Harvard’s Loss: Farewell to Larry Summers

This week marks the end of Larry Summers Presidency of Harvard University and an appropriate moment to reflect on what a remarkable presidency it was.

I don’t know Larry Summers well, although we served together in the Clinton Administration and met in small meetings a half dozen times. His reputation in the administration was as an enfant terrible or, as one wag put it, “the part of the brain that supplies emotional intelligence, Larry uses for extra IQ”. The man is unquestionably very bright, but the ratio of IQ to emotional intelligence is occasionally lower than I am sure he would prefer.

Summers attended MIT and Harvard and at age 28 became one of the youngest tenured professors in the three century plus history of Harvard. His work on development economics earned him the coveted John Bates Clark medal, (JBC) in 1993 — perhaps the profession’s most prestigious award, granted each year to the nation’s most promising young economist.

Summers has perhaps the world’s best genetic endowment as an economist. He is the son of two University of Pennsylvania economists and the nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics. His father’s brother is Paul Samuelson (won the first JBC Award in 1947 and the second Nobel Prize in Economics in 1970. It was Larry’s dad who changed the family name from Samuelson to Summers). His mother’s brother is Kenneth Arrow (JBC 1957, Nobel 1972), who was roughly the Larry Summers of the Kennedy administration and would win a lot of votes for the greatest living economist.

Summers has a gift for attracting capable mentors: Martin Feldstein (JBC Award 1977) at Harvard and Bob Rubin at Treasury. One suspects that both men sensed an unusual, if somewhat volatile, talent. Summers succeeded Rubin as Treasury Secretary and served for the final year and a half of the Clinton Administration in that capacity.

Summers has demonstrated less of a gift for selecting his fights as a leader. His brief careers at the World Bank, at the Treasury Department, and at Harvard were marked by controversy. Some of these controversies were productive, but many more were the result of ill-considered comments. As much as I admire Summers, I wish he had invested his leadership capital more wisely. Summers was not usually wrong — but he was often unwise. A very wise mentor of mine once cautioned me that “leadership is not an IQ contest”. Summers never took this lesson to heart.

The Pollution Memo

In 1991, Summers left Harvard to serve as Chief Economist of the World Bank. While there he signed a memo written by a staff economist named Lant Pritchett that caused an extraordinary furor. The incident was summarized in an article in Harvard Magazine, which described

“a memo, bearing his name, purporting to advocate exporting polluting industries to poor nations (“underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under polluted”) and dumping toxic wastes there (“the economic logic…is impeccable”).

“The memo, dated December 12, 1991, during his service as vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, found its way to the press, and has since circulated widely on the Internet. It was the subject of a question at his March 11 news conference at Loeb House, and of student protests then and the next day. Summers responded to the reporter, “I think the best that can be said is to quote La Guardia and say, “When I make a mistake, it’s a whopper.'”

The memo is odd, in that the economics it advocates are dubious — to say nothing of its ethics. There is strong evidence that Summers did not read the memo before signing it and he never defended it.

Cornel West, Israel, and Military Recruiting

At Harvard, Summers provoked a series of controversies. He admirably insisted that all faculty teach undergraduate courses instead of simply teaching their frequently arcane research specialties. He taught an Introductory Economics course as an example.

He insisted that faculty actually do their jobs and in the fall of 2001, Cornel West, perhaps the most prominent black scholar at Harvard, was offended when Summers pointed out that he was missing too many classes, contributing to grade inflation, neglecting serious scholarship, and devoting too much time to political activism. West denounced Summers, resigned, and returned to Princeton. Some people thought this was a problem; it looked to me like an elegant solution.

Summers denounced as anti-Semitic a campaign to force universities to divest investments in companies with Israeli holdings. He challenged restrictions on military recruiting favored by faculty. He even spoke at a small graduation ceremony for ROTC students, an effort that earned him a letter of thanks from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Faculty soon understood what they had long feared: not only was Summers asking them to teach basic courses, not just their favored research seminars, but he obviously did not share their fascination with infantile leftism.

