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HackwatchNewsletter | May 31, 2024

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

HackwatchLarry SummersRevolving Door
Do As I Say, Not As I Do

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hackwatch website.

It’s commencement season. That wonderful time of year when everyone from has-been comedians to cryptocurrency magicians to, apparently, extremely sexist NFL kickers get to speak to college graduates and provide them with useless (or downright bad) advice. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to dispense sanctimonious platitudes (and perhaps jealous that another crypto grifter got attention for a commencement address), Larry Summers decided to wrap up the academic year by dispensing advice to the Harvard community. Buried in the piece is a recognition that just maybe, we were right to criticize the esteemed Charles W. Eliot University Professor for his numerous conflicts of interest. 

Writing for The Harvard Crimson, Summers’ piece is fundamentally a call to end politics on campuses. After spending the better part of a year attacking the administration, fellow academics, and students for protesting the Israeli bombing of Gaza (many of whom have significantly more expertise on the subject than a macroeconomist), Summers has concluded that such activism undermines the legitimacy of the institution. He, of course, makes no mention of his own very public political activism. And while there may be plenty to criticize Summers for in this regard (as Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky said, “That guy is batshit crazy”), we at Hackwatch are not the ones best suited to do so. We are, however, experts in Summers’ many other extracurriculars.

The thrust of Summers’ op-ed is that the university should stay in its lane. Granted, he was much more poetic about it, saying: “Institutions contribute most when they do things others cannot. For Harvard and other great universities, this means staying away from day-to-day distractions or from political advocacy.” His call for Harvard, and other “great universities,” to keep their nose out of political fights is paired with imploring that they defend and cultivate “the magic of interaction between teacher and student and the independence of the ivory tower.” While the fawning invocation of the ivory tower is interesting rhetoric, there is a certain clean logic to the argument. Universities should teach, study, and generate ideas. The classroom and the lab should be independent havens for free inquiry, untouched by pressures of the outside world. 

Unfortunately, Summers’ billing of the role of the university belies a callousness to those of us not so lucky to be able to venture into the ivory tower and away from all our worldly concerns. It also flies in the face of his own actions, where he routinely wades into economic and political issues and pushes his preferred policy. No, the imperative to shield the university only seems to manifest when you aren’t the guy who calls for millions of people to be thrown out of their jobs while on a beach vacation.

The problem with Summers’ view of the university is that it is at once totalizing and nonbinding. He frets about the institutional legitimacy of Harvard if anyone were ever to use the platform it provides to be political, on the one hand. And then his other hand grabs the mic and rants about how terrible the new-look Democratic economic agenda is. His longing for maintaining “ivory tower” positioning gives the game away. Being present at a university does not assuage the needs many people have just to keep on keeping on. Summers is a multi-millionaire, he was so even back when he joined the Obama administration. He can afford to wax poetic, but to present the ivory tower as an ideal to strive for, he hints at the deeper frustration: don’t let the little people get too many ideas. 

He reserves the role of idea generation to the university and in so doing, implicitly scorns the notion that anyone other than a handful of academics at a handful of top schools can ever have real insight. Notice the invoking of “great universities” and the reverence he shows toward Harvard itself; “Harvard is forever.” Embedded in his own point is that “it is essential that the Corporation articulate the values they prioritize,” as long as, of course, they align with the values he prioritizes. (Peculiarly—perhaps presciently— Harvard is run by the “Harvard Corporation,” which is “the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere”.)

This essentialization of higher education is based on an odd reading of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: “In a world characterized by specialized roles, each entity — individuals, institutions, and countries — should focus on activities where they have the most unique strength. We should do what will not be done if we do not do it.” Are we to presume that Larry Summers’ primary comparative advantage, then, is in shilling for corporations as they seek to gain influential government connections and public legitimacy? Is that the legacy he wants to leave? He calls his university professorship the “best job at Harvard.” Why then does he feel the need to hold so many others at the same time, including many semi-clandestinely? By not disclosing many of his numerous corporate ties, Summers risks tarnishing the Ivy League brand he is so proud of.

Summers cautions against “day-to-day distractions,” a subject about which he knows a great deal. He has a lot of them. Some people collect old coins or Pokemon cards, but Larry collects corporate consulting/advisory roles. Back in March, our Executive Director Jeff Hauser wrote an op-ed in the very same Harvard Crimson detailing a few of these many conflicts of interest, his political advocacy on issues that pertain to these issues, and his lack of disclosures. This angered Summers, who responded with a dishonest letter to the editor, seemingly angry that the Crimson had not asked for his approval on the piece before running it. We followed that up with our own blog, exposing Summers’ genuine lack of transparency. At some point along the way, this critique clearly lodged under Summers’ skin, and it made its way into this latest piece of his. But rather than using it as a moment to learn from his mistakes, advising future academics to avoid racking up the many conflicts of interest that he has, Summers instead used it as a means to attack the very concept of academic debate:

“I am reminded each year that if I accept money from a private interest and advocate on their behalf without disclosing the potential conflict, I may undermine the credibility of others holding the title of Harvard professor. In the same way, if the University takes positions on controversial issues, it undermines the credibility of related research and teaching. Engaging in polemic debates undermines the credibility of our scholarship.” 

In Summers’ mind, taking money from a private interest and advocating for its preferred policies is equivalent to engaging in academic debate—and equally damaging to the university’s reputation. We can’t quite tell whether this is intended to understate the way in which his ties to corporations undermine the trustworthiness of his academic work or to exaggerate the threat of free speech on a college campus. Either way, it merits more attention than it has gotten in the week since its publication. Perhaps Bari Weiss, Bill Maher, and other self-professed free speech protectors will make a fuss about it. But the message is clear: academics and students alike should take care to keep their speech limited to the confines Summers deems acceptable. He may no longer be president, but that won’t stop him from issuing guidance as if he was.

The professor doth protest too much. While we’re happy to see that Larry has digested enough of the critique to try and manipulate it and turn it on the university, it would have been nice if he simply disclosed all of his corporate ties. If keeping track of his corporate ties is a problem, we’d be happy to help out. It wouldn’t be the first time we have published the list before he did.

Moreover, Summers argues that the University should stay neutral and should not “allow faculty or students to speak for it on political matters, just as it would not allow them to sell Harvard-branded merchandise.” That’s a little rich from the guy who uses the university seal on his personal website. 

The search result for Larry Summers’ personal website, when you Google “Larry Summers.”

Despite Summers’ struggles as a leader (fighting with the African American Studies department, saying women are genetically destined to be worse at STEM subjects, losing almost $2 billion from the Harvard endowment), he has no doubt heard the age-old adage that one should lead by example. He clearly pays it no heed given his constant attacks on the Biden administration, his public criticism of Harvard, his attacks on campus protestors as accomplices of Donald Trump, and his willingness to accuse prominent academics of antisemitism.

So let us part by offering former Treasury Secretary Summers a piece of our own advice: Lead by example. If you want Harvard to be removed from politics you must first remove yourself. We look forward to your absence from the political discourse.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Lawrence H. Summers – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

HackwatchLarry SummersRevolving Door

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