22 Feb 2006

The Real Cause of Summers’ Ouster

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Boston Magazine attributes Summers’ demise to bad manners.

When visitors came to his office, Summers propped his feet up on a table, sometimes with his shoes off. He often appeared in public with a toothpick dangling from his mouth. He repeatedly mangled the names of people he was greeting or introducing. If someone said something he deemed uninteresting or foolish, he would conspicuously roll his eyes. Other times Summers would stare into space when being spoken to, as if no one else were in the room. “Larry’s always looking away,” says one junior professor. “At first you think he’s scanning the room for someone more important, but no, he’s just looking away.” And then there was the recurring problem of his eating and talking at the same time, during which Summers sometimes sprayed saliva on his audience….

The Harvard Crimson… repeatedly noted how Summers’s lack of social graces impeded his interaction with students and faculty. The new president’s manners, or lack thereof, were so widely discussed that student reporters were really just transcribing an omnipresent campus conversation.

Summers also had a bizarre habit of falling asleep in public. Eyewitnesses caught him dozing at a talk by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a lecture by United Nations head Kofi Annan, a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev in Sanders Theatre, a service at Harvard Hillel, and a festival celebrating cultural diversity.

When he was more engaged by speakers, Summers often acted derisively toward them. At one fall 2001 meeting with the law-school faculty, a female professor asked a question that Summers didn’t think much of. “That’s a stupid question,” he responded. Later that autumn, he brusquely terminated an interview with a female journalist from the Financial Times after a disagreement over whether his remarks were on or off the record. Just as they had at Treasury, his aides insisted that Summers’s style was typical of the intellectual free-for-all that characterized economics seminars and that people shouldn’t take it personally. Inevitably, they did.

So great was the bewilderment over Summers’s lack of social skills that some in the Harvard community wondered if there might be a clinical reason for his behavior: a neurobiological disorder called Asperger’s syndrome.

But today’s Wall Street Journal front page story hints that the Corporation really abandoned Summers because the Harvard president, already under fire from the left, failed to defend Harvard’s invaluable money management team, led by Jack R. Meyer, in a controversy last year when bolshies criticized their compensation:

According to people familiar with the situation, Mr. Summers also alienated Jack R. Meyer, who until last year was chief executive of Harvard Management Corp. The group oversees Harvard’s endowment and posted strong gains under Mr. Meyer’s tenure. He and about 29 others in the fixed-income group left the affiliate last year. Although it wasn’t the catalyst for his departure, Mr. Meyer was disappointed Mr. Summers didn’t stand up to alumni who criticized some employees’ pay, these people say. The controversy reached a head in 2003, when the top two HMC investment managers earned $35.1 million and $34.1 million, respectively.

Meyer’s mananagement team increased the portion of Harvard’s endowment they administered by an average of 16.1% per year over a decade, growing it by billions (from $4.8 to $22.6 billion over the period from 1990 to 2004), so Summers’ failure in this department was no simple symbolic culture wars’ defeat. Harvard stands to lose an incalculable amount of asset growth as the result of Summers’ cowed posture in response to personal damage sustained in previous quarrels with the left.

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Mark Zanger

Summers’ lack of social skills borders on the pathological, I can cite other examples. This really is a problem in a college president, a level of social ineptness that might be tolerable in a mathematics professor doesn’t cut it in a political job. Boston University had a far more controversial and anti-PC president, John Silber, who in more than 30 years avoided what happened to Summers last week, in which a dean appointed while Summers was president called Larry a liar on the front page of the leading local Daily. You can be a provocative leader and sometimes be inept, or sometimes be a weasel, but not both. Summers just wasn’t good enough at what he was doing, and his end has little to do with his rattling the PC people.

I think the WSJ is just beating a drum about the highly paid investment team. Harvard already has too much money and spends it badly. The clandestine assembly of a large tract of land across the river, including the land under parts of the Massachusetts Turnpike (presumably useful as air rights, since the state isn’t going to move the Turnpike) was a clever coup, but no one in the university really wants to move out of Cambridge and over there. Summers didn’t start the project, but bungled the announcement and the diplomacy of actually building and relocating the new campuses.

I also think you are way off on seeing Dershowitz as a leftist. He is an appellate attorney and thus sort of on the defense bar, but that’s the only association he has with anything left of center in a long time. His most obvious political credential, as a lay Jewish activist on behalf of Soviet dissenters like Sharansky and as an active Zionist, make him more like a Neo-Conservative than any brand of liberal or leftist. As early as 2002 he was writing in favor of pre-emptive strikes against potential nuclear powers in the Middle East — echte Bushism.

Dershowitz was a friend of Clinton, but Summers actually worked in the Clinton administration, albeit in the conservative and bipartisan treasury department under Robert Rubin.

The caretaker president of Harvard announced today is former president Derek Bok, a low-key and non-controversial sort who will let the real managers of Harvard regroup on the Allston project and give the overseers and trustees time to find someone more competant of whatever persuasion.

–Mark



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