Gender Differences

If these controversies were part of a larger vision and strategy for Harvard however, it was not clear to faculty. Summers had managed to set the stage for even greater controversy and he soon found an ignition point.

In January of 2005, Summers commented at an economic conference that one reason fewer women than men go into science might be that fewer women had the very high “intrinsic aptitude” that these professions require. An extraordinary national controversy ensued.

Perhaps the best case for Summers was made by George Will, who asked his readers dryly to “Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was…He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.”

Judge Richard Posner, as he often does, put the most interesting spin on the matter:

“Today in the United States, most of the leading research universities are dominated by persons well to the left of Larry Summers, and they don’t take kindly to having their ideology challenged, as Summers has now learned to his grief. There is nothing to be done about this, and thoughtful conservatives should actually be pleased. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, when one’s ideas are not challenged, one’s ability to defend them weakens. Not being pressed to come up with arguments or evidence to support them, one forgets the arguments and fails to obtain the evidence. One’s position becomes increasingly flaccid, producing the paradox of thought that is at once rigid and flabby. And thus the academic left today.

William Salaten, a progressive writer at Slate, published a lengthy essay reviewing the charges against Summers:

“The conference agenda for that morning, available online, includes two slide presentations and nine recommended readings. The first presentation concludes that “most of the gains” in female representation in science and engineering careers “can be explained by increases in Bachelors’ [degrees]-potentially normal supply response.” That’s exactly what Summers argued. The second presentation indicates that degrees earned by women have increased more rapidly at the masters’ level than at the bachelors’ level, calling into question the breadth of discrimination at that stage.

One recommended reading, a 2004 Government Accountability Office report on “Women’s Participation in the Sciences,” concludes, “A variety of studies indicate that experience, work patterns, and education levels can largely explain [gender] differences in salaries and rank.” Another reading, based on a national study, adds, “There is general agreement that few women typically apply for academic positions in science and engineering departments at research universities.”

Only one reading comes anywhere near challenging Summers’ hypothesis. Claude Steele, a Stanford psychologist, writes that in his 1997 study, female students in a math test “performed equal to men when the test was represented as insensitive to gender differences.” It’s a fascinating study, probably just the sort of thing Summers had in mind when he called for further research into genetic and non-genetic factors in test performance. But the study compared average scores, not the distribution of high and low scores, which was Summers’ point. Moreover, it was a test of college students, not high-school students, and the participants “were selected for being very good at math.” In other words, it took place after the genetic bias hypothesized by Summers would have skewed the pool.

What’s the evidence on Summers’ side? Start with the symptom: the gender gap in test scores. Next, consider biology. Sex is easily the biggest physical difference within a species. Men and women, unlike blacks and whites, have different organs and body designs. The inferable difference in genomes between two people of visibly different races is one-hundredth of 1 percent. The gap between the sexes vastly exceeds that. A year and a half ago, after completing a study of the Y chromosome, MIT biologist David Page calculated that male and female human genomes differed by 1 percent to 2 percent-“the same as the difference between a man and a male chimpanzee or between a woman and a female chimpanzee,” according to a paraphrase in the New York Times. “We all recite the mantra that we are 99 percent identical and take political comfort in it,” Page said. “But the reality is that the genetic difference between males and females absolutely dwarfs all other differences in the human genome.” Another geneticist pointed out that in some species 15 percent of genes were more active in one sex than in the other.

You’d expect some of these differences to show up in the brain, and they do. A study of mice published a year ago in Molecular Brain Research found that just 10 days after conception, at least 50 genes were more active in the developing brain of one sex than in the other. Comparing the findings to research on humans, the Los Angeles Times observed that “the corpus callosum, which carries communications between the two brain hemispheres, is generally larger in women’s brains [than in men’s]. Female brains also tend to be more symmetrical. … Men and women, on average, also possess documented differences in certain thinking tasks and in behaviors such as aggression.”

