March 8, 2005
Re: A Summers Affair
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
So much ink has been spilled over the Larry Summers situation that one may well wonder whether there is anything to be said that has not been said already or has been said but little. Yet, this writer thinks there may be some additional points that have not been made publicly or have been mentioned infrequently in public.
Let me begin with a comment that this writer would have made only obliquely as recently as a week ago, because it would have stamped one as odd-man-out, as entertaining a view that is bizarre. But recently I read the very point, or something so close to it as to be indistinguishable, in an article by Stanley Fish in The Chronicle of Higher Education. So if the view to be expressed here is bizarre, at least one is in high falutin’ company.
The point in mind is the question of whether Larry Summers has sufficient acumen, sufficient intelligence, to be the President of Harvard. On its face this seems like a crazed question, does it not? After all, Summers is widely regarded as something akin to a genius. Robert Rubin has called him the smartest person he knows. Other people say he is often the smartest guy in the room. He is said to have been one of the youngest professors ever to receive tenure at Harvard. He was at the middle of (complex) international economic bailouts. How could this guy not be smart enough to be President of Harvard? (Or of the United States, for that matter, as examples show.)
Fish, however, seems to have his doubts, as strikingly indicated by a couple of acerbic comments in his article. He quoted one of the organizers of the conference (a Harvard professor) as saying, among other things, that Summers had not been invited as the President of Harvard, but rather "‘We invited him because he has an extremely powerful and interesting mind.’" Then Fish said this about the professor’s full statement: "There are so many things wrong with those statements that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, Summers’ powerful and interesting mind must have been taking a day off." This last sentence, funny and sarcastic though it is, and perhaps because it is sarcastic, would not seem to indicate a high regard for Summers’ acumen. This is only the truer because Fish then spends hundreds of words explaining numerous reasons, including ones apparently unappreciated by Summers, as to why, as President of Harvard, Summers "is no more free to pop off at the mouth about a vexed academic question than George Bush is free to wander around the country dropping off-the-cuff remarks about Social Security or Islam." I do not agree with everything Fish said in fleshing out his argument, but it does seem clear that his argument, with its explicit and implicit criticism of Summers, indicates that he does not have a terribly high regard for Summers’ acumen.
This point is again borne in on one in the last paragraph of Fish’s article. In that paragraph Fish levels a string of (quite funny) jabs at Summers (he "makes Prince Harry of England . . . seem sensitive and sophisticated," he "makes the proverbial bull in the china shop seem like Nijinsky," he "cannot be trusted to go out into the world without a keeper"). In the midst of all this Fish says, "Does Harvard want a president who, despite the reputation for being brilliant (where’s the beef?) acts as if he were the leader of the Know Nothing Party?" "[W]here’s the beef?" With regard to Summers’ reputation for brilliance, "where’s the beef"? "Where’s the beef" is a phrase which has come to mean there’s little or nothing there (or, as in Gertrude Stein’s statement about Oakland, "there’s no there there"). "[A]s if he were the leader of the Know Nothing Party"? -- the short-lived 1850s political party that is historically infamous for nativism, intolerance, and, if memory serves, ignorance? Wow! "Where’s the beef" and "leader of the Know Nothing Party" are strong stuff. At minimum they seem to indicate that Fish has some qualms about Summers’ acumen.
(One suspects that much of Fish’s criticism of Summers could be thought to relate to what is now called emotional intelligence, rather than intellectual intelligence. But in truth I wonder whether there always is a rigid separation between the two, and tend to doubt a universal separation, since it would seem that a person of reasonable intellect could understand that his or her speech and conduct goes over like a lead balloon. We no longer believe in a rigid separation of mind and body, do we? So why should we believe there is always a rigid separation of different kinds of intelligence?)
In any event, Fish’s questioning of Summers’ acumen emboldens a perhaps less confident writer to put the same issue more directly than he otherwise would. What will be said here comes at it from an entirely different angle than Fish does, however. It is, moreover, very surprising that there seems to have been almost no comment whatever about the matters that are bothering me. One Harvard professor (and Summers opponent) is the only person from whom I have seen so much as a single quote about a single aspect of the matter. Of course, it is entirely possible that others have remarked on it publicly and this blogger simply failed to see their remarks.
