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February 23, 2006

Ah, Academia

This comment on Larry Summers' departure rang a familiar bell with me:

Summers had a gift for arming, rather than disarming, his audience. One of his own aides described for me a famously contentious meeting with Law School faculty at which, he said, "Larry told them he wasn't going to pay any attention to their views, when in fact he was going to be listening to their views." Summers so offended his own preferred candidate to head the Graduate School of Education, whom he subjected to a withering cross-examination, that she changed her mind about taking the position until members of the school interceded.

You do, of course, have to wonder about professional intellectuals who get so wobbly under cross-examination. Harvard professors appear to be accustomed to a level of deference that few of us on the other side of those Ivy walls could ever expect. Clearly this had much to do with the fabled Cornel West affair, when the president grievously offended this overhyped superstar by tendering what Summers apparently regarded as delicate hints on matters such as grade inflation and the production of serious academic work. Summers was right, as he generally was. But he never intended to insult West. In fact, he had no idea that he had insulted West. Summers himself wouldn't have been offended, and it never crossed his mind that Cornel West might be made of different material than Larry Summers, or that West might need to hear some malarkey along the lines of, "I love your work so much that I don't want to accept anything less than the best."

I come from an academic community. I grew up in faculty housing. My father is a mathematician. And (warning: lighthearted generalities follow) many of his friends, as best I can tell, consciously operate from the Larry Summers Guide to Personal Interactions. Take the one who, back when my sister was going through a chunky phase, congratulated her on her rapidly expanding waistline and started guessing how much she weighed, much as you'd take a stab at height. He wasn't trying to offend, just stating a fact and offering various quantitative hypotheses about it. Replicate that a thousand times over and you have university parties.

The liberal arts faculty, however, are cut from a whole different cloth. Kisses on both cheeks, brie and wine on the table, ostentatious name dropping...to enter a lit professor's house is to see New York high society interpreted through the eyes of a star stuck honors student. As a species, the liberal arts professors have finely tuned, though slightly misaligned, social antennas. Which is why the two sides don't hang out. The scientists find the lib kids fluffy, airy, and tiresome, the lib kids find the scientists boorish, insulting, and vaguely autistic. And you know what? They're both right! Which is why all university presidents should be plucked from a bridge discipline, like psychology. Putting such a pure logician in the top spot, however, is sure to result in a lot of smart analyses, a few dumb ideas, and a slew of impolitic, wildly offensive interactions. And so it did. Goodbye, Larry Summers. I'll miss your reminders of my childhood.

February 23, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

I dunno...I come from an academic family too, in my case liberal arts (both my parents were linguists). My memory is that liberal arts profs can yield a pretty mean tongue as well. I think that's just typical of very competitive people, and there's virtually no emphasis in most academic disciplines on developing good social skills. I found your suggestion of psych profs as administrators interesting; I'm a clinical psychologist, and there certainly was a lot of emphasis on social skills and giving critical feedback gently and supportively in my training. I'm not sure that's true for academic psychologists, though.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, RN, PhD | Feb 23, 2006 1:56:34 PM

So... what you're saying is that Psychologists, partaking in some sense in both arenas, are boorish, fluffy, insulting, airy, vaguely autistic and tiresome?

Posted by: Dr Pretorius | Feb 23, 2006 2:02:45 PM

Some nights in college, I and a few Harvard friends would go down to MIT to partake in a treasured MIT activity -- picking locks to climb five-to-seven-story ventilation shafts. I liked the MIT folks a lot, but after hanging out with them, I always came home feeling like I was amazingly debonair and articulate.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Feb 23, 2006 2:53:23 PM

Not a big Summers fan, but he was clearly right to suggest that Cornel West might want to occasionally take a break from recording hip hop albums and stumping for Ralph Nader to, you know, teach a few classes and do a little research now and then.

Posted by: Thad | Feb 23, 2006 3:02:16 PM

Dr. Pretorius In the non-academe environs in which I live, that's known as leading with one's chin : if the shoe fits, wear it.

Posted by: opit | Feb 23, 2006 3:32:02 PM

On the other hand, West is a hot commodity for luxury-brand Universities like Harvard based on what he's already done, and a few more history of philosophy articles aren't going to significantly effect his value to top-tier institutions. Letting West have his hip-hop albums is akin to letting Barry Bonds have his barcalounger in the clubhouse; keeping the stars happy. Even if Summers positon seems perfectly reasonable from an outside perspective, as a president he ought to be judged by results, and the result of that little incident was a serious downgrade in the quality and stature of the Afro-American studies program. Being right isn't always good management policy.

Posted by: djw | Feb 23, 2006 3:36:18 PM

Neil, that's kind of how I feel about most of my interactions with Caltech undergrads.

