there was such a course: The American, Guatemalan, and Haitian Revolutions in Comparative Perspective.

De Vise asked Summers about the overarching role of research versus teaching. Summers said that he has “scars to show” that he worked hard to bring faculty back into the classroom—a probable reference to his highly publicized efforts to get African-American studies professor Cornel West away from political campaigning and back on campus (West is now at Princeton). “I’m on your side,” Summers told de Vise. At the same time, he said, the physicist Niels Bohr probably served society better by spending most of his time researching, not teaching. And there are other examples, he said, at Harvard and other schools.

Furthermore, evaluating teaching is difficult. To illustrate his point, Summers referred to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Student evaluations can give a very good picture of teaching quality—as long as evaluations aren’t used to influence tenure or pay. Once they are, they become subject to gaming (that is, they influence what is being measured, as in the Heisenberg principle). Inevitably, faculty will “pander to the students,” whether by reducing the demands on the students or grading them more generously.

Yet, in spite of his criticisms, Summers did not come across as deeply disaffected with higher education. He was careful to point out at the beginning of the interview that higher education in the United States has “huge strengths.” He said that while the U.S. system of higher education seems “remarkably dysfunctional” to close observers, it has met the “test of attractiveness” by drawing students from around the world.