When Summers began his speech at the NBER Conference, he said "I’m going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem [of diversity in science and engineering], or of the challenge we’re discussing, which is the issue of women’s representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, not because that’s necessarily the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but because it’s the only one of these problems that I’ve made an effort to think in a very serious way about." (Emphasis added.) He then went on to make a second prefatory remark, which one must quote, despite its great length, lest paraphrase of a long comment inadvertently create error:
The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality. It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it's important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.
There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the -- I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are -- the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.
Let us now discuss these various prefatory remarks. We shall put aside his comment that the issue of tenured women in science and engineering at top institutions is not necessarily the most important or interesting problem. Summers’ mode of expression here certainly does seem to downplay, or downgrade, the issue, but I gather it is also true that there is a serious, lamentable shortage of minorities in science and engineering. The latter shortage might be regarded by Summers as of at least equal or greater importance and interest. If he thinks this, one might forgivably pass over his infelicitous mode of expression -- although, on the other hand, maybe the infelicity is the first of several tipoffs on where he really stands, a subject to be returned to later.
But then he continues by saying that the reason he will discuss the question of women in science and engineering is "because it’s the only one of these problems that I’ve made an effort to think in a very serious way about." He has made an effort to think about this in a serious way? Then how is it, especially if he is so brilliant, that he seemed so deficient in understanding the effect that discrimination and socialization have had upon women who might otherwise have sought careers in science and engineering, and that discrimination has had as well even on women who nonetheless entered these fields? How is it that he seemed to lack appreciation of the very point in which commentator after commentator initially hammered him (until the talk turned to his style of management)? This is brilliance? If so, give me a dummy every time.
I shall return later to the question of Summers’ lack of understanding of the effect on women of discrimination and socialization. But let me now turn to his statement that he will not be judgmental, because women in science do not provide the only example of a group being underrepresented in an important activity. Rather, Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking, white men in the NBA, and Jews in farming and agriculture. This triple example of underrepresentation itself sets the stage for his claim that the shortage of women in science and engineering is due, first, to the requirements of high powered jobs (which he later says require 80 hours per week and undivided commitment), second, to lack of aptitude, and, third (in last place), socialization and discrimination.
His examples used to show that we should be non-judgmental because underrepresentation is common seem pretty strange in some ways, especially in view of his claim that aptitude is more important than socialization and discrimination. Start with Jews and farming. Do Jews lack aptitude for farming? Even Summers -- maybe especially Summers, who has been on kibbutzim -- should know that in Israel the Jews made the desert bloom as the saying goes. In America, Jews are not widely thought of as farmers, and it is widely thought that this is extensively a carry-over, a hand-me-down as it were, from their hundreds of years in eastern and central Europe, where they were widely denied the right to own land. (Even so, however, there were Jews who farmed or engaged in husbandry in New Jersey, were there not? I’ve also been told, though I can’t vouch for it, that in one of the old countries, Bulgaria, there were a lot of Jewish farmers.)
Israel is, of course, the big example, the outstanding example, of Jewish farming and agriculture. Israel is the outstanding example that it is not lack of aptitude, but far more likely the socialization forced on them in Europe, that causes there to be possible underrepresentation of Jews in agricultural America. Given what has been done in Israel, is it brilliant -- is it even sensible -- for Summers to claim that underrepresentation of Jews in farming and agriculture in the U.S. is a basis for urging that we should not be judgmental about underrepresentation of women in science and engineering because such underrepresentation is more attributable to lack of aptitude than to socialization and discrimination? The question answers itself, does it not?
