Larry Summers on What Went Wrong on Campus

From Persuasion:

Larry Summers is an economist, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School, and a member of the board of directors of OpenAI. Summers is the former President of Harvard University, the former Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton, and was a director of the National Economic Council under Barack Obama.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Larry Summers discuss how universities can re-commit to pursuing truth and protecting academic freedom; how current economic indicators contrast with how many people actually experience the economy.

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Yascha Mounk: The last few months have been rather eventful at Harvard University. Tell us your view of what has happened and why it matters.

Larry Summers: It’s been a very difficult time. I think what universities do is as important as the work of any other institution in our society, in terms of training young people and preparing them for careers of leadership, and in terms of developing new ideas that set the tone for the cultural, the political, the policy debates that go forward.

Paul Samuelson famously said that if he would be allowed to write the economics textbooks, he didn’t care who would get to perform as the finance ministers going forward. So I think what happens in universities is immensely important. And I think there is a widespread sense—and it is, I think, unfortunately, with considerable validity—that many of our leading universities have lost their way; that values that one associated as central to universities—excellence, truth, integrity, opportunity—have come to seem like secondary values relative to the pursuit of certain concepts of social justice, the veneration of certain concepts of identity, the primacy of feeling over analysis, and the elevation of subjective perspective. And that has led to clashes within universities and, more importantly, an enormous estrangement between universities and the broader society.

When the president of Harvard is a figure on a Saturday Night Live skit, when three presidents of universities combine to produce the most watched congressional hearing film clip in history, when applications to Harvard fall in a several-month period by more they’ve ever fallen before, when alumni are widely repudiating their alma mater, when they’re the subject of as many legal investigations as the Boeing company, you have a real crisis in higher education. And I think it’s been a long time coming because of those changes in values that I was describing.

Mounk: Tell us a little bit more about the nature of the conflict here. What is the conception of the university that has historically guided it, and how is it that those values have changed over the last ten years?

Summers: I think the values that animated me to spend my life in universities were values of excellence in thought, in pursuit of truth. We’re never going to find some ultimate perfect truth, but through argument, analysis, discussion, and study we can get closer to truth. And a world that is better understood is a world that is made better. And I think, increasingly, all you have to do is read the rhetoric of commencement speeches. It’s no longer what we talk about. We talk about how we should have analysis, we should have discussion, but the result of that is that we will each have more respect for each other’s point of view, as if all points of view are equally good and there’s a kind of arbitrariness to a conception of truth. That’s a kind of return to pre-Enlightenment values and I think very much a step backward. I thought of the goal of the way universities manage themselves as being the creation of an ever larger circle of opportunity in support of as much merit and as much excellence as possible.

I spoke in my inaugural address about how, a century before, Harvard had been a place where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen. And today it was so much better because it reached to every corner of the nation, every subgroup within the population, every part of the world. It did that as a vehicle for providing opportunity and excellence for those who could make the greatest contribution. But again, we’ve moved away from that to an idea of identity essentialism, the supposition that somehow the conditions of your birth determine your views on intellectual questions, whether it’s interpretations of quantum theory or Shakespeare. And so that, instead, our purpose is not to bring together the greatest minds, but is back to some idea around multiplicity of perspective with perspective being identified with identity. We used to venerate and celebrate excellence. Now, at Harvard, and Harvard is not atypical of leading universities, 70 to 75% of the grades are in A-range. Why should the institutions that are most celebrating of excellence have only one grade for everyone in the top half of the class, but nine different grades that are applied to students in the lower half of the class? That is a step away from celebrating and venerating excellence. 

We celebrate particular ideas in ways that are very problematic, and we are reluctant to come to judgment: What started all the controversy at Harvard, and it has many different strands, was on October 7, when 34 student groups at Harvard, speaking as a coalition of Harvard students, condemned Israel as being responsible for the Hamas attacks. Those reports of the 34 student groups were reported in places where literally billions of people read them. And based on some inexplicable theory, the Harvard administration and the Harvard corporation (the Trustees of the University) could not find it within themselves to disassociate the university from those comments. I have no doubt that if similar comments had been made of a racist variety, there would have been no delay in the strongest possible disassociation of the university. But because Israel demonization is the fashion in certain parts of the social justice-proclaiming left, there was a reluctance to reach any kind of judgment, even about the most morally problematic statements.

It is not that the university was slow to comment on George Floyd. It is not that the university was slow to comment when some within it wanted to host a “black mass.” It is not that the university has been slow when social scientists have wanted to speculate about group differences. So I think that this combination—the veneration of a particular concept of social justice, the act of disrespect for excellence, the celebration of identity rather than the pursuit of opportunity, and the rejection of truth—have made these institutions problematic in the impact they have on those who pass through them, in whatever influence they have on the broader society and estranged from the broader society. And I think for any kind of private institution, it has to find a social contract in which it can operate with the broader society. And the fact that the ways in which great universities have acted have so enabled the Elise Stefaniks, the Bill Ackmans, and the Christopher Rufos, speaks to the danger with which they have been governed. 

I come from a left of center tradition. And I’m not far left of center, but surely left of center. And I’ve always been acutely aware, in thinking of universities, that Ronald Reagan got his political start by condemning and running against what was happening at Berkeley in the mid-1960s. And that the tradition of then-Governor Brown—who had inaugurated this wonderful idea of free college education for anyone who had a B-average in a California high school—got completely blown away in a tide of fury about “welfare Cadillacs.” But what brought that tide to prominence was a general revulsion at what had been going on at Berkeley that Ronald Reagan rode to his political career. And so it seems to me that universities that fail to govern themselves effectively are at immense peril to themselves and to the broader progressive values that they hold.

Mounk: How dangerous do you think this moment is, not just to the reputation of universities but to their actual ability to function as co-institutions of the United States? I’m a little torn on this. On the one hand, you can make the case that even the most affluent and insulated universities like Harvard need federal funding for the research that they undertake, and to finance a lot of the student loans that its undergraduates take out. On the other hand, Harvard has an endowment of, what, $50 billion? And it does continue to have real support in the population. Where would you place yourself on the worry scale about sort of the worst-case scenarios here?

Summers: I think one would find for any Ivy League school that the federal government was ten times as large a donor, at least, as any other donor. And I think it’s fair to say that the universities have thumbed their nose at what is by far their largest donor. And they’re certainly not prepared to take that casual and cavalier attitude towards much smaller individual donors because of what they think the consequences would be. I think it’s fine to stand strongly against a set of people who in many ways are riding this horse, but wish the process of thought and wish academic freedom ill. The problem is not that Harvard has worked itself into a war with Elise Stefanik. The problem is that it got itself condemned from the White House press briefing room of the Biden administration, that it finds itself subject to investigation from the Department of Education of the Biden administration, that the attacks on it are coming in a bipartisan way.

I think one of the aspects of how this has happened is that while on the one hand we think of intellectual communities as being the most broad-minded of communities, on the other hand they are actually among the most narrow, insular and inward-looking in the way they evaluate themselves and in the way they think of the necessary decision making. There’s an old story about when Pat Moynihan had decided to leave the UN and called the Dean of Harvard to say he would be returning. He said he’d let the president know and the Dean of Harvard assumed he was referring to the President of Harvard rather than the President of the United States. And that bespeaks a kind of attitude that I think is very problematic. 

Link to the rest at Persuasion