Lack of Confidence in Larry? The Grad Students Vote
Harvard’s Graduate Student Council (an organization I usually consider to be about as effective as a human-sized tranquilizer dart used on an elephant on steroids) is sponsoring an online vote on “lack of confidence” in Larry Summers. The GSC is billing it as a chance to vote on the same measure as the faculty did last week–although that’s not strictly true: the faculty voted on two measures, lack of confidence and on condemnation of Larry’s management style. From the emails I have received, it looks like the grad students only get to vote on the lack of confidence measure.
I’ve said pretty much all I have to say on Larry (see below, The Last on Larry). I thought his remarks were silly and irresponsible, and that his response to criticism (a month of silence and refusal to release a transcript of his remarks) made the problem worse. I didn’t think, in the end, having read his comments, that his was a resigning offense.
I’m still thinking about that. It is clear to me that the gender incident at MIT has brought a number of issues to the fore, which is why the faculty also voted to show their lack of enthusiasm for Summers’ confrontational and dictatorial management style. Summers is a bull in the china shop, there’s no doubt about it. Being opinionated and strong-willed is good–but one has to temper those qualities to work effectively in a decentralized environment like Harvard’s. A little diplomacy could have gone a long way in Summers’ case. He didn’t choose that route, and now is paying the price.
There are plenty of reasons, separate from the overarching managerial issues, for a grad student to vote lack of confidence in Larry. I’ll start with the appalling small amount we are paid. I entered with a five-year funding package. The first two years of that package were for studying for the general exams and required coursework. The second two years were tied to full time teaching. The fifth year, which I am now in, funds you only for tuition and fees and is supposed to be a writing year (how one is supposed to write with no money is beyond me). Since no one finishes in five years, this is a paltry package for an institution with a 22 billion dollar endowment. The money we do receive in those first four years is inadequate, especially when one considers that Boston’s housing market is the third most expensive in the country. Summers’ response to this has been minimal. Our health insurance is pitiful. (I have spent quite a bit of my own money treating a rare eye condition over the past year and a half. Harvard’s BCBS supplimental covered almost none of my treatment.) Our dental insurance was canceled. Beyond quality of life issues, Summers’ focus on Allston has led to budget cuts in areas where grad students need resources the most: the libraries have suffered and research librarians have been let go. The numbers of students applying for research fellowships and finishing fellowships has increased, but the funding for those key elements in our finishing seems to have remained steady. Even little things like the history department’s annual smoker at the AHA have been cancelled due to lack of funds (and that gathering is always a good place for grad students either on the market or shortly to be on the market to network). In other words, the Summers tenure has not been good for grad students. Not all of these problems are his fault–but as the head of the university he must be held accountable.
I haven’t decided if I’ll vote “lack of confidence” in Larry. I can’t see what difference it will make either way–but I am thinking about it. I think my very ambivalence towards him is representative of part of his problem. Some people hate him and want him gone–but most people just don’t care enough about him, his style, or his agenda to fight for him.