Now let’s turn to the claimed substantial underrepresentation of Catholics in investment banking. Is this claim even true? Summers offered no evidence for it, saying only that he was confident the data would show it. This writer doesn’t know whether the claim is true or not, and can offer only that a lot of Wall Street names seem to be Irish or Italian in origin, and books one reads by Irish American or Italian American authors who grew up in New York seem to talk of buddies and acquaintances who went to work on Wall street because that’s where the money was. Italian Americans mainly have been Catholic, of course, and this is also true of many -- one would even guess a majority -- of Irish Americans, although there also are Protestant Irish Americans who are descendants of the Irish who came to America early-on, in the 1700s rather than the 1800s. But, notwithstanding names, without data one really doesn’t know whether Catholics are or are not "substantially underrepresented" in investment banking, and, as said, Summers offered no data.
Perhaps, then, one might echo back to Summers a comment he made to a member of the audience at the conference who said -- one gets the sense from the transcript that this person dared to say -- that there were "a lot of people in the room" who are experts on the issue of women’s underrepresentation, many in the room "would disagree with your hypotheses and premises," and there is evidence in support of their position. Summers replied by saying, among other things that read harshly in transcript (and to which I shall return), that, "I don’t presume to have proved any view that I expressed here, but if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I’d want you to be hesitant about that." Perhaps, in the absence of any offer of proof whatever, Summers himself should have been "hesitant about that" before saying that Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking. Maybe he is right. But is he in fact? And if he’s not, or if he doesn’t have the proof of his claim ready at hand, is it brilliant, is it even sound, to offer a supposed underrepresentation of Catholics in investment banking as a reason not to be judgmental about the dearth of women in science and engineering? What’s more, if Summers is right about the supposed underrepresentation, is the dearth due to 80 hour weeks or lack of aptitude, as opposed to socialization and discrimination? Why do I doubt that the answer to this question is yes?
And then there is the question of white men in the NBA. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the NBA (although it is also the case that great white ballplayers from foreign countries are now making some inroads). Yet the example is sort of odd nevertheless. For is it not true that discrimination kept blacks pretty much out of the NBA until this began to change in the late 1950s and 1960s, in the days of Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and other great black players? There were great black basketball players and teams before the late 1950s, you know, viz. the Harlem Rens of the earlier part of the 20th century, and the 1940s Harlem Globetrotters of Goose Tatum, Marquis Haynes, et. al., who in the 1940s twice beat the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers of George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelson and Slater Martin and, for all I know, may never have lost to the Lakers. Since blacks were kept out of the NBA by discrimination, it is a bit strange to use their present dominance as an example for saying we need not be judgmental about women’s underrepresentation in science and discrimination because this is due more to 80 hour weeks and lack of aptitude than to discrimination and socialization. Were blacks kept out of the NBA because of 80 hour work weeks and lack of aptitude? It is perhaps less than brilliant for Summers to have made the argument from the NBA.
Indeed, to make the argument from the NBA may even be the furthest remove from brilliant. As said, blacks are disproportionately represented in the NBA -- and in college basketball too -- and have been for decades now. They also are disproportionately represented in the NFL, and in college football too, and again have been for decades probably. They equally are disproportionately represented in boxing (as are Latinos too) and have been for perhaps 50 years. And why is all this so? It is generally believed to be due to the fact that so many other avenues have been closed to them. As the Irish, the Italians and the Jews once did in boxing, African Americans extensively turned to sports, including basketball, because the professions and business were so widely off limits to them. If one accepts this conventional wisdom -- and are there many who don’t? -- then it hardly seems logical to cite blacks’ disproportionate representation in the NBA as a reason for not being judgmental about women’s underrepresentation in science and engineering. For if one accepts the conventional wisdom that discriminatory exclusion elsewhere is significantly responsible for African American overrepresentation in basketball (as in football and boxing), then it is quite logical to think that, just as African Americans were excluded elsewhere by discrimination and therefore turned to sports, so too women may have been excluded from science, engineering and other fields by discrimination and therefore turned to other endeavors. This all seems pretty simple, does it not?
