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Hullabaloo at Harvard Square

It isn’t really about Larry Summers' resignation from Harvard, it is about the fate of smaller, less well-endowed American universities.

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

It is about three weeks since Larry Summers resigned as president of Harvard University. That venerable institution of higher learning whose brand name is more powerful, seductive and persuasive than that of any corporation made the main page of almost all major papers that day. Did Summers succumb to pressure from the faculty of arts and sciences known for their “Leftier-than-thou” attitudes, or was he forced out because his sharp elbows poked a huckster like Cornell West in the ribs, or was he asked to pack his bags because he chewed out the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences for not revamping the core curriculum that would have made Harvard undergraduates get a more well-rounded education?

Commentary has been wide-ranging in American newspapers, with The New York Times publishing a bland essay by the once fiery lesbian academic, Camille Paglia, The Wall Street Journal presenting the views of Harvey Mansfield who teaches English at Harvard and is considered the campus gadfly by Harvard’s limousine Left and The Slate magazine showcasing a scathing essay by James Traub in which he points out that, “It’s true that a significant number of the many people I met who loathed Summers considered him a cultural conservative hell bent on pulling down the multicultural, deconstructionist temple of academic orthodoxy”.

Paglia’s essay which sheds neither light nor heat says, “But whatever his good intentions, Mr. Summers often inspired more heat than light.” She points out that Summers’ “Stellar early career as an economics professor did not prepare him for dealing with an ingrown humanities faculty that has been sunk in political correctness for decades”. Coming from Paglia, the assessment that Harvard’s arts and sciences instructors have been sunk in political correctness has a ring of factuality and impartiality. Why would not a faculty who are paid so well, who teach only twenty-eight weeks a year and who teach one or two classes a semester, not be secular, progressive, liberal and leftist? If you get paid enough to down a $60 bottle of Chardonnay every two days, you should be mellow enough to make the world “Flat” – not at your own expense, mind you, but simply as a grand vision.

As Harvard president, Summers “Had a duty to research the tribal creeds and customs of those he wished to convert”, says Paglia and that is where he committed the folly of rocking a well-settled-in-the-socialist-swamp boat. Paglia is echoing what Harvey Mansfield has been saying about the orthodoxy of the liberal/ progressive faculty not just at Harvard but in campuses around the country: that the Left/ progressive are crusty ideologues no different than crusty ideologues in the Right/ conservative camp, but that the Left indeed commandeers higher education.

Mansfield voted twenty years ago against creating a women’s studies major at Harvard, saying, “It is not possible to study women except in relation to men”. He is against the “Social engineering” projects that seek “To make the status of men and women equal, or, better to say, the same”. Paglia, a woman, a more sympathetic observer of men than the old, angry feminists, says almost the same thing. She challenges the angry, even shrill and hateful analyses of men-women relationships done by the likes of the dowdy and now dead Andrea Dworkin, who once angrily proclaimed, “Under patriarchy, every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman.” Paglia seems to echo what Mansfield says about the Summers affair: that Harvard’s president caved into pressure by the radical left at Harvard.

But this essay is not really about the resignation of Larry Summers. It is about Harvard University, the corporation which has an endowment of at least $26 billion. So fat is Harvard that when Summers made the mistake of saying, “Inquiring minds want to know whether there are differences between men and women in regards to their scientific and mathematical abilities”, he had to not only apologise over and over again, but allocate $50 million to help women scientists study how women do science at Harvard. Talk about a boondoggle! The faculty at Harvard, so well-fed and so in love with themselves that they don’t mind the wads of money thrown at them at the silliest pretext, seek to assuage their guilty souls by going round the world proclaiming their interest in alleviating poverty and removing discrimination. They do it well according to their standards: publishing a lot of books and presenting a lot of papers.

Still, what about that $26 billion endowment and the plans that Summers had for raising another five billion dollars (yes, billion) in the next few years? Harvard has so much money that it paid its money managers about $35 million a year to play the stock market. I have not compared numbers, but that would make it most probably the highest salary any executive anywhere in the world earned in a year. In 2003, with about $20 billion in endowment, Harvard’s top six money managers made about $108 million in salaries. And if you go to the Harvard University website, it says of its budget last year: income, $2.6 billion, expenditure, $2.6 billion. That means the money managers must have earned Harvard about nine or ten per cent dividend on the $26 billion investment. Even a one per cent drop in earnings would have meant $250 - 260 million less in earnings. Hmm, would it not make sense then to pay the money managers those fat sums? So goes the rationale of many of those with deep pockets who contribute regularly to the fat lady’s well being. So goes the rationale for paying fat salaries to Harvard faculty. Summers’ own salary at Harvard hovered around $500, 000, which compared to what the money managers made is a small fraction, but more equitable. Maybe, he should just have played the stock market instead for Harvard.

But again, the issue is complex and problematic. Should people give more and more money to richer and richer corporations (which private universities are)? America is a “Class society” and the gap between the classes has continued to widen and the economy is getting more and more lop-sided. The rich not only got richer in the past decade, they got richer faster. The Reagan economic model of wealth filtering down has really not worked and we see a country that is getting divided starkly. The poor are getting poorer and the middle class is getting strangled incrementally.

What affects the individual also affect institutions. The university I teach in, founded in 1839, has an endowment of about $40 million. Compare that to Harvard’s $26, 000 million. The top fifty university endowments range from $1billion (Michigan State University) to $22.5 billion (Harvard University), as of 2003-2004. Chock-full of Nobel laureates, teaching small classes and fewer classes, the rich universities attract students from rich families who pay up to $50, 000 a year to study in these fancy private education clubs. Despite the well-publicised efforts by Princeton and Harvard to pay for the tuition of middle and lower middle income families, the student body is reflective of the overall lopsidedness of the university profile. Only three per cent of Harvard’s students come from families earning less than $60, 000 a year. The rich students who then go on to earn a Harvard MBA, for example, begin life with a $135, 000-150, 000 salary, which I believe is the salary range for college deans in our university.

We cannot stop people from giving money to whichever institution they wish to support. Social engineering cannot be done or should not be done at that level. What we can do, however, is to appeal to people and make comparisons of wages, salaries and bank accounts/ endowments public. It is important that smaller universities, state universities and colleges that cater to the less wealthy get the support they need from the public, which will make the playing field less steep. Wealth that is spread equitably makes for happier citizens and healthier economies.

To conclude, the reams of paper used in describing the travails of Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, therefore, are less significant than the reams of paper waiting to be used to compare institutions of higher learning in the United States.

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