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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Wrong man for the job

Lawrence Summers has been a lightning rod for controversy his entire career. Since his time as treasury secretary of the World Bank, and currently finishing his recently resigned position as Harvard University's president, Summers has managed to be more divisive than uniting.

When Summers came to Harvard only five years ago he was filled with notions of expanding the campus and combating grade inflation, as well as a desire to change the culture. However, many of his ideas backfired, not entirely because of the underlying feasibility or nature of the change, but because he failed to join disparate parties together.

This has been a trend throughout his entire career, and though he has been fantastically successful, his coarse, brazen leadership style is one not suited for an institution of higher learning.

A university president must wear many hats as an academic, fundraiser and a symbol of the university. Summers did an amazing job of developing a positive reputation among students, who gathered with signs and chants following the announcement of his resignation, though his ideas were extremely controversial and he frequently became a lightning rod.

In 1992, when Summers was chief economist at the World Bank, he wrote a now-infamous memorandum titled "Let Them Eat Pollution." He argued that it would make economic sense for western societies to export their dirty industries to lesser developed countries where both the health and aesthetic externalities had less of an effect on the population.

Though the piece was not intended for dissemination, it quickly leaked, and the international institution developed to provide financial and practical assistance to emerging economies had its chief economist ostensibly turn his back on these nations.

Though the underlying economics of the proposal are relatively solid, Summers failed to understand the implications of his brazenness. History repeated itself for Summers a year ago, when he suggested at a conference that women did not have the same innate abilities in science and math that men do.

Sparking a nationwide reaction, as well as isolating and enraging many faculty members, Summers was again in the spotlight of infamy.

In both of these situations, Summers failed to separate his personal opinions from his professional responsibilities. For a man who has spent so much time in organizations dedicated to noble pursuits such as eliminating world poverty and educating the leaders of tomorrow, he seemingly pays no attention to respect.

Ultimately Summers was never cut out to be the president of Harvard, a haven of notoriously strong willed and opinionated faculty. The hierarchical structure of the nation's oldest university is poorly designed to suit the leadership style of an independent, visionary leader.

In order to achieve many of the goals he set out to accomplish, Summers required teamwork and support from the university's faculty. The faculty has a great deal of power, and all of the various schools exercise budgetary control and make independent decisions about perquisites and endowments.

But over the course of his tenure at Harvard, Summers gradually alienated and snubbed many schools, departments and faculty members.

Where cooperation would have likely yielded a more successful presidency for Summers, he instead chose the 'my way or the high way' approach. Summers is a brilliant individual who has shown that he can achieve success. Harvard, though, was clearly not the right place for him to do so.


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