I told you so

Summers

Ok, they got him.  Yesterday, the President of Harvard University resigned. 

Now, I am not going to say I told you so.

Yes, I am.

I told you so. 

In March of 2005, I wrote a piece called President Summers, Beware the Yalies of the Yard.  My argument, briefly, was that there are really two Harvards: the outer rings occupied by the professional schools, the Economics department and some of the physical sciences, and the inner planet of the Yard. 

The outer rings are occupied by scholars who are ambitious, worldly and engaged.  The inner planet is occupied by people who do not have power and do not like those who do have power. 

My conceit: that the inhabitants of the inner planet are really more like Yalies.  President understood his colleagues of the outer rings.  Generally, I think they were happy with him.  Fatally, he misunderstood his colleagues from the Yard.  He did not see that they were Yalies.

Am I right to say Summers was brought low by the Yard?  Joseph O’Donnell, is a former member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and a prominent donor.  This morning he was quoted in the New York Times:

"How can anyone govern a university where a fraction of faculty members can force a president out?"

Here then is my warning to President Summers from March of 2005. 

President Summers: Beware the Yalies of the Yard. 

I think I see President Summers’s problem.  He has been speaking to his Harvard faculty when he should have been addressing the Yalies of the Yard. 

I don’t have a lot of ethnographic data on Yalies but I do recall one astonishing weekend I spend with 8 of them in Washington.  We were there for a Yale-Smithsonian conference and, as part of the proceedings, we, the participants, were driven around the nation’s capital in a small van.

What caught my attention (and there is nothing like forcible confinement to sharpen the senses) is that the Yalies kept up a line of self congratulatory humor and comment that said, roughly, "this may be Washington, but we are Yalies!"  It was as if they were trying to show they were not threatened by the nation’s capital.  In that great tradition of protesting too much, they managed to demonstrate just the opposite:  "This is Washington, we are terrified."

As I say, it is not a lot of data, but it makes a nice little puzzle.  Why would people from one of the nation’s great universities become defensive when obliged to tour the nation’s capital? 

One way to solve this puzzle is to embark in a long, reckless, thoroughly speculative, and utterly groundless discourse on Yale’s strategy of self presentation, and this is precisely what I intend now to do.  For roughly 304 years, Yale has fought a status game with Harvard and lost it almost every year.  (They’ve done some what better in the classic football contest, where the two schools are virtually tied.)  For all its greatness, Yale is poorer than Harvard in virtually every category.  For all its antiquity, it is a newcomer.  Yale sometimes wins "the game" (as they call the Harvard-Yale gridiron contest).  It almost never wins the comparison. 

This is tough on a college, even one as mighty as Yale, and a response is called for.  The classic cultural response is to doubt the grounds of the comparison, and here, I think, Yale may have been tempted by two options.  The first is to insist that Yale is other-worldly and to that extent a finer, more cerebral enterprise than Harvard.  This is one of the ways Oxford declares its difference from Cambridge and all those earnest, artless scientists on the fens.  The second, and this might be offered as a demonstration of the first, is to position Yale as a place that refuses power as enthusiastically as Harvard pursues it.  (Do universities "position" themselves in this manner?  Nations do.  At the end of the 19th century, France recognized that it would lose all future military contests to Germany and all economic ones to England.  Culture seemed the wisest course, the prudent thing to do.)

Did Yale "manage" the Harvard comparison this way, by escaping it on the grounds of a higher calling?  I can’t say.  This is, I hasten to remind you, discourse both speculative and groundless.  But we judge ideas by the work they perform in the world, and this one helps explain a couple of things.  It would explain why those Yalies were so threatened by Washington.  It would also explain why Yales are so often liberal and/or lefty.  (If there is a single reason that keeps the Democrats out of the mainstream, it is their presumption of moral superiority.  Thus have they removed themselves from the mainstream.)  Finally, it would explain why we’¬íve heard of almost no one at Yale.  I bet with a little effort you could name ten to twenty people teaching at Harvard.  Take a moment.  Think of Yale.  Three?  Five?  Any?  No, Yale is too good for this world, too good in any case to be compared with the likes of worldly Harvard.  ("Whew!  You can not judge us, we are too fine.")

That’s the trouble with this status strategy.  Renounce the world often enough and, after awhile, otherworldliness becomes obscurity.  Those who are too good for the world are charged with ever fewer responsibilities and finally, the world begins to lose interest altogether. 

Back to President Summers (just ignore the sound of gears grinding heroically as I redirect the argument).  President Summers comes from the outer ring of his university, the economics department, a place so worldly and influential it supplies many people for Washington posts, including, of course, Summers himself, who was secretary of the treasury there.  Harvard has not been shy about power.  The business school, the law school, the medical school, these are the brilliant rings of the planet and carry the university’s influence out into the world and back again.  Ironically, only the Kennedy school manages to keep itself disengaged (managing to look a little Yale-like in the process). 

