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Keeping things collegial at Harvard

Now that Lawrence Summers has resigned, it's time for the editor of the Harvard Crimson to follow his example. There is no excuse for the paper's decision to publish a poll showing that students, by a 3-1 ratio, wanted Summers to remain the president of Harvard.

Telling Harvard professors their opinions are not shared by everyone can only further disrupt the "collegial" atmosphere required by their delicate psyches. And it was so unnecessary. Since when should the opinions of students make any difference in choosing Harvard's president?

Harvard is an institution run for the benefit of the tenured faculty, as Summers discovered too late. His attempts to shake it up appealed to students and the junior faculty, but tenured professors were appalled when he told them to work harder. He dared to suggest that professors teach survey courses geared to undergraduates' needs - an onerous idea to academics accustomed to teaching whatever's in their latest book.

As the son of a hard-working professor, I'd never suggest that academics are inherently lazy. But as Adam Smith observed two centuries ago, the university tends to be organized "not for the benefit of the students" but "for the ease of the masters." And nowhere is this more true than at Harvard.

In most industries, a company would cater to customers paying $41,000 per year, but Harvard has been able to take its undergraduates for granted. (It was a radical innovation when Summers called attention to surveys measuring students' dissatisfaction.) Harvard has long known that the best students will keep coming, not for its classes but simply for its reputation.

Suppose people picked hotels based on how intelligent they expected the other guests to be. Once a hotel got the reputation as a brain magnet, smart people would automatically go there, and hotel employees could afford to get complacent. They'd be more interested in their own welfare than their guests' - especially if their jobs came with lifetime tenure.

At a university, the senior employees not only have tenure but are also used to controlling their own fiefs: Departments vote on who's hired and decide who teaches what. Unless a university president is willing to be less than collegial - and is backed by a board with more gumption than Harvard's - there's not much that can be accomplished.

Senior professors can shunt off the more tedious jobs, like teaching freshmen or grading papers, to low-caste graduate students or visiting lecturers. Or they just neglect the jobs that don't appeal to them. That's why Summers had to push them to teach survey courses and other basics.

You might expect the Harvard history department to devote a course or two to the American Revolution or the Constitution, but those topics are too mundane. Instead, there's a course on the diaries of ordinary citizens during the Revolution, and another, "American Revolutions," that considers the American and Haitian Revolutions as "a continuous sequence of radical challenges to established authority."

Summers had some allies in his reform efforts, especially in the professional schools. The professors in the business, law and medical schools know their schools' reputations depend on properly training students for jobs in the outside world. The opposition to Summers was concentrated among the college professors who aren't accustomed to being judged by anyone except fellow academics.

They've been insulated from reality in a political monoculture. The faculty discourse has been so dominated by paleoliberals that Summers, a Democrat and a Clinton appointee, struck them as reactionary.

His great gaffe on campus was suggesting that bias by patriarchal white men might not be the only reason for the shortage of women professors in science and math. After making the ritual genuflections to discrimination, he dared to note that there are many more men who score at the upper extreme (and the lower extreme) on math tests.

This will come as no surprise to the high school students who have taken the math part of the SAT, a test in which there are three boys in the top percentile for every girl. Perhaps a few of these students will now wonder how much intellectual stimulation they'll get at a university where inconvenient facts are taboo. But most of them will probably be happy to go there just because it's Harvard.

John Tierney's e-mail address is

New York Times News Service