I had a hard time convincing myself that Larry Summers’s ouster was based entirely on professors in left-wing heat. Summers enjoyed strong support from Harvard’s more productive faculties, like the law and business professors and, to a slightly lesser extent, the medical professors. And as we all know, the studentry had his back. It was the running-on-fumes Arts and Sciences folks who forced him out. Much like the top half of the U.N.’s Secretariat Building, they’ll crush any reform effort that threatens to confiscate any of the communal administrative power they’ve slowly built up over the years.
And as we know from the U.N., that leads to foundering fecklessness.
Whether the reformer is conservative or liberal does not, on balance, seem to matter so much. (Though it happens that most true reformers are conservative, simply because it takes such an outsider to see problems.) At Harvard, a liberal faculty challenged a liberal reformer and at my dear old Dartmouth a liberal faculty challenged conservative reformers when Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki ran for trustees. The difference is just that some extra zest is added to professors’ repulsion when a conservative pokes his head above ground.
So what’s it about? As I recently wrote with respect to both Harvard and Dartmouth, I think the common issue is that liberal faculties, being, frighteningly often, of one mind, have steeled their institutions against outside influence. But professors should by rights be accountable to an administrator willing to demand results, an alumni body eager that its money be well-spent, a student body desirous of intellectual diversity, or the public, depending on the situation. I think recent history shows that left-wing faculties will oppose both maverick liberals like Summers or reform-minded conservatives when they threaten to impose accountability. The trick is for interested parties to first demand open governance, something a whole lot of Dartmouth alumni have been pining for for a good while. Once a college is receptive to change, ideas like intellectual diversity can get a fair shake. Given that, they’ll win.