Friday, March 18, 2005

Hot Summers in the city 

I initially didn't care to post on Larry Summers getting pimpslapped by the Arts and Science faculty at Harvard because I thought David Bernstein had already said what I was thinking.
The far left at Harvard is extremely frustrated with political trends in the U.S. Their votes and activism against Bush were not only completely ineffectual, but they don't even have a Democratic governor in one of the most liberal states in the country. So they pick on the closest thing Harvard has to a powerful right-winger: moderate Democrat and university president Larry Summers, who becomes a stand-in for all evil conservative white men, from Bush on down. The far-left faculty finally participates in a vote that it can win, and experiences cartharsis...

Thinking about it some more, I thought I might chime in.

I've seen Summers at conference back before the Clinton Administration, when he was your basic academic economist at a top-flight institution. You might say he has an attitude, but when he'd written so many good articles so early in your career, you might also say he'd earned the right to the 'tude. In short, he could walk the walk, and didn't suffer fools gladly who got in the way. That doesn't exactly make him unique in academia. If it matters to you at all, I would put him alongside Krugman in that regard; Brad Delong, in contrast, can walk the walk but is very approachable. (Delong is the only one I've actually spoken to at a meeting, but I've seen all three at American Economic Assoc. meetings.)

When Bob Rubin was getting ready to leave Treasury and Summers was to take the mantel of leadership, there were several articles about the differing styles of Rubin and Summers. This one, for example, describes his transition to leadership.

Rarely do economists make the transition from university life to government as successfully as the 42-year-old Summers has. Indeed, no one else in his generation has been in Washington for as long, or in a series of such high-profile posts.

Along the way, he has bruised more than a few egos, from Republican members of Congress who complain they have been lectured on economic principles as if they were classroom dullards, to administration colleagues who have felt some sharp bureaucratic elbows. In recent months, as Summers' authority and world view have expanded, he has clearly tried to tone down.

"I've learned that being precisely analytically accurate is neither necessary nor sufficient for being constructive in Washington's debates," he said recently over lunch a block from the White House. "After being a professor of political economy, I guess now I'd give more weight to the political than to the economic than when I first got here."

And this in his own self-reflection:

And there are still questions -- usually uttered off the record -- about whether Summers' sometimes impolitic style could prevent him from moving to the other side of the elegant, antique-filled suite he shares with Rubin. He is frequently the target of a lot of political vitriol, in part because he will say things in public that Rubin will not.

"Bob is legendary for speaking in an extraordinarily restrained way," Summers said, when asked to compare his style with Rubin's. "But if you thought about my speech pattern, you'd go through a lot of other adjectives before you got to 'restrained' and 'unprovocative."'

Summers, in short, is not one of those people about whom Washingtonians or economists have neutral opinions.

That was very unlikely to change when he got to Harvard, and indeed it has not. It wouldn't be too big a stretch of the imagination to think the Summers who said something impolitic in a lunch meeting probably has done so as well in private meetings with department chairs, deans, and faculty. In a discussion on the Becker-Posner blog, Justice Posner argues that because of misaligned incentives, there is no chance that the reforms Summers has attempted to institute at Harvard would get any assistnace from below.

Larry Summers can be seen as attempting an incremental shift in university structure toward the business model. Compare a university department with the corresponding division of a business firm. The department is likely to operate as a self-perpetuating oligarchy, with the chairman appointed by and dependent on the faculty of the department and owing all fealty to the department rather than to the university. Rarely will a department chairman aspire to a leadership role in university administration, and so he will have no incentive to bring a university-wide perspective to his job. In contrast, the corporate division head will be looking to rise in the corporate hierarchy, and this will require him to manage his division with due regard for the division's role in the corporation as a whole.

...It is plain that with all their strengths, American universities have plenty of problems. Neglect of teaching by academic stars is one. The reign of political correctness, which makes a mockery of the academic commitment to wide-open debate, is another; a related point is the political imbalance of university faculties. The continued advance of specialization, which threatens to destroy any general intellectual culture and further estrange the universities from the society as a whole, is a third problem. Universities need better management to solve these problems, and better management may require changes in organizational structure.

Better management would help allay the problems Summers faces. Gary Becker notes that faculty are the university, and Posner believes it's time to retire that idea. While I don't want, as a department chairman, the powers Posner argues we might have, there's no doubt we could use a better incentive structure than we have now.