Let me turn now to a wholly different question than that of Summers’ trumpeted brilliance. Let me turn to the question of did Summers really believe what he was saying when he ranked discrimination and socialization as the least of his three reasons for the dearth of women in science and engineering - - when he ranked it behind supposed lack of aptitude in particular. (Notice that I said the question is did he believe this, not does he believe it now. One gathers from his incessant apologies that the Dresden-like firestorm he created may have caused him to now rank his hypothetical causes in a different order, or at least to say he now appreciates more greatly the effect on women of socialization and discrimination.)
One cannot, of course, know what Summers really thought without being able to look into his mind, which obviously cannot be done. But judging from the transcript of his remarks, this writer’s guess is that he really did believe what he was saying, as indicated when he followed the initial statement of his three hypotheses with the sentence, "And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order I just described." It was further indicated, on should say, (1) by his later statements that (fairly extensively) deprecate the effects of socialization, especially because, he says, empirical psychology has been finding, in the last 15 years, that things widely attributed to socialization are not in fact attributable to it, and (2) that if there really were discrimination, some schools would seize on that defect to build a great faculty by making life extremely comfortable for and hiring large numbers of highly talented women -- a phenomenon, he says, of which he sees little evidence.
True, Summers also put in "grace notes," saying that perhaps his views were not right, that he was simply giving his best guess, that he was making his statements merely to provoke, that he would like to be proven wrong, and that we need evidence about this, that and the other in order to know. And his supporters have used his statements that he was merely seeking to provoke -- have seized upon these statements might be a more accurate way to put it -- to argue that Summers did not really mean what he was saying, but was just saying it to get people thinking. To which my response is, "bushwa." Reading the transcript creates the powerful impression, at least in this writer’s mind, that Summers believed in what he was saying and was putting forth argument after argument for it, but was also trying to some extent to draw the sting, as lawyers say, by putting in the grace notes that he was only giving best guesses, was only trying to provoke, etc. One can be fairly sure, moreover, that in the context of only 4 of 34 of Harvard’s most recent offers of tenure going to women, there surely must be those who are positive he meant what he was saying: indeed, one Harvard student was quoted as saying something to the effect that, in the context of 4 of 34, Summers’ statements were not some mere neutral proposition. ( It is irresistible, though not exactly logically related to the present point, to add that another Harvard student was quoted as saying, very trenchantly, that Summers would not have dared to make similar remarks about any other minority. The student was plainly correct - - can you just imagine what would have happened if Summers had made identical remarks about African Americans? Oh boy! He would have been out on his derriere in approximately three minutes. Yet he felt safe - - wrongly felt safe - - in making the remarks about women.)
Regardless of whether Summers actually believed what he was saying, however, a certain irony arises when one considers Summers’ own background. For in his remarks Summers seemed oblivious to the effects of socialization on his own views and, maddeningly, inherently dismissive, unaware or uncaring about the advantages socialization has given to him, even as he ranked adverse socialization and discrimination as the least important of his three hypotheses about women in science and engineering. To be sure, he did mention certain influences on him that could be thought of as socialization (this shall be discussed below). But he did not seem to recognize that these influences were a form of socialization. Nor did he display any comprehension whatever that influences he did not mention -- the influences of family, career and background -- are also forms of socialization and must have had a favorable effect for him or everything we have been learning about these matters for decades is wrong.
