Harvard Without Summers: A Note on How the New Choice Will Affect the Outlook for Blacks at America’s Leading Colleges and Universities

The presidency of Lawrence Summers at Harvard University never presented a favorable environment for black educational opportunities. It will be recalled that Summers backed affirmative action in Harvard admissions but only under intense faculty and public pressure.

From the beginning of his presidency, when K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel West left Harvard for Princeton, President Summers continued to have unfavorable relations with Harvard’s black studies effort. At the time he declared that the department would no longer have a “blank check” that it enjoyed under past Harvard presidents Derek Bok and Neil Rudenstine.

A couple of years ago Summers showed casual disregard for the damaging effect on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s efforts to hire black faculty at Harvard when, as president, he made no attempt to retain the distinguished black sociologist Lawrence Bobo and his wife Marcyliena Morgan who both left Harvard for Stanford.

After Summers’ famous remarks on the possible inferior capabilities of women in science, many black academics concluded that he probably held the same views about the inherent capabilities of African Americans. In his first year as president Summers snubbed the Harvard black studies department by failing to make the customary courtesy call that all previous Harvard presidents had made on department heads.

The highly admired former Harvard president Derek Bok has agreed to serve as acting president of the university. Bok has always been a strong and influential supporter of affirmative action and greater educational opportunities for African Americans. Throughout the academy, readers will recall that Bok was author, together with former Princeton president William Bowen, of the widely praised book, The Shape of the River.  This book was cited by the Supreme Court when, in the 2003 Grutter decision, it finally gave the go-ahead for colleges and universities to continue with race-sensitive admissions policies.

Who finally wins the Harvard presidency will have a critical effect on black educational opportunities throughout the nation. Should Harvard in the future abandon or cut back on affirmative action, so will scores of other important educational institutions in our country. If Harvard, under its new president, ceases to attract and actively recruit black faculty, similar policies are likely to be followed by other highly ranked colleges. If Harvard abandons or dilutes its famed black studies effort, other colleges and universities will undoubtedly follow suit. And what racial policies Harvard sets in place will largely be determined by the racial attitudes of its next president.

It may be six months or more before we know who Summers’ successor will be. The Harvard faculty now appears to have much more power to influence the choice than was the case in previous presidential searches. The newfound power of the faculty of Harvard’s Arts & Sciences is likely to lead to the selection of a president who will operate in the Bok-Rudenstine tradition that always favored strong policies aimed at further racial diversity on the Harvard campus. Candidates mentioned in the press so far as possible successors are Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, and Nannerl Keohane, the former president of Duke University.

The Harvard Corporation, which has the sole authority to appoint the next president, continues to be a highly conservative club with little accountability to the public or disposition to make a bold choice in Harvard’s new president. In JBHE’s view, the appointment of a Hispanic or African American to the Harvard presidency is highly unlikely.

Copyright © 2006. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.