Harvard and Its Presidents

It’s time to take another look at what might be called the Larry Summers affair. Summers had previously been discussed here many times in two connections. One was his failure to punish Harvard law professors who plagiarized and who had books partly ghostwritten for them. The other was the inanities he put forward by way of analogies in support of women’s supposed lack of equal ability at the top levels of science. His performance in these matters caused this writer to feel he was not, shall we say, an enforcer of rectitude, was in thrall to a despicable style that might appropriately be called the Washington syndrome, and was not even very smart — a view with which only Stanley Fish seemed to agree — notwithstanding that lots of people have described him as invariably being the smartest guy in the room.

The major catalyst to writing again about Summers was a lengthy March 24th article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Harry R. Lewis, a computer scientist who had been Dean of Harvard College from 1995-2003 (part of the time under Summers). The article was “adapted” from a book Lewis is publishing on Harvard this month. (Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (Public Affairs).) Lewis is displeased with many aspects of the education at Harvard; some of these criticisms I do not feel capable of discussing. But his criticisms of Summers relate to matters that perhaps I do know a bit about.

To my surprise, Lewis’ viewpoints seem not to be different from points I have expressed for some time. Lewis, however, supports such views with reference to facts and incidents which this writer sometimes did not even know about. And though his article can be read for many different points with regard to Summers’ style and why he lost his job, it seems to me that one point in particular may well be the most fundamental one with regard to why the liberal arts faculty felt Summers had to go.

Summers, says Lewis, suffered from “lack of candor” and “insincerity.” In this regard, Lewis says that a few months before his (puerile) speech belittling women’s aptitude, he made no mention of any such negative view “when a large group of women professors pointed out to him a dramatic decline in hiring of women faculty members.” Thus the faculty thought he had been insincere, and was furious, when he later made his speech about women’s supposed inherent shortcomings.

He was also thought less than honest, says Lewis, when he said at a faculty meeting that he did not know enough to make a judgment with regard to Harvard’s role in the 30 million dollar federal fraud case involving Andrei Schleifer, a case that Harvard paid tens of millions to the feds to settle. Summers is a long time buddy, mentor and economics colleague of Schleifer, Summers was deposed in the feds’ case against Harvard and Schleifer, and Summers admitted asking Dean Knowles of Harvard to protect Schleifer. For Summers to say he did not know enough to make a judgment was simply not believable, it seems.

It was also reported by a “former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences” named Peter Ellison that “in response to a question in an earlier faculty meeting,” Summers “had misrepresented his plans to change the faculty’s authority over doctoral programs. The issue, said Ellison, had become one of the President’s character, not his personality or style.” Summers, said Lewis, would “certainly” have lost a second scheduled no-confidence vote “by a wide margin. [He] chose to offer his resignation rather than suffer that humiliation.”

So sheer dishonesty and lack of candor were a major contributing factor in Summers’ debacle, according to Lewis. And although Lewis’ writing is not the very soul of pristine clarity, it is surely possible, I think, to interpret what he is saying as meaning that dishonesty and lack of candor were the most important contributing factor. But there were other factors, too, Lewis clearly seems to be saying.

For example, Lewis feels that Summers had become what might be called a Washingtonite. “In his Washington years, he learned the ways of politics and the power of the media — and the importance of controlling information and communication, of message over substance.” He treated students and faculty not as individuals, but “like the electorate as seen from Washington, D.C., interest groups” which receive what they want “in proportion to their size and influence,” and not by virtue of intellectual analysis. Summers also was an afficionado of the thought-free one liner, not of written “essays in which ideas struggled against contrary ideas,” not of “balanced, thoughtful, and informed analysis that characterizes the academy at its best” or of the “eloquent essays about matters they thought worthy of broad attention” that had been produced by his predecessors, Derek Bok and Neil Rudenstine.

