Once you get past Google, it's hard to think of a major American institution that is as successful as Harvard. Like the other élite private universities, only more so, Harvard, having started as a tiny colonial school for ministers, has become enormous and rich. It is renowned all over the world. It isn't exactly a business, but if it were, its ability to raise its prices and see demand consistently increase would be remarkable. General Motors would love to have Harvard's magic brand identity and inexhaustible customer loyalty.
And yet when Lawrence Summers took the helm at Harvard in 2001, the idea was that he had to shake up an institution badly in need of change. "I have sought for the past five years to prod and challenge the university to reach for the most ambitious goals," he wrote last week in a letter announcing his resignation. Summers' view that he had inherited a university with urgent problems is in part a way of justifying the highly undiplomatic way he conducted himself as president, but he's hardly alone in his view. His temporary successor, former Harvard president Derek Bok, is about as different from Summers as it is possible to get. He's one of the world's least gaffe-prone people and a staunchly mainstream liberal, where Summers is liberal in a way that makes the conservatives on the faculty swoon. But Bok seems equally gloomy about the state of Harvard and universities in general.
Bok has just published a book titled Our Underachieving Colleges, which follows a similarly downbeat book in 2003. One of the Harvard deans pushed out by Summers has a book about the university coming out soon called Excellence Without a Soul. The new book by former Princeton president Harold Shapiro is called A Larger Sense of Purpose--implying that universities don't have one. Why the pessimism about institutions that would seem to be thriving? The success of big universities and their malaise are connected. They serve an array of constituencies that want--and get--profoundly different things from them, and it is nearly impossible to generate agreement about their central purpose. Along with other élite schools, Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries transformed itself into a "research university" with a tenured faculty whose members were scholars first and teachers second. Research became the university's core purpose, and the faculty is the most powerful constituency, the one Summers ran afoul of. Senior scholars live inside what one might call coalitions of the brilliant--tight-knit, self-regulating global communities within each discipline, oriented around the dream of producing pathbreaking scholarly work.
Big universities are fantastically hierarchical places that are ever more caught up in competing with one another for faculty stars, whom they lure less with money and perquisites than with freedom to conduct research, which usually means light teaching loads and lots of graduate students to do scut work. Summers, scion of a family in the academic discipline with the highest pay and lowest workload of them all--economics--grew up and succeeded spectacularly in this culture. Harvard on his watch enthusiastically raided other universities for top talent. Its professors are among the highest paid in American academe; they teach only 28 weeks a year.