Saying that he would "broaden the problem, or the issue, beyond science and engineering," Summers then said "I’ve had the opportunity to discuss questions like this with chief executive officers at major corporations, the managing partners of large law firms, the directors of prominent teaching hospitals, and with the leaders of other prominent professional service organizations, as well as with colleagues in higher education. In all of those groups, the story is fundamentally the same." That story is that women who have been in the field for 20 or 25 years are not rising to the highest ranking levels proportionately to men, which Summers attributes to the fact that women are less willing to make the required "near total commitments to their work." It strikes me, however, that talking about the problem with "chief executive officers at major corporations, the managing partners of large law firms, the directors of prominent teaching hospitals, and with the leaders of other prominent professional service organizations" is itself a form of socialization. Maybe these people’s opinions are not only as Summers’ represents, but are right. But maybe they are not right, or are only half the story. Those people, after all, like anyone or any group, have their prejudices, often borne of their own personal methods and experience. Summers does not say he talked to any of the women who opted out of the race to the top, in order to get their views of why they did so. If he had spoken with them, maybe he would have gotten a very different take on the matter than the take provided by the hotshots with whom he associates. Maybe, as this writer often reads or hears, he would have learned of insults directed at women, of shabby and unfair treatment of them, of unjustifiable discrepancies in compensation and opportunities. Maybe he would have gotten a very different socialization. Who knows? But it is a thought, especially since so many women proclaim it (as do minorities as well, quite often). Yet Summers, who later tells us that research to a fare thee well is needed in order to know what the situation really is and what should be done -- research which would probably consume years and would cause just as much delay before there is improvement -- does not even indicate that he has spoken to the possible victims as well as the possible head perpetrators.
There is irony in the dichotomy, of course. But there is also additional irony here. If memory serves -- I’m not positive it does, but think it does -- Summers was defended by a fellow Harvard economist on the ground that his calls for extensive, time consuming research simply reflect the economist’s supposed desire for facts, for evidence. Yet, if there is one academic discipline which has become infamous in the last 50 years or so for using, relying on, praising and rewarding the creators of abstract mathematical models divorced from reality -- i.e., abstract models unfettered by real world facts or evidence -- it is the discipline of academic economics. The advent of the field of behavioral economics is only a relatively recent and quite welcome exception to this tired, rather preposterous abstract paradigm. Behavioral economics looks at what people really do instead of relying on a ridiculous classical economics paradigm of the supposedly perfectly rational man or woman who always acts in a way that optimizes his or her economic self interest -- the very paradigm which would likely account for Summers’ claim that, if women really had the same aptitude for science and engineering as men, we would be seeing schools snapping up and giving wonderful treatment to women scientists and engineers in order to greatly increase the quality of those same schools, in order to make the schools leaders in their fields. I would suspect Summers’ opponents would agree that the reason this rational economic actor paradigm propounded by Summers doesn’t work in the real world is that real world discrimination gets in the way of abstract models of perfection. Moreover, it would be contrary to the economic interest of men -- who do have some say in the matter, after all -- to see opportunities for their sex increasingly replaced by opportunities for women.
By the way, one wonders what would happen if Summers, who seems not to have talked to women about their reasons for quitting the race to the top, were to say that, after talking to his collection of CEOs, managing partners, etc., he believes the reason for the disproportionately low numbers of blacks at the top levels of our prominent institutions is that African Americans don’t want to put in the time it takes, or that they don’t have the aptitude, or that we need a zillion different kinds of years-consuming research before we really know what the situation is or what we should do about it. If he said such things with regard to African Americans, would he have lasted another ten seconds as President of Harvard? But, again, he somehow felt safe in saying them about women. No longer, I suspect.
Then there is the matter of Summers’ own background, which is a major part of anyone’s socialization. If one is the son of a family whose background does not enable it to give the children the knowledge, social skills, habits, or other preparation needed to rise in American society -- if, for example, one is the son or daughter of immigrant Greek, Italian, Mexican, Hispanic, Russian Jewish, Chinese, Korean or other families new to America, or if one is the son of a family that for generations has been in the working class, or is the son of poor African Americans -- then one may understand what it is to be socialized in a way that seriously injures or even cripples your ability to rise high on the American ladder. On the other side of the picture, of course, are those who are in some way to the manor born, because of advantages of money, education, social standing or some combination of these. At least on the face of matters, Summers had helpful advantages. He became, of course, an economist. Well, his mother was an economist, his father was an economist, one uncle, Paul Samuelson, is a very famous, Nobel prize winning economist, another uncle, Kenneth Arrow is a prodigiously talented and famous Nobel prize winning economist. Summers went to MIT as an undergraduate. He went to Harvard for graduate school. He was one of the youngest tenured professors ever at Harvard. There are lots of advantages there for someone who grows up to be an economist, and the only serious professional "setback" Summers seems to have suffered is that, ironically, he apparently was not admitted to Harvard for undergraduate school, so had to "settle" for MIT (where his famous Uncle Paul taught economics).