All of the professional schools know a thing or two about chain of command, the realities of power, the privileges of standing, and what it takes to make the world bend to Harvard’s, or anyone’s, influence.  The rule here, and it’s got to be in Machiavelli somewhere, you can’t be too particular or fastidious.  You have to get on with it.  The chief executive officers of these schools are not quite CEOS in the corporate sense, but certainly they bear very little resemblance to the godly churchmen who were their predecessors.  They know the lessons, the realities, of power in a way that most academics do not. 

Here’s the rub.  President Summers comes from these outer rings.  He embraced its culture.  He constituted himself a creature of power, a man of standing.  He wore, we might say, his rings on his sleeve.  And then he made an anthropological error.  He assumed that his Harvard was everybody’s Harvard.  He failed to see the Yalies within. 

Mr. President!  The first rule of rhetoric is "know your audience."  Harvard has a little Yale, the scholars who occupy the liberal arts, the social sciences and the Yard.  These people are largely shut out of, or kept from, Harvard’s engagement with the world.  Not for them the government posts, the consulting gigs, the television interviews, the world’s eager consultation.  For most of them the "ambit of influence" is the table they commandeer each day at the Faculty Club, and, outside of academic circles, not much more.  (Notice I am using here a rhetorical trope here called "exaggeration".)

I’m sure this rankles but it should not surprise.  After all, most scholars in the humanities and social sciences have made Yale’s bargain with the universe.  They have insisted that they are much too good, too noble, too moral to engage with the world.  They have, in sum, cultivated an obscurity of their own.  They are now a little like ceremonial creatures of court removed from the world that they might commune with the gods.  Not for them the rough and ready pragmatism of the outer rings.  As keepers of the nobler view, they are, some of them, just a dubious hat and push cart away from wandering out of the Yard to shout imprecations at startled fellow Cantabridgians.  (That pesky trope again.)

This strategy of absenting yourself from the real world has many implications.  Some of them are tragic.  (The social sciences and humanities are now frightfully out of touch with some of the real compelling intellectual issues of our day.  Too bad.  They might have been useful.)  But here is the important implication for our purposes.  If you are surrounded by power but kept from it, if you are made a ceremonial creature, but only that, if you absent yourself from the world, and rewarded with obscurity, if all these things are true, you are in a very bad temper a good deal of the time.  The world has done you wrong.

Now, we know what happens to ceremonial creatures when they are wronged.  They become obsessed with form.  The world may not respond to their will, but they will have their due.  They will insist upon a precise acknowledgement of every detail of the ritual regime.  In President Summers’ case, this means no gratuitous references to the ROTC program, that sterling demonstration of the military-industrial-educational complex.  It means no reckless comments about women and science.  This too is, forgive me, a "motherhood" issue in the Yard.  And it means that the President may not evidence the arrogance of the CEO from the outer ring, nor the swash buckling style we might expect from a man who owes his Harvard position, in part at least, to the fact that he once had a corner office in the corridors of power. 

Finally, the Yalies of the Yard have one metapragmatic directive: you may have power, you may have the task of bending the world to Harvard’s will, but.don’t. rub.our.noses.in.it!  Give us this illusion: what we think matters, what we do counts.  And by all means, observe the ceremony and ritual that is our balm, our succor, our consolation.  Mr. President, we have only one power, that of form, and unless you honor us by acknowledging it, we, sir, will make you pay. 

(Sorry that got a little CSI: Miami at the end there, didn’t it?)

11 thoughts on “I told you so

  1. Auto

    I thought of your Yalie post when I read that Larry had been defenestrated by the Arts and Sciences faculty.

  2. Patricia

    “This strategy of absenting yourself from the real world has many implications. Some of them are tragic. (The social sciences and humanities are now frightfully out of touch with some of the real compelling intellectual issues of our day. Too bad. They might have been useful.)”

    Well said.

  3. Peter

    Even when Yale has a professional programme they manage to distance themselves from the real world — their MBA programme was called, idiosyncratically, a Master of Public and Private Management (MPPM) when first launched.

  4. M E-L

    Peter: Since when have the nonprofit and government sectors not been “the real world”? Having spent my career there I’d really like to know exactly when I entered the realm of fantasy.

    Grant, your “Elis are from Venus, Cantabs are from Mars” trope misses one *highly* essentialy point: Yale College is much more fun than Harvard College. The solution, therefore, is to go to Yale as an undergrad, and then Harvard for graduate schools, as both I and President Bush have done.

    Things may have changed since the 90s, but back then (at, say, a party) a Harvard undergrad would mention Harvard as often as possible, while a Yale undergrad would mention it last. (“Where do you go to college?” “New Haven.”) The attitude was, hey, we’re at this elite institution, but we’re not going to be all superior about it.

