Sunday, February 27, 2005

I've gotten a few emails about the Summers controversy from former classmates, and even a few from some friends who have returned there.

The general consensus seems to be that regardless of what he actually said, he rather gravely confused his various professional roles. Bear with me as I explain.

In general, President Summers has three occupational personas: the professorial persona, the administrative-presidential persona, and the public-presidential persona.

The first is, clearly, an academic one. In this role, Summers can speak on economic matters with the full authority of someone who is widely revered in his field, has held a rather staggering array of professional positions (including Secretary of the Treasury), and in essence is one step shy of being an academic god. Thus the professorial Summers can say more or less whatever he wants, because as radical or provocative as his views may be he has the track record to back them up.

Summers' second role, the administrative-presidential, is to lead and to attend to the internal dynamics of the university. In this role, he is to fulfill the mandate set by the board when he was tapped to be president. Here too he can be provocative, because he has the authority of the board behind him and the board as much as said that they chose him precisely because he had such a domineering personality.

His third role, however, is to be Harvard's face to the outside community. Here Summers can most decidedly not be provocative. In this role he is not to air his own personal views but to present the views of the university itself. Consequently, he can only be radical or incendiary if the consensus within the university already is so.

The mistake Summers made was to speak as an academic to a party that had invited him as a university president. In addressing the audience as a university president, he should have done no more than rehash the standard views espoused by members of his university's faculty.

The conclusion this leads to is that if in fact Summers' invitation to speak urged him to be provocative, then he should never have accepted the invitation. He was invited as president of Harvard University to an event outside of the Harvard community, and being provocative is not a part of his public presidential role.

Perhaps I'll get into what he actually said later. But before any arguments themselves there is always context, and it's patently disturbing that such a prominent figure should have so erroneously misconstrued his own.


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