Summers’ background then, is not exactly that of a kid who started with the disadvantages of poverty, of lack of education, of not knowing how America works, or of families and friends saying you should not aim high because "our kind of people" are denied those kinds of jobs and are considered fit only for other kinds of jobs, for "lesser" jobs. Yet this fellow who has had so many advantages presumes to tell women -- who have been exposed to socialization that harms or cripples their chances in science and engineering -- that their failure to make inroads into those fields is due not to socialization, but more to lack of aptitude and unwillingness to make the necessary commitment. Looked at this way, one might aptly say that he has a lot of nerve, or maybe that he doesn’t even realize that he has had advantages denied to so many others, including women, or maybe that he has no empathy whatever despite all the (phony, I think) grace notes in his talk.
It is interesting, is it not, that the overall argument Summers makes -- that for various reasons women are not suited for the top jobs in what he calls the high powered professions -- is the same kind of claim that was made forty and fifty years ago to keep women out of those professions entirely. Harvard’s law school would not admit them at all, or certainly not in numbers; there is a legendary story about this involving Dean Erwin Griswold and, I believe, a future Supreme Court Justice (or "Justicess"). Women couldn’t get into medical schools, either. Harvard also took the lead, in 1971, in successfully lobbying Congress not to extend Title IX (which protects women against discrimination) to undergraduate admissions in private colleges. And, beyond women, long before 50 years ago, in the 1920s, Harvard and other Ivies took the lead in keeping Jews out of their undergraduate institutions, as well as professional schools. As for African Americans, don’t even ask. In all these instances it was said that, for one reason or another, the excluded were unfit. The only difference between those days and Summers’ position is that he gives different reasons for supposed unfitness.
There is yet another aspect of socialization involved here. Summers speaks of women in science and engineering at "top universities," at the "top 25 research universit[ies]," at the "top ten schools." It is obvious that Summers -- like so many others at Harvard, at the other Ivies, at Chicago, etc., etc. -- is an elitist. Top people in science and engineering -- and in law, and in English, and in any other subject you care to mention -- are at Harvard, Yale, some other Ivies, plus some other non-Ivy hotshot institutions around the country like Stanford, California, Chicago, MIT, CIT, etc. As for people elsewhere, they are just so much chopped liver. This is a prevailing attitude which has been bought into by most of academia, including, to my everlasting surprise, those academics who are the chopped liver, and by parents all over the country who are desperate to get children into a "top ten" school lest the kids become societal chopped liver.
It is hardly surprising, of course, that Summers obviously is an elitist. His socialization almost compels it. What different attitude, after all, what different form of socialization, could be expected from someone with his parents, his uncles, his undergraduate institution, his graduate institution, his professional jobs, his current position? For present purposes, however, the relevant point is not simply that he obviously is an elitist, but that it is only a short and often readily traversed step from elitism to a blithe willingness to downgrade the abilities of other people or groups. True, lots of Summers’ colleagues, at Harvard and elsewhere don’t take that step with regard to women and minorities, but instead believe women and minorities have the ability to enter the elitist tent. But this does not alter the fact that people like Summers do make the short, easy traverse from elitism to downgrading.
There is still one more aspect of the whole Summers affair that fascinates me. It is not an intellectual one. It is, rather, one that intersects personality and socialization.
The Summers affairs began as an upheaval over his views on women in science and engineering. But it then turned into a battle over his "style," so to speak. His detractors describe him as a kind of bully in his personal interactions with people. He is said to use an intimidating style. Opponents accuse him of being secretive, of being dishonest and manipulative, of seeking, contrary to Harvard’s longstanding ethos, to centralize power, of being autocratic, of engaging in hype and in grandiose schemes. It is said that, when he was new in government, he would roll his eyes at and belittle people’s comments. Even his supporters and friends, while praising his vision and intelligence, and saying he is very open-minded, concede that his style is confrontational. Apparently, this is sometimes thought to be because, his style, it is said, is Socratic, is a style of challenge.