In addition to all this, Lewis thinks Summers hogged credit (in the best Washington tradition) for purported achievements that were not real or that were partly attributable to others, was an incompetent administrator and a hamhanded, disorganized manager, was a practitioner of the Washington syndrome of swelling a stultifying bureaucracy, hiring “many high-priced consultants” and throwing money at problems to buy peace, was an uninspiring leader, was a bully, and was contemptuous of individuals and whole fields of study.

All in all, a very broad indictment of the abilities — or serious inabilities — of a leader whose downfall the press widely but falsely insists on attributing to a “complacent faculty’s resistance to his . . . innovative ideas” or “an attack by feminist harpies allied with leftist crazies.”

But despite the breadth of Lewis’ overall indictment, it still seems to me that the single most important reason for Summers’ downfall is Summers’ lack of honesty — a distinct Washington trait. Not for nothing, one thinks, does Lewis later say, when dealing with what should be done at Harvard, that “We must find a way to honor good character in our faculty members and to penalize acts that call a professor’s character into question.” Which is precisely what Summers did not do in the cases which caused me to start writing about Harvard and Summers a bit over a year and a half ago, the cases of plagiarism and ghostwriting in the Harvard Law School.

* * *

The ghostwriting and plagiarism at the Harvard Law School was explicitly or virtually explicitly admitted by various people on a number of occasions, was part of the process of producing some important books, appears to very possibly have been a major part of the process of producing a major treatise, was whitewashed to a significant extent in my judgment by members of special high level Harvard investigating committees, by the Dean of the law school, Elena Kagan, and by the University President, Larry Summers, and, for all that one can tell from the outside, appears to have resulted either in no punishment or only in some type of unobservable minimal punishment (so that one of the admitted culprits remains, disgracefully, a university professor, as far as this writer knows).

By an almost bizarre fortuity, the very day after I began to research this essay, yet another plagiarism/ghostwriting incident at Harvard was written up in The Boston Globe. I speak, of course, of the now infamous Kaavya Viswanathan affair — the young Harvard student who was initially thought to have plagiarized or copycatted from one book, is now thought to have possibly plagiarized or copycatted from three books, and apparently had part of her book ghostwritten, as it were, by a so-called book packager (who, some people speculate privately, may have been itself responsible for some of the plagiarism). The emergence of this episode reminds one of an ethnically obnoxious comment made by a Democrat Maryland money man when the (rather dishonest) liberal, Paul Tsongas, threw his hat in the presidential ring in the early 1990s, just a few years after Michael Dukakis got creamed in the 1988 election. “Another Greek from Massachusetts”, exclaimed this bird, “What have they got in the water up there?” Well, given the emergence of the Viswanathan contretemps so soon after the Harvard law professor imbroglio, one is tempted to exclaim, “Another plagiarism/ghostwriting scandal from Harvard! What have they got in the water of the Charles?”

A day after disclosing the Viswanathan affair, The Globe broke another plagiarism story. It seems that William Swanson, the Chairman of Raytheon, a major Boston area company, has plagiarized or copycatted, from a 1944 work (and, it was more recently revealed, from other work as well), half or more of a book of business advice that has been distributed by Raytheon by the hundreds of thousands. But not to worry. Raytheon’s lead director, former U.S. Senator Warren Rudman, previously an ally of the not so honest Paul Tsongas, and the man who is said to have persuaded the first George Bush that David Souter would be a reliable conservative on the Supreme Court, immediately expressed confidence to The Globe that the Raytheon board would continue behind Swanson. “He’s got just too much good will with the customers, the board, and the employees’, Rudman said to The Globe.

What’s in the water up here?

Again, not to worry. A few days after Rudman’s comment, Raytheon’s Board of Directors decreed that he would be punished by losing nearly one million of the several or many millions of dollars in compensation that he will receive this year. The poor guy. How will he eat? Of course, the Board also declared that it had “full confidence'” in this leader of “extraordinary vision.'”

