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.