Sunday, March 05, 2006

Summers Situation Close to a Former College President's Heart

My alma mater's former president has an interesting and personal response in today's Boston Globe to Larry Summers's trials and tribulations at Harvard. John Silber, Boston University's former president, says it's a shame the Harvard Corporation stopped backing Summers and argues that it will be tough for the country's top university to hire a new president with any backbone, after seeing what happened to the former labor secretary.

That is all pretty ironic coming from Silber's mouth, considering that there were similar fears after things his hand-picked Board of Trustees did at BU two years ago. But to a certain extent, Silber makes sense. Summers, who was criticized for his management style and insensitive comments about women's abilities to be top engineers last year, certainly did try to shake things up at Harvard, and it's easy to see that the most recent hullabaloo was in part a struggle on the Facutly of Arts and Sciences' part for power. It's hard to blame Summers for trying to bring Harvard into the 21st century and make it a more student-centered institution.

Silber's story is fairly similar, though at an institution that had a lot more room for growth at the time he took over. After his inauguration in 1971, Silber was not afraid to ruffle feathers in his quest to improve BU from commuter-school mediocrity to national respect. He was in large part successful, bringing in great scholars throughout the university, building the endowment and broadening its appeal to students across the country. He was certainly over the top at times (and made his share of insensitive comments), and it's easy to question the motives of someone like him or Summers (ego often plays a big role), but it is tough to argue with the results 35 years later.

Silber argues in the Globe that the Harvard Corporation should have defended Summers, despite his lack of popularity among a large segment of Harvard's faculty. Indeed, if the board was truly interested in keeping the university fresh and prepared for a century of tough competition with an ever-increasing group of great universities, Silber is right.


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