The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated March 17, 2006
By WARREN BENNIS and HALLUM MOVIUS
It is all too easy to blame Larry Summers, who resigned last month as president of Harvard University, for his failed leadership of the nation's most prestigious university. Summers became a large target whose serial gaffes kept him in the media spotlight, certainly to his own if not the university's detriment.
But it would be a mistake to see Summers's failed presidency solely in terms of his perceived arrogance and divisive tendency to speak his mind. By focusing all our attention on Larry Summers, we can too easily fail to see the larger, more important story behind the recent unpleasantness at Harvard. The university that Summers led is a different institution from that of 20 years ago. Like other leading universities, Harvard has undergone a sea change that makes it among the most difficult organizations in the world to lead — no matter how charming or conciliatory the president's personality.
In coming weeks, Summers's detractors will swap anecdotes illustrating his self-defeating inability to create the consensus and good will that he needed to run a great university. At the same time, his supporters will put the blame for his exit on willful faculty opponents who undermined him at every turn and ultimately ran him out of the campus presidency.
Yet neither of those personality-driven explanations does justice to the more complex truth: Structural changes to American universities have made campus conflicts what Max H. Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, calls "predictable surprises." Campus governance has changed in recent years because universities have changed so dramatically.
Today as never before, university leaders must successfully diagnose and confront areas of chronic conflict that have emerged with the following three major trends:
The rise of science and technology. Never before has there been such inequality among the disciplines and schools that make up a university. Scientific and technological advances — breakthroughs like the unprecedented recent explosion of tools and techniques for decoding genes, watching the brain at work, repairing faulty hearts, peering into the secret lives of galaxies — have transformed our lives, including our economy. This revolution has also divided our campuses, creating a two-tiered culture of campus haves and have-nots, in which the nonscience departments feel increasingly marginalized and undervalued.
Disciplines like history, sociology, philosophy, the visual arts, and literature were once seen as the heart of the university, respected as sources of wisdom about the human condition. But over the last 10 years, faculty members in those disciplines have become the poor relations of the hard-science powerhouses, who have higher salaries, greater abilities to hire, and better chances of attracting better students, who will themselves leave with better jobs. Most universities have continued to pay lip service to the importance of those orphaned disciplines while watching them decline in prestige and impact. Summers could be contemptuous of what he viewed as softer disciplines, further building dissatisfaction among them.
It was no accident that one of the major flaps of Summers's tenure involved his impolitic speculation on why women are underrepresented in the sciences. Technology and the sciences are today's engines of both learning and commerce in this country and around the world. And it is no accident that Summers's most vocal faculty opponents on a variety of issues came mostly from those nonscience disciplines that felt they had been left behind by his ambitious plans for expanding the role of science and technology at Harvard.
Fifty years ago, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote about the divide between the culture of science and the culture of the humanitiespointing out what he called the "lack of understanding" between the two. What Snow saw as a gap is now a yawning chasm.
On the more vulnerable side are the humanities and softer social sciences; on the other, stronger side are the natural and life sciences. The strong side is buttressed by cash and large numbers of students; the other side is endangered by the lack of both. But while the two-culture rift is real, it does not have to lead to campuswide bitterness like Harvard's if the president is able to build consensus and a decision-making process that all parties perceive as fair.
The rise of campus entrepreneurship. Today, even at the wealthiest institutions, departments and their faculty members are expected to find their own financial support for programs. The pay-your-own-way philosophy has reshaped the university. The big money is pouring into science departments, especially neuroscience and the biological sciences, which attract money from federal agencies, foundations, alumni, and philanthropists.
That has led to a more decentralized, less cohesive university in which departments and schools that have large budgets operate almost like separate institutions. While no school at a university as wealthy as Harvard can credibly claim poverty, the smaller schools, like education and divinity, have budgets and endowments that are a fraction of their wealthier counterparts'. The power of the moneyed programs is compounded by the fact that they contribute directly to the university's bottom line.
At Harvard almost one-fourth of the annual operating budget — $626-million — is the university's share of sponsored research, almost all of it from science and technology programs. Summers was understandably concerned about strengthening the position of the president by directing more funds to flow through his office and appointing deans who answered to him. That roiled some of the "haves" and made deanships difficult to fill.
The rise of individual mobility. This third area of conflict is related to the first two. Today's universities must compete not only for top students but for top faculty members. And those faculty members, unlike college professors of the past, are likely to have involvements outside the university, including, on occasion, financial interests that conflict with traditional academic values.
Now more than ever, when every secret is under the potential scrutiny of the ever-expanding blogosphere, university presidents must strive for campuswide transparency. Those who fail to do so are vulnerable to accusations that they condone activities that breach ethical boundaries. At a recent faculty meeting, Summers heightened faculty concerns about his friendship with Andrei Shleifera friend and fellow economist who led a Harvard advisory program in Russia that collapsed in disgracewhen Summers appeared to be evasive in answering pointed questions about their ties. The rise of individual mobility has also contributed to a system of "superstars" — a system that Summers took on when he called for hiring young up-and-comers instead and criticized the well-known professor of Afro-American studies Cornel West.
The point is that a university president's style, whether abrasive or charismatic, is only a small factor in successful governance of an institution so changed in recent years that the only constant may be the ivy on its walls.
Today's university president must first recognize the existence of a two-tiered system on the campus and be sensitive to the concerns of all his or her stakeholders, not just those in thriving programs. The president should not be surprised if faculty members in programs that receive fewer financial resources are somewhat prickly. As soon as he or she takes office, the wise president will begin building social capital in every department, amassing the widespread support that will be necessary to bring about significant change. Summers seems to have forgotten that no change agent can hope to succeed without an enormous reservoir of good will, and that the more dramatic the planned change, the wider and deeper that reservoir needs to be.
The successful university president knows that faculty members — and students, for that matter — expect to be consulted on everything that affects them. They demand a voice in all significant decision making. They expect to be heard and not talked down to. It is essential that the process of university decision making be perceived as fair by all.
Transparency is a necessary part of that process. Universities rightly expect candor in their leaders, although tact is welcome too. The successful president will find a way to acknowledge inequities and conflicts and ask for help from representatives throughout the institution in dealing with them. And no matter how brilliant the president's vision is for the university, he or she must listen to people across the campus and elicit a collective vision for the future.
Summers's successor won't have an easy time of it, no matter how charming he or she may be. But if the next president of Harvard works hard to build consensus, shares power, and creates an equitable decision-making process, he or she can expect fewer fireworks and a longer tenure.
Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business and university professor at the University of Southern California, and chairman of the advisory board of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Hallam Movius is director of assessment, coaching, and training at the Consensus Building Institute, in Cambridge, Mass., a nonprofit organization that helps groups negotiate more-effective agreements.