But let me return now to Harvard. I’ve read somewhere in the many articles about her that Viswanathan has at least temporarily left school — which would be understandable in light of the pressure she has been under. But if she is still at or returns to Harvard, can it punish her? One might think the answer should be yes, even though a question is said to be raised in this regard because her transgression was not committed in connection with her course work. For what kind of example would it be for other students if Harvard were to have, as an unpunished student, a woman who committed wholesale the intellectual fraud of plagiarism, copycatting and, very possibly, having work ghostwritten. The example would even be all the worse, one might perversely argue, because it pertains not to intellectual work, but to the only thing people really care about in America: making money. If you can commit this kind of fraud and the worst that can happen to you is that you may lose the money you would otherwise have made, lots more students than otherwise might be tempted to stumble the light fantastic, so to speak. The example, as said, would be awful.

But can Harvard punish her consistent with what it has done — or, more accurately, failed to do — with regard to its law professors? They haven’t been punished at all as nearly as one can tell from the outside. If they have received some unspecified punishment, as one claimed he had — the other doesn’t even claim this — it must have been pretty minimal and seems not to have affected their careers at all. They, moreover, unlike Viswanathan, were not wet-behind-the-ears kids, but sophisticated, middle-aged transgressors who already had big reputations and certainly should have known better than to cheat. So how can Harvard punish Viswanathan when it let them get off scot free or the nearest thing to it?

Of course, when the law professor imbroglio was occurring, it was claimed that one of its deplorable aspects was that Harvard holds students to high levels of integrity — to non plagiarism and to not having papers ghostwritten – – that it does not impose on the students’ supposed role models, the faculty. So one guesses there is precedent for inconsistent treatment here.

Anyway, it would be obnoxious to integrity to let Viswanathan off the hook. Obviously the better solution, the best solution, would be to punish her and them. I do not think the professors should continue to get off scot free, or nearly scot free, just because they have been able to do so thus far due to the lack of academic integrity of top administrators at Harvard.

This, however, raises another problem, the problem of whether top administrators at Harvard punish someone for something the administrators themselves may have participated in or done. Take, for example, the Dean of the Harvard Law School, through whom the punishments apparently would have to run, as it were. Not quite twenty years ago, when she was a law student, she appears to have been a significant ghostwriter for a major treatise of one of the Harvard professors who has now been caught plagiarizing in a significant book and, apparently, having had that book ghostwritten for him besides. (Conceivably the plagiarism was by the ghostwriter, not by the professor, whose name is on the book, of course.) Now, having participated in what conceivably was ghostwriting for this professor’s treatise, how can the Dean turn around and punish him for the ghostwriting (and plagiarism)? It would look like sheer hypocrisy. True, she apparently was a youngster when she was a ghostwriter. Doubtlessly she, like the professor’s other young ghostwriters, was desperate to get this middle aged liberal professor’s approval and his recommendation that would open the doors at the highest levels of government — a few years later she did have a responsible position in the Clinton White House. So because of her youth at the time, one could argue — however weakly in my judgment — that she was not nearly as morally culpable as the professor himself. Even so, it would hardly be seemly for her to now turn around and punish him for acts very much like those she herself participated in on his behalf.

Of course, the morality of her current conduct with regard to the two law professors is not improved by its Washingtonite nature. As discussed here previously, she and Summers, both high level veterans of the immoral morass of Washington, may well have figured that if they simply refused to discuss the contretemps, or at most downplayed it, it would go away regardless of how great the trenching on academic integrity. It was not, after all, a subject of unending daily concern to the media, like Iraq or the economy or Monica. And go away is exactly what it did, at least unless and until the Viswanathan matter causes it to be resurrected. So her conduct may not have been the zenith of morality, but, however immoral, her silence worked, at least until now.

There is also the matter of this Dean’s candidacy to succeed Summers as the President of Harvard. Some people at Harvard for whom I have a high regard have lauded the Dean to me. She has a fine reputation on campus. And when Summers’ resignation was announced, she was one of five persons (if I remember correctly) whose names were widely mentioned as a possible likely successor. This, however, would seem to raise all over again the same kind of spectre that has been under discussion here. It raises the spectre of Harvard being headed again by someone who has allowed serious violations of academic integrity to go unpunished and who, as a younger person, may even have been a significant participant in such violations. Not to mention that she too, like Summers, has been trained in the immoral and despicable training grounds of Washington, D.C. and Presidential politics. Does Harvard really want another President who has this background?