Posted by: TJ | Feb 23, 2006 3:52:17 PM

I knew there was something that I liked about you Ezra. :) I, to, am a "faculty brat." (Faculty Brat - the unholy terror who hangs around faculty offices at a tender age, stealing office supplies, taking books from the college library, and providing ingenoue-ish commentary on office politics - "Mommy, why does Professor Wilson call her a bitch?")

Since my Mom is in an Allied Health profession (Occupational Therapy), and I went to a liberla arts school, I can safely say I've seen both. I don't know that the politics of it are really so different. The science people may be a bit more fact based, but it's all very "sophisticated" in a geeky, educated way, and there's always someone trying to prove who's smarter and someone with no social skills.

I think what did Summers in - but geez, try to have this conversation with Harvard grads - was yes, the poor social skills; but also, that the faculty is just not an animal to get on the wrong side of. Harvard people talk about the Liberal Arts faculty as if they have a unique hold on being difficult and hidebound (and I'm sure, based on the self-importance of being from Harvard, they do have it over others) - but really, I've seen faculty meetings in several places, and really, they're all like that. They whine and complain and think the Administrators are green-eyeshade types with no appreciation of truth, beauty, and all that is right and good (and you wonder why facukties are full of liberals). This happens even one of their own makes it ("oh, you know Helen was always a suck-up" and such).

The only way I saw around this was Presidents who grovelled lovingly in front of the faculty, cheered on their every loony suggestion, and sat on any committee they wanted.

That's when the faculty felt at liberty to go back to their favorite whipping people - students. :)

And I mean that in the best, most light-hearted way. :)

It's all part of the grand scheme. My Mom, by the way, thought Summers was all wrong for Harvard and doomed to fail.

Posted by: weboy | Feb 23, 2006 5:19:31 PM

Among us proles, I believe we refer to what you describe as people-people and non-people-people.

Posted by: Roxanne | Feb 23, 2006 5:44:34 PM

"My father is a mathematician. And (warning: lighthearted generalities follow) many of his friends, as best I can tell, consciously operate from the Larry Summers Guide to Personal Interactions. Take the one who, back when my sister was going through a chunky phase, congratulated her on her rapidly expanding waistline and started guessing how much she weighed, much as you'd take a stab at height. He wasn't trying to offend, just stating a fact and offering various quantitative hypotheses about it. Replicate that a thousand times over and you have university parties."

That sounds like my Jewish family, rather than an academic trait per se. But then, aren't the social sciences more Jewish?

West is a dynamic orator. That alone should earn him some top perks.

Posted by: Steve | Feb 23, 2006 9:40:56 PM

Or like the family in Portnoy's Complaint.

Posted by: Steve | Feb 23, 2006 9:41:55 PM

http://www.buffaloreport.com/020726lomax.html

Bruce Jackson, Rembering Alan Lomax (The Buffalo Report):

"Then Alan started telling stories. It was astonishing. I've known a lot of great storytellers but I remember no one ever doing anything like that. Alan talked for maybe three hours. . . . stories about people only he knew, stories about doing the work. Three hours of it. It was just magnificent.

I remember one sentence out of all the sentences he said that night. He had gotten onto the subject of academic folklorists and he pointed down to the floor, toward the place . . . below us [They were between sessions at an academic folklore conference] where they were doing their speechifying.

'They squoze and they squoze,' he said, 'and they produced another generation of pedants just like the generation of pedants they wanted to replace. But without the beautiful manners.'

How can you not love somebody who can summarize a generation of ambitious and competitive pedants like that?"

Posted by: Harold | Feb 24, 2006 11:41:07 AM

An excellent post. I am another "faculty brat," as is my wife, and I agree with every word, except maybe this sentence:

Which is why all university presidents should be plucked from a bridge discipline, like psychology.

I think that university presidents really don't have to be loved by the faculty -- in some ways, the faculty are the least important constituency (or the second least, after the students). They only need the faculty not to rise up in revolt, which is a somewhat different point. A university president, however, needs excellent "people skills," because he or she is the external face of the university, and those also tend to keep faculty irritation at a low simmer.

Summers problem was not that he was wrong, but that he was ham-handed. That's a big short-coming in any chief executive.

Posted by: TigerHawk | Feb 24, 2006 1:44:29 PM

"Which is why all university presidents should be plucked from a bridge discipline, like psychology."

That's a pretty strong conclusion to draw from what you acknowledge are "lighthearted generalities." I agree that most science professors lack the social skills (and the desire) to be a college president. That doesn't mean that colleges shouldn't hire science professors as presidents; it simply means they should be selective about who they hire.

Posted by: Kenneth Almqjuist | Feb 25, 2006 10:30:27 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 1, 2007 4:31:53 AM

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