Harvard Square Observer: The Care and Feeding of the Faculty

Ernest Cassara

We would be derelict in our duty were we not to comment on the departure of Dr. Lawrence Summers from the presidency of the institution from which this website derives its name.  After all, everyone else has commented. I have a stack of clippings passed on by a thoughtful neighbor, and I could hardly pick up a newspaper, or listen to a newscast, without being reminded that it would be obligatory on us to express an opinion.

The first commentary I read was by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, he who gets out on the wrong side of the bed every morning.  He set the tone of the greater number of the critics of the Harvard faculty, in defense of President Summers. They claimed that Summers was unpopular because of he had offended against "political correctness."

From the heading of this piece, you can see where I am going.  I do not intend to comment on all of the incidents that got President Summers into trouble. (You've heard them all!) But, I shall comment on the first one to reach the ears and eyes of us beyond the Harvard Yard.  That is, his criticism early in his tenure of Cornel West, of the African American Studies Program. But, first it might be a good idea for a definition of a crucial term. "Collegial" is the operative word in colleges and universities. Webster defines it thus: "marked by power or authority vested equally in each of a number of colleagues."  When President Summers informed Professor West that he was dissatisfied with his activities - such as making a rap CD! - and that he intended to "monitor" them from then on, it was an offense against collegiality. This is not to say that a professor cannot be criticized, but a new president does not launch his tenure by offending a "colleague."  A colleague is not a hireling, but an equal.  It would have been wiser for Summers to raise such issues with the dean of Arts and Sciences.

Having served in my checkered career as both a department chair and as a dean, I have a certain sensitivity on such matters.  I attempted to serve in as democratic a manner as possible.  One of my favorite memories of my service as a dean is of the time the faculty of our progressive college voted to impose for the first time a "core curriculum."  For the sake of the uninitiated, allow me to explain that that means requiring all students to take certain courses, a "core," beyond which they are free to choose what they study.  Some months later, before the decision had been implemented, some faculty members were having second thoughts.  Some of them asked me if it were possible to change their minds, clearly expecting me to say "no," that the die was cast.  They were somewhat taken aback by my response that they had voted the core in in a democratic manner and they could excise it in the same manner.  Which they did!  Of course, their hesitation in raising the issue with me was that they assumed I would pull rank and say "no."  But, democracy is democracy and we must abide by the will of the majority.

As a department chair, in another institution, I had the distinction of being tarred by a vote of no confidence.  (That's what Dr. Summers had suffered!)  Being of a somewhat phlegmatic nature, I took it in stride.  I understood that one of the members of the Department of History, who had not published anything of substance, was angry because she thought - wrongly! - that I would oppose the university granting her tenure.  Another member had, I thought, a strange notion of the role of faculty members.  When I asked him to head a committee to recruit an addition to the department in South Asian studies, he responded that that was my job.  (Funny, I thought later.  Faculty members always claim that they should be intimately involved in the hiring of new colleagues.)  In any case, the vote of no confidence passed.  Actually, I enjoyed letting someone else do all of the administrative work, while I was free better to enjoy my teaching.  Contradictory as it may seem, I discovered that having served as chair gave me a certain authority in department decision making that others did not enjoy.

My point in straying into autobiography is that presidents, deans, and department chairs are, as my title above implies, responsible for bolstering the efforts of their "colleagues," not talking them down. Aye! I do not remember who first devised the term, but it really is a case of "the care and feeding of the faculty."

Cornel West, as you know, left Harvard as a consequence of his being derided by his new president. And, what is usually not remembered, in moving on to Princeton he was joined by another member of African American studies, the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah. Then, there were other departures.

That was in 2002. Now, after antagonizing a large percentage of the faculty, President Summers has resigned.

By the way, another memory of my time as a dean. On assuming office, I devised a sure proof way of assuring full attendance at committee meetings in the "deanery," as my predecessor had humorously christened the building. I immediately drove to the state liquor store and purchased a supply of gin, Scotch, and bourbon. Then, off I went to a discount emporium for a supply of attractive glasses - one from which I still enjoy an occasional quaff.  Yes, no one ever missed a committee meeting from then on. This hint may serve as useful to anyone who finds himself/herself in a similar position in the future. (Who knows, perhaps Professor West would have been more receptive of President Summers' criticism had it been imparted over convivial, collegial glasses!)

Comments Received:

I met President Lawrence Summers only once.  Almost!  I was on the platform at last year's Harvard commencement representing the First Parish Church in Dorchester, one of the six founding congregations of the university.  President Summers came across the platform.  I put out my hand, introduced myself, and in a very few words tried to explain my role.  His response was "Oh!", as he quickly moved to someone else,  presumably more important.

Only a few minutes before, while waiting in the processional line, I introduced myself to Dean William Graham of the Divinity School.  He was eager to tell me about the progress of the school and to encourage the Dorchester congregation to offer an internship opportunity for a ministerial student.  He urged me to become involved in alumni activities.

Many years ago I realized that "insensitivity" is not always a moral shortcoming; perhaps more often it is a personality disability.  When I was young and unresponsive to their messages, my parents would tell me that I had "wooden ears".  I wonder if much of the problem at Harvard hasn't been caused by "wooden ears".

- -Rev. Richard A. Kellaway, New Bedford

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Nice to see an appraisal at a serene level.

- -Anonymous

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