This blogger has no personal, first-hand experience with Summers. Yet it is also true that, even in one of his answers to a question at the NBER Conference, Summers’ appeared to me -- even on a black and white transcript -- to be intimidating, bullying. Here is a fuller transcription of his tete-a-tete with the questioner:
Q: So it’s not so clear.
LHS: It’s not clear at all. I think I said it wasn’t clear. I was giving you my best guess but I hope we could argue on the basis of as much evidence as we can marshal.
Q; It’s here.
LHS: No, no, no. Let me say. I have actually read that and I’m not saying there aren’t rooms to debate this in, but if somebody, but with the greatest respect -- I think there’s an enormous amount one can learn from the papers in this conference and from those two books -- but if somebody thinks that there is proof in these two books, that these phenomenon are caused by something else, I guess I would very respectfully have to disagree very very strongly with that. I don’t presume to have proved any view that I expressed here, but if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I’d want you to be hesitant about that.
Now, as a lawyer for forty-plus years in the academic world and the world of Washington, D.C., and having been exposed as well to the Manhattan legal world, this blogger has often seen personalties that fit the adverse descriptions applied to Summers. That kind of personality is reasonably typical of elements of the legal and political worlds. The only difference between those people and Summers is that they are lawyers and politicians and he is an economist, and they would not use an intellectualized phrase such as "I’d want you to be hesitant about that." Beyond this, the legal and political worlds of Washington, D.C. -- and large elements of the academic world too -- are dishonest, manipulative, bullying, and seek to centralize power in themselves. In part -- even in major part -- the people who typify these worlds get what they want by means of personalities that run roughshod over others. Now, Summers has lived in and succeeded mightily in worlds where these kinds of things are, shall we say, not rare. Conceivably part of his success could even be due to the fact that he too has a personality that bullies, confronts, runs roughshod. Not many people stand up to those kinds of personalities.
One rather imagines that most of the people on the Harvard faculty are not used to having to deal with this kind of personality -- at least most of the people on the undergraduate faculty, which has been the major or sole scene of the uproar, are not used to it. And, frankly speaking, nobody should ever have to get used to it. To say this is not to hold a brief for the excessive talk-things-to-death, lack-of-action-or-accomplishment, non-teamwork, highly egotistical every-man-for-himself nature of most academic life. To some extent, even to a major extent, Summers seems to me to be right in what he apparently meant when he once wrote that a university cannot be run like a kibbutz. But to believe this is not to also believe in the arbitrary, secretive exercise of power (which the Harvard Corporation too has recently been accused of), in manipulating, or in a bullying, intimidating persona. My own guess -- and of course it is only a guess -- is that the kind of persona which did Summers no permanent if any harm in some of the worlds he moved in previously with great success, and which could even have helped him there because bullying unfortunately tends to work in those worlds, in fact extensively tends to work there, may now have rebounded upon him with a vengeance because the unfortunate persona has truly infuriated lots of smart people at Harvard. What may work in Washington will not necessarily work in Cambridge.
Which leads to the question, of course, of whether Summers will change. He has repeatedly insisted of late that he will change in his relations with the Harvard faculty. But whether this will in fact occur remains to be seen. As one of his (female) opponents said to the press, it is pretty hard for a person to change his personality. Particularly when he is in his 50s, one would guess. A super bright friend of mine who lives and has been a huge success in California once said, when we were only about 23 or 24, that it is frightening to think that nobody we knew had changed since we were 15. To change when one is already over 50, and at that age to shed a (crocodile) skin which (apparently) has stood one in good stead for decades, cannot be the easiest thing in the world to do, although one would not say it positively cannot be done. No doubt Summers’ intentions are good: no doubt he meant what he said when he pledged to change. But whether this can actually be accomplished, whether Summers really can succeed in doing it, is still a question. It will be answered only by time.*
*This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at email@example.com. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.