And at first, Summers looked like an inspired choice. Besides being brilliant even by the Harvard standard of brilliance, he was willing to make tough decisions, and he was fundamentally forward-looking. He pointed out, for example, that while it was socially unacceptable at a great university to admit that one hadn't read a play by Shakespeare, you could safely joke about not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. Summers instigated a review of Harvard's "core curriculum" with a view to raising the status of science and of quantitative thinking generally, as well as to answer perennial complaints from freshmen that they had little or no contact with senior faculty. Even before Summers' departure, faculty opposition appears to have worn him down on the subject. On the other hand, Summers' decision to reshape the physical campus by moving the sciences to a vast plot of land Harvard owns in the Boston neighborhood of Allston* will presumably constitute his permanent legacy.Unfortunately, he was a bit lacking in that crucial ingredient of leadership known as people skills. Oddly enough, Harvard man that he was, he failed to appreciate that he was dealing with intellectual Prima donnas.
Harvard professors appear to be accustomed to a level of deference that few of us on the other side of those Ivy walls could ever expect. Clearly this had much to do with the fabled Cornel West affair, when the president grievously offended this overhyped superstar by tendering what Summers apparently regarded as delicate hints on matters such as grade inflation and the production of serious academic work. Summers was right, as he generally was. But he never intended to insult West. In fact, he had no idea that he had insulted West. Summers himself wouldn't have been offended, and it never crossed his mind that Cornel West might be made of different material than Larry Summers, or that West might need to hear some malarkey along the lines of, "I love your work so much that I don't want to accept anything less than the best." Larry Summers didn't do malarkey; he did "the merits." The professors under his charge, alas, were not made of such stern stuff as he, and it ought not have been beyond Summers' ken to figure this out.That last clause has a lot of bite - the brilliant genius undone by a little island of personal stupidity.
Traub sums up:
I, for one, will miss Summers, since university presidents who have something to say that is worth hearing are as rare as hen's teeth. And I worry that an emboldened faculty will push the Harvard Corporation to choose as his successor the reincarnation of Neil Rudenstine. Summers had a worthy cause; I hope he hasn't wound up discrediting it.
Update: Harvard Prof Lubos Motl has a collection of mainly conservative reactions to the resignation here.