Let’s be clear about what this isn’t. It isn’t a claim about overall intelligence. Nor is it a justification for tolerating discrimination between two people of equal ability or accomplishment. Nor is it a concession that genetic handicaps can’t be overcome. Nor is it a statement that girls are inferior at math and science: It doesn’t dictate the limits of any individual, and it doesn’t entail that men are on average better than women at math or science. It’s a claim that the distribution of male scores is more spread out than the distribution of female scores-a greater percentage at both the bottom and the top. Nobody bats an eye at the overrepresentation of men in prison. But suggest that the excess might go both ways, and you’re a pig.

The only implication I’d draw immediately is that it may prove easier to equalize gender representation in math and science in high school than in college, and easier to equalize it among students than among professors. Equal representation should be a goal that prods us toward equal opportunity, but the two mustn’t be confused. Last year Harvard offered only four of 32 tenured positions in the arts and sciences to women. A genetic difference between the sexes doesn’t mean four was anywhere near the right number. It just means the number doesn’t have to be exactly 16.

OK, so assuming that Summers comments were defensible, were they a smart thing for the President of Harvard to say? Of course not. Summers was not speaking as a researcher, he was not speaking as a faculty member, he was speaking as President of Harvard. He does not enjoy freedom of speech any more than most people responsible for leading institutions do. His job is to lead an institution forward — an important institution and a demanding job. It means keeping your mouth shut sometimes. Summers is not good at that, so he ends up getting his fights picked for him instead of choosing them selectively. It makes him dramatically less effective as a leader.

Andrei Shleifer
Perhaps Summer’s support for Andrei Shleifer, his close friend and protege, was the last straw. Shleifer was in many ways a junior Summers. He is a tenured member of the Harvard economics faculty; he specializes in development economics; he was the 1999 recipient of the JBC Award. Shleifer was sued by the US government and charged with making millions of dollars in the Russian stock market while advising Russia on privatization. The government alleged that the investments were inconsistent with the terms of Harvard’s contract with USAID. The matter never reached trial, but was settled in 2005, shortly after Harvard, which had been charged separately, settled with the government. Under the settlement, Shleifer is responsible for paying $2 million dollars worth of damages. It is not clear (to me, anyway) whether he may also have liability for some of the Harvard settlement, which included repaying $26.5 million of investment gains.

Under the settlement negotiated by Summers, Harvard University paid most of the damages and allowed Shleifer to retain his faculty position. Faculty were not amused and immediately alleged favoritism on the part of Summers, who is Shleifer’s close friend and mentor.

In an 18,000-word article in January’s Institutional Investor, Harvard alum David McClintick detailed Shleifer’s efforts to use his inside knowledge of the Russian economy to make lucrative personal investments while advising the Russian government as part of a contract with USAID. The article suggests that Summers strongly cautioned Shleifer (“You’ve got to be careful. There is a lot of corruption in Russia”… “There might be a scandal, and you could become embroiled”….”You should make sure you’re clear with everybody. People might want to make Andrei a problem some day. The world’s a shitty place.”) but that Summers also used his influence to shield Shleifer from disciplinary action.

So on March 15, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, not a group known for high principle in these matters, passed a no confidence vote in Summers. The Harvard Board of Trustees affirmed their support for him publicly — but privately asked him to resign.

At one level, this is a real loss. Although Summers was in many respects a flawed president, it is also true that thousands of students gathered this week in the pouring rain on Mount Auburn Street to shout “Larry! Larry! Larry!” because they knew they had lost a passionate and effective advocate. It strikes me as very unlikely that his successor will be as innovative, as productively disruptive, as interesting, or as effective at leading change and curtailing the worst impulses of the faculty as Summers was. One of our leading universities — and arguably all universities — will be poorer as a result.

My favorite Larry Summers quote is “Start with the idea that you can’t repeal the laws of economics. Even if they are inconvenient.”

Pity that Summers never understood that the laws of leadership and organizations work the same way: they cannot be repealed, even if they are inconvenient.