If Harry Lewis is right, the answer may be yes with regard to Harvard’s highest governing board, the Harvard Corporation, which, he says, “consist[s] largely of people from the world of business and finance” and brought to Harvard, in Summers, a man who “[a]s a former U.S. Treasury Secretary . . . understands the power of money to shape society” and “[i]n his Washington years . . . learned the ways of politics and the power of the media — and the importance of controlling information and communication, of message over substance.”

So conceivably the Harvard Corporation may want a person with the Dean’s background. But even if it does, does anyone else? Would it be wise? Would it be good? And can Harvard not find someone who is qualified and has not participated in or condoned the academic frauds of plagiarism and ghostwriting?

Then, too, there is also the question raised by the fact that Derek Bok is to become the once and future President of Harvard, if merely its interim future President, until Summers’ replacement is chosen. Now, from what little I can determine, Bok appears to be a fine guy. On television he has come across like the soul of rectitude, and one presumes the image is the reality. He also has authored many books including, most recently, books on problems with colleges. Yet there are questions raised in connection with the Harvard law professor problem.

Bok was a member of two committees specially set up to report on these matters. The first was comprised of him and Robert Clark, the former Dean of the law school. (Before he became President of Harvard in 1970, Bok too had been the Dean of the law school.) On the basis of the Bok/Clark report, the Boston Globe said, the current law school Dean “deemed the [first] case ‘a serious scholarly transgression'” (yet seems to have imposed little or no punishment — go figure).

Bok, however, defended the professor to the Globe, which quoted Bok as saying “There was no deliberate wrongdoing at all.” Rather, said Bok, the problem arose because “of publishers insisting on a tight deadline,” plus the fact that the professor therefore “marshaled his assistants and parceled out the work and in the process some quotation marks got lost.” But did Bok not learn in the Bok/Clark inquiry that the assistants — students — had ghostwritten at least the part of the book known to be plagiarized, i.e., did Bok and Clark not learn that it was an assistant, not the professor, who had put the plagiarized part into the book?

If Bok and Clark did not learn this, then how thorough could their inquiry have been (and why did the present Dean feel an inadvertent failure to put in quotation marks was such a serious transgression)? And if Bok and Clark did learn of the ghostwriters, why did Bok tell the Globe that there was “no deliberate wrongdoing'”? Was this because at Harvard — as yet another famous Harvard law professor seems to have admitted defacto in an e-mail published on this blogsite — the use of assistants to write all or part of professors’ books is so common, at least in the law school, is so taken for granted, that it is not looked on askance, so that Bok did not think it constituted deliberate wrongdoing? Assistants haven’t, God forbid, written all or part of Bok’s well known books too, have they?

All of this raises very troublesome questions, both because Bok has been selected by the Harvard Corporation to be the interim President and because, this being so, it does not, shall we say, necessarily portend that an excessive concern for academic purity will be at the top of the Corporation’s agenda in seeking a permanent President. One wishes that Bok would come out and say, “No assistant, be he or she a student or otherwise, has ever drafted all or any part of any book I have authored. All that any student or other assistant has ever done is to do research that I used in writing my books.”

Were Bok to say this, a lot of questions would go away and one would feel better about the Corporation which selected him. I’m confident, moreover, that Richard Posner can say that nobody else has ever written all or any part of his staggering number of books and articles. I can say that with regard to my infinitely smaller number of books and articles (as well as my blogs). Can and will Bok say it? How about other people who have been connected with or are on the Harvard law faculty?

Concerns one may have are not allayed, but rather are heightened, by what happened in the case of the second Harvard law professor. In April of 2005 it became known, from a joint statement issued by Summers and the Dean of the law school, that they had appointed a three person committee to investigate the situation regarding the second professor. The committee, which included Derek Bok, had “inquire[d] into the circumstances by reviewing the materials and speaking with the individuals principally involved.”

