Lessons From Larry Summers

At Harvard, Summers possessed far less power than any CEO in America

By Warren Bennis

It would be a huge mistake to believe that the main reason for Harvard University President Larry Summers' downfall was Larry Summers. Nobody would question that he had his faults -- big ones, especially for a university president. His inability to subordinate his ego to the talents of others didn't help, nor did he seem to have the patience to develop and build coalitions that would support his noble and important educational goals, like improving undergraduate education, placing greater emphasis on math and the life sciences, and increasing direct faculty-student contacts. Summers had a great vision for Harvard that would likely have allowed it to thrive in a changing world. But what he never quite got is that leaders -- especially those who are change agents -- can only succeed when they have a reservoir of goodwill that allows them to convince followers that their fates are correlated.

Yet it wasn't Larry Summers' shortcomings that were at the center of his downfall. Some far more fundamental issues (pretty much obscured by the public's obsessive fascination with Summers' personality) were at work. And although these factors were just surfacing 35 years ago when I presided over the University of Cincinnati, I fear they will undermine future relationships between college presidents and all their stakeholders, especially faculty and students.

First, running a major research university today is far more complex and demanding than running any large, global corporation. And make no mistake, that's what Harvard or USC or NYU are: huge, global operations with bad parking. But there is no institution more vulnerable to, and hence more dependent on, external forces than the American university. One major reason is that such schools are not self-supporting. Tuition pays only a small percentage of the costs of running a university; most of the rest comes from alumni, foundations, sponsored research, or, in some cases, the state. The lulling image of the university as a bucolic outpost of learning both removed and somewhat "above" the outside society that nourishes it is not only outdated but, if believed and acted on, will actually bring about the university's decline or destruction.

Even worse, university leaders possess far less power than any CEO I know. While campuses aren't exactly parliamentary democracies, they do have often-strident faculties -- with tenure -- who have a redoubtable habit of speaking out and up. They are also often extraordinarily talented, self-absorbed "abdicrats" who don't want to lead -- and don't want to be led. The Harvard faculty prayer, it is said, goes like this: "Dear Lord, deliver us from the heinous sin of intellectual arrogance...which for your information, means..."

One analyst even likened the job of university president to that of a pro hockey referee, and he's not far off the mark. The work is rough, physically exhausting, even dangerous. Presidents may lose fewer teeth than hockey officials, but they still have a startling number of stress-related problems. In the old days, skeptics like Thorstein Veblen referred to university administrators as "Captains of Erudition." Today a more fitting title would be "Captives of Constituencies."

So, unlike autocratic CEOs of yore, the would-be Larry Summerses of today's academic world face the near-impossible task of forming and managing coalitions. That's no easy feat when you consider the often warring factions within indvidiual constituencies. Indeed, the primary supporters of Summers were the students (only 19% were in favor of his resignation) and most of the faculty associated with the life and natural sciences. Meanwhile, with some important exceptions, the faculty most opposed to Summers and who initiated the votes of "no confidence" that eroded his leadership, are associated with the softer sciences (like sociology and gender studies) and the humanities. That's understandable since both undergraduate and graduate students, especially PhDs, can't find jobs in those disciplines. (As they say in Washington, "Follow the money.") And if dollars aren't flowing in to support jobs, fellowships or post-docs in your discipline, you're less likely to support the administrators that are holding the purse strings. And that's a conflict that's present at all major research universities.

That's why I hope Larry Summers' resignation will create an unintended legacy: an understanding of the systemic forces that could undermine all of our institutions of higher learning.

Warren Bennis, chairman of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, is also chair of the advisory board of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and a former professor at Harvard Business School.

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