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Larry Summers on some of higher education’s “bad ideas”

WASHINGTON POST   |  November 11, 2011 by Daniel de Vise

Last week, I conducted a public interview with Lawrence Summers. Summers served as Treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and as president of Harvard from 2001 to 2006, and director of President Obama’s National Economic Council until November, 2010.

Summers was an MIT student at 16 and a tenured Harvard professor at 28. He left the Harvard presidency a year after a faculty group issued an unusual “lack of confidence” vote against him. Harvard students, however, opposed his departure.

The interview was sponsored by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that pushes those constituencies to take a more active role in college governance. ACTA is also known for supporting a return to the core curriculum in higher education.

Henry Kissinger supposedly once said Summers ought to be given a White House job where he could shoot down bad ideas. So, I asked Summers to talk about some of higher education’s bad ideas. He did, although he was quick to note that he considers higher education “one of America’s huge strengths.”

One bad idea, he said, was the movement away from mandatory retirement in higher education. College faculty used to face obligatory retirement. That ended in the 1990s amid changing views toward age discrimination. That policy change, coupled with the powerful protections of faculty tenure, “is deeply toxic,” he said.

“The median age of the tenured faculty at Harvard now is 58,” Summers said. And that is unfortunate, he said, given that “a fundamental thing that Harvard does is relate to 19-year-olds.”

Summers said he has met some faculty who are at the top of their game in their 80s, and considerably more who are still contributing handsomely to their field at 75. But mandatory retirement opens up the possibility of hiring new talent, researchers who are on the upward arc of their scholarly careers.

I asked Summers about grade inflation and declining study time, two related trends that seem to be attracting more discussion around academia. Grades have drifted steadily upward over the past half-century, a trend some researchers link to declining rigor in higher education. At the same time, students are spending progressively less time engaged in study. One theory suggests that professors assign less work and give better grades so that students will give them better evaluations. Student course evaluations have become an essential part of the process for appraising faculty.

“Ninety percent of Harvard graduates graduated with honors when I started,” Summers said. “The most unique honor you could graduate with was none.” The small intimate seminars that are the hallmark of elite colleges pose a particular problem, because professors are loathe to give bad grades to students they see at the other side of a table every day. “Nobody in a seminar ever gets a C,” Summers said.

Some colleges have experimented with placing arbitrary limits on A grades. But such formulas can become “complicated and byzantine,” Summers said.

Yet, grade inflation remains “deeply problematic,” Summers said. “It’s very much the mood these days that we need to teach people ethics . . . I think of grade inflation as a kind of ethical issue.”

I asked Summers what he thought of the critique that professors spend too little time teaching classes, and too much time writing scholarly papers. One study of the University of Texas faculty concluded that if all faculty were as productive in the classroom as the busiest 20 percent, the university could cut tuition in half. (The university responded with its own study that showed UT among the more efficient universities in cost to taxpayers and students.)

Summers said, “I have the scars to show for having worked very hard to get the faculty back into the classroom at Harvard. . . I think we brought about some change in culture.”

But Summers said that some faculty clearly belong in the laboratory rather than the classroom.

“Should Neils Bohr,” the Danish physicist, “have been spending a lot of his time teaching freshman physics?” Probably not, Summers said.

Philosophers John Rawls and and Robert Nozick got time off from teaching to write books, some of which I read as a philosophy major at Wesleyan University. Those books “have been changing the lives of college students for years,” Summers said.

A university could offer faculty significant cash to teach more classes. But Summers also recounted the anecdote of the Nobel laureate at Harvard who was tapped to teach Econ 101. Of 26 course sections, the nobel laureate’s class “was 16th best, as regarded by students.”


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