Saturday, February 10, 2007

Harvard's Faustian Bargain

Okay, I admit that I gave this post that title for no reason other than the name of Harvard's new president, Drew Gilpin Faust. I've got nothing whatsoever against Faust. Indeed, until yesterday I had never heard of her, which undoubtedly says more about me than about her. That all said, I was a little surprised that Elana Kagan, current dean of the law school, didn't get the nod. Here's why:

1) The obvious. Like Faust, Kagan is a woman. Fairly or not, Larry Summers will be remembered as the President whose two principal accomplishments were driving Cornel West back to Princeton and questioning women's aptitude for science. The easiest way to distance Harvard from the Summers legacy was to name a woman (or possibly a member of a racial minority group) as President.

2) Kagan has been a very successful dean. Her predecessor, Robert Clark, was a good fundraiser and stopped some of the worst political infighting among the faculty. But throughout his deanship, faculty politics lingered, to the point where every significant faculty appointment was an ideological test: To appoint a conservative, the school had to appoint a corresponding liberal, and vice-versa. Kagan largely ended that practice, and as a result has been able to increase the size of the faculty. To the extent that Kagan's success has been a matter of getting a fractious group to work together, that would have boded well for the university.

3) Successful law deans generally make good university presidents, as Harvard's return to Derek Bok as interim President showed. More broadly, the modern university is a highly complex institution that requires at least as much of a business or government sensibility as an academic sensibility. Not all law professors have that, but those who have been successful law deans tend to. Kagan also has government experience from the Clinton administration.

4) Kagan was generally thought to be philosophically not that distant from Summers, without his style and baggage. Summers' tenure was not entirely a failure. For example, by most accounts, his initiative to create more classroom contact hours between top faculty and students was, unsurprisingly, popular with students and many alumni. A substantial minority of faculty supported what they regarded as the more general effort by Summers to stop coddling some of their colleagues. Faculty who resisted these changes were able to seize on Summers' gaffes and his abrasive management style to oust him, but there are reasons to think that for at least some faculty, these were pretextual. To the extent that much of the Summers program remained popular with students, alumni, and some faculty, Kagan would have been a perfect choice: essentially the Summers philosophy without the Summers negatives.

But obviously the selection process went differently. As an alum, I wish President Faust good luck.


Jamison Colburn said...

Interesting developments, Mike. I was thinking that Kagan would get the nod, too. Do you think they left her in her current post to keep the wheels on during an upcoming physical move of the LS across the river and/or other travails coming up? I don't know the harvard politics very well, but at many schools keeping the law school healthy tends to be a top priority.

Greg said...

Maybe the search committee was interested in long-term stability; Kagan has often been mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee in a Democratic administration.

Adam P. said...

Technically, Dean Kagan was my boss for a brief bit when I worked at HLS, though I never met her. But my immediate bosses all knew her fairly well. I think her relative isolation from the arts and sciences faculty didn't help her that much. Dean Faust has been working with people at different schools in her current position, which likely helped her cred.
Even though Kagan and Summers certainly had different styles, they were also both former Clinton administration officials. It would be strange to be going "a different route" and still have a "politician" in the seat (though I think that University Presidents are essentially politicians, regardless.)
I also agree with Jamison that it might be an issue of them wanting to keep her at the LS, not necessarily because of potential site moves, but just because there's a sense that Kagan might finally be hitting her stride. Though she's made a huge impact on student satisfaction (amazing what an ice skating rink will do), I think she's still got a long way to go with faculty stuff and the new curriculum. Financially, she's also got the alumni relationship down now, so it would be a bit of a waste to move on.
Of course, she also may not have wanted the position.

Michael C. Dorf said...

My speculations aren't worth more than anybody else's but I tend to think that the presidency considerations dwarfed everything else. I have a hard time believing that Kagan would have been passed over if she were otherwise the first choice. The law school would have found an adequate replacement and would have benefited from its relationship with the new president. So I tend to think that they ultimately believed Faust was best for the job.

Amos Blackman said...

I was also surprised to see the appointment of Dean Faust, not over Dean Kagan specifically,* but over more experienced administrators generally. Summers was not a complete failure, in that he remained popular with both the undergraduates and most of the schools outside the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but he obviously has little talent for juggling the disparate interests within such a large institution. To choose Dean Faust, dean of the smallest program at Harvard, over Dean Kagan, President Gutmann of Penn, and other known administrative talents, seems to be taking the same risks that backfired on them in the Summers-Bollinger choice.

*However, I think there is possibly more to Jamison's theory than "presidential considerations" may account for. The HLS students I know who experienced Dean Kagan's arrival describe such a stark improvement in the atmosphere on campus that I have to imagine they considered the potential cost of replacing her with a merely "adequate" dean, given how low their reputation for quality of life had fallen prior to her appointment.

Mark Graber said...

A small comment. Within the world of history and humanities, Drew Faust has an exceptional reputation (not surprising). I suspect, for example, if one polled the entire Yale (Princeton, Chicago . . .) faculty, more would recognize Faust than Kagan. This is hardly a point in the favor of either, but merely a suggestion that Harvard seems to have had an embarrassment of riches in this case, and the choice may look better or worse depending on your position in the academy.

Dan Markel said...

Mike, I tried to leave a trackback to your post, but didn't see one available. There's a related discussion spurred in part by your post over at PrawfsBlawg:


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