The statement from Summers and the Dean then went on to whitewash the professor’s conduct. At no point did the joint statement of Summers and the Dean mention that the offending book may have been — one would think from various statements and circumstances that it probably was – – ghostwritten by a student. Did Bok and the other two members of the investigating committee not learn this, which would not speak well for their thoroughness? Did they learn it but not mention it (perhaps because ghostwriting is common in the law school)? If they did learn of it but then did not mention it, this would not speak well of their standards (and, one notes, the two other members of the committee besides Bok are not law school faculty). Did they learn of it and mention it, but it then was not mentioned by Summers and the Dean in their joint statement? — which would also be pretty bad. And did the three man committee not learn of or mention — perhaps because it was not part of their commission — the allegations that the professor’s major treatise was in part ghostwritten, a process apparently participated in by the law school Dean?

None of the possibilities are very pretty to contemplate. Unfortunately, the only thing known for sure is that there is a lot that is not known.

* * *

So where does all this leave us? More importantly, where does it leave Harvard?

Before discussing this question, let me first address the fact that a tiny number of people, “far” less than the fingers of one hand if memory serves, have claimed that this blogger has in the past assailed the ghostwriting and plagiarism at Harvard because he has something against the institution. That is utterly not so. It is, in fact, stupid. In more recent argot, it is dumber than George Bush.

My reasons for bringing up the transgressions at Harvard are, rather, twofold. One, Harvard is much in the news, especially in the Boston area where I live, and lots of what happens at Harvard is intrinsically very interesting — and not less so to an academic. Two, as Harry Lewis said near the beginning of his article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a Boston Brahmin, and Boston and Harvard benefactor, named Henry Lee Higginson said that “the health and true welfare of our University and our country go hand in hand.” (Interestingly, Higginson’s cousin was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the abolitionist who was one of the “secret six” who secretly financed John Brown. Henry Higginson himself served and was seriously wounded in combat in the Union army, and later donated Soldier’s Field to Harvard in memory of Brahmin friends who perished in the Civil War.)

To say that the health and welfare of Harvard and the health and welfare of the country are bound together sounds, in this day and age, suspiciously like saying that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. Yet there remains to this day more than a little truth in Higginson’s statement. In the academic world, Harvard remains the cynosure of all eyes; schools and academics all over the country aspire to be what it is and to do what its faculty members do. And what is done today by Harvard, its professors, and schools and professors elsewhere who follow its lead, usually becomes what the students of today, who are the leaders of tomorrow, tend to do and/or think. A conservative, it was once said, is a man in thrall to dead liberals. A man of action, it was once said, is a man who is unknowingly in debt to dead scribblers. So what Harvard does, and what it stands for, will have effect. Big time. Thus if one cares about education, and even more if one cares about what kind of country this is and becomes, one wants to see the right things done at Harvard.

In this regard Harry Lewis had a lot of ideas about what needs to be done at Harvard. Many of his subjects are, as said at the beginning of this posting, ones that I am not qualified to discuss. But I do feel qualified to say, as an educator, and even more as a citizen, that it is necessary to put an end to dishonesty of all sorts in the country, and therefore to put an end to it at Harvard because a dishonest Harvard will teach the wrong lesson to its students, other schools and the country, and an honest Harvard will teach them the right lesson. Harry Lewis is surely right in saying that, in searching for Summers’ successor, the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing board, should not be “distracted by superficialities — candidates’ gender, celebrity, and manners, for example.” He surely is equally right in saying that Harvard “must find a way to honor good character in our faculty members and to penalize acts that call a professor’s character into question.”

Thus, I would think that the quality of honesty, and the quality of “non Washingtoniteness” if one may put it that way, should be at the very top of what is being looked for in the next President of Harvard.

LAWRENCE R. VELVEL is the Dean of Massachusetts School of Law. He can be reached at velvel@mslaw.edu.



Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, is the author of Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam and An Enemy of the People. He can be reached at: Velvel@VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com