    Actually, this held in the late 90s at HBS, but in a different way. Men would “drop the H-bomb” by mentioning Harvard up front to impress potential romantic conquests. Women, on the other hand, would (and I oversimplify of course) try to avoid mentioning it all.

  5. Peter

    M E-L: I didn’t say that nonprofits and government sectors are not in the real world. My point was that Yale University, by labeling their MBA degree as something which was not recognized by their target market, was acting like they lived in their own world. I understand that feedback from graduates and applicants, who got sick of explaining to potential employers that MPPM = MBA, led them to change the label.

  6. Ennis

    Most reformers try to decentralize and empower, Summers tried to centralize power under his own command:

    http://www.tpmcafe.com/node/27016

    His remarks about 9/11, about Cornell West, about Israel, about women in science, etc., all provoked a lot of controversy on campus and off. After each and every one of those controversies, Summers was still President of the University.

    Most recently, in an event of no interest to editorialists, Summers tried and succeeded to push William Kirby, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences out of his job. In response, the Arts and Sciences Faculty pushed back and succeeded in pushing Summers out of his job.

    You have, basically, a controversy over the administration of the University. Harvard has historically been a highly decentralized institution, and the President has had relatively little authority over the several faculties that together make up the University as a whole. Summers has been trying for years, in various ways, to increase the authority of his office and centralize the administration. One of the ways this has manifested itself has been an effort to force the faculties to pool their resources in order to pay for a big expansion into the Allston neighborhood across the river from Harvard Yard. This was a break with precedent, and the manner in which Summers wanted to do it was going to disadvantage the Arts and Sciences Faculty compared to other Faculties.

    Successful empire building has to be more deft than that.

  7. Ennis

    ” But we judge ideas by the work they perform in the world, and this one helps explain a couple of things.”

    And yet Summers pushed Cornell West out the door for being too much of a public intellectual, and not spending enough time writing academic pieces. Similarly, he pushed Jeff Sachs out the door, at a time when Sachs’ influence on the world was growing larger than ever before. Those were 2 of Harvard’s 5 or so most famous professors.

  8. Auto

    My first job out of business school was at a very prominent investment bank. Associates like me were expected to do much of the grunt work for the firm’s MBA recruiting. We regarded it as another pain-in-the-ass responsibility that made long workdays even longer.

    A vice president told me the work to screen resumes would go a lot faster if I simply tossed out everyone from the Yale SOM. It was one of three schools whose graduates were rarely cut out for Wall Street. (The other two were Kennedy School grads and anyone with a Brown Univ undergrad degree.)

    Yale SOM types, I was informed, were nothing but trustfunders best suited to being business managers for struggling ballet companies.

  9. Headhunter

    A great piece of self-indulgent arrogant mindf…ing. Congradulations. Self-adi;atopms/ But that’s one hell of a way to get off. Okay, Zeus, come off your mountain, but don’t fall off!

  10. Anonymous

    pure pretentious drivel. Get over yourselves(all of you). The overpriced overrated Ivy cartel is more and more becoming a joke. Face it most Americans do not give a flip about overrated Ivy schools; esp. Harvard. It has had mostly rudderless leadership for nearly a half of a century. Most academic experts and the public see the University of Michigan as higher ed’s true leader and has for years -whether its Mary Sue Coleman plugging national health care, Lee Bollinger before her leading UM in the historic US Supreme Court case that won the day for race as a factor in Adminissions, the announcement of the Slak polio vaccine, US Peace Corps, the Great society, etc.
    This is not to say Harvard’s “leadership” is all about a sexist neanderthal who had low sensitivity to race , women, or even the Palestinians. However…no Harvard undergrad has gone on to”become” a US president in nearly a half of century. Meanwhile all those cowering Yalies who are allegedly “afraid of Washington” have managed a Yalie alum in the pinnacle of power -the oval office- as a result of: the 2004 election,as well as: 2000, 1996, 1992, 1988, 1974, (Bush, Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Sr., and Ford ALL had at least one degree from : YALE). The article thus loses whatever cred it tried to muster. Harvard “wishes” it could be so powerful! Mostly, it’s just overrated. In the Business world…the Ivy cartel as a whole has lost lots of steam for CEO positions in the Fortune 500. A recent article indicated that the University of Wisconsin now produces the most alums (undergrad) for Top CEO positions. Schools that are elite but “outside the 13 colonies” now command greater respect : Stanford, Berkeley, Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, UCLA, Cal Tech, etc., etc., etc. The fact is the days of the NY Times publishing -front page- the names of Yalie graduates ended -rightly so- 50 years ago. The idea would be laughable if the NYT pulled such a stunt today. It loses money some years precisely because it- like Summers- is increasingly seen in more honest terms -OVERRATED- but of course this will not stop the remaining powerful sychophants in US NEWS from skewering data to propagandize the East coast overpriced “elites” annually in ragazines like US News. Eat it; Case closed.

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