Ding Dong! The Witch is dead! Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead. Wake up, sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed! Wake up! The Wicked Witch is dead! She's gone where the goblins go, Below — below — below! Yo-ho, let's open up and sing and ring the bells out! Ding Dong the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low. Let them know The Wicked Witch is dead!
— The Wizard of Oz
All academia is abuzz with the delicious news of Harvard’s head honchette-in-charge sudden departure! The gossip as to when, why, who, and where is pinging around the blogosphere and web like some sort of crazy pinball, between hand-wringing crowds of those worried over the “influence of political correctness” to those merrily moonwalking on the King’s grave. Scandal at Harvard always makes for interesting dish, even if Harvard itself is rather dead in terms of anything intellectually compelling. Some observers today were crowing “this means the faculty is in charge!” Good grief! Oh, really? Please, Mary! I suspect, along with University Diaries and others, that the story as it is being spun in the Chron and elsewhere is hardly the case. I wonder if we’ll ever get to hear the other penny drop. Would the Harvard Corporation really care if Summers thought women belonged in the kitchen (or drawing room) and people of colour down in the slave shacks? Um, no, not really. Governing boards are never that ethical. I mean, hello, act like you know! UD implies that there is an ugly financial scandal brewing beneath the purportedly ideological departure of Summers, and that strikes me as about right. I guess we’ll see (or not).
And it’s not like Summers is really being fired. Miss Ivy League is sort of like the CIA. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. Summers gets a year off to catch up on his beauty rest (and honey, he needs it bad, from the looks of it), then returns to guard his bridge on the Charles. Ah, that’s the life, I suppose. I would love to be able to fuck up but bad, then get a paid leave and return to a cozy little sinecure of nothingness, as I’m sure most of you would. Unfortunately, the world only works that way for some reallyspecial people. The rest of us poor slobs just have to suffer!
University presidents, for the most part symbolic figureheads for raising money and “demonstrating leadership” through memos, “initiatives,” and strategic rubber-chicken dinners, can spin off into horrible disasters when they stray from the role they are meant to play. Summers was a proactive president, which in and of itself isn’t bad. Where he seemed to go wrong was in trying to be a unilateral president (sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?). Leadership is, ideally, about negotiation, concession, consensus, and undermining your enemies in ways they don’t expect. Summers was like the proverbial Butch at the MAC counter, misapplying eyeliner and smearing lipstick all over her teeth. But like dear old Mayor Giuliani knew only so well, fascism under the right conditions works, and most people like the control, rigidity and security that fascism provides. Poor Larry just overplayed his hand, and got burned. This is not because his method is anathema to academic life, but rather because he is a piss-poor player.
To wit, Sadistic College was and remains under the guidance of an autocratic, egomaniacal, and insecure fascist, and by comparison, for Sadistic College’s governing board, he can do no wrong. Presidents like this can make faculty life miserable, because their influence is so profoundly personal, and their whims become policy faster than you can say “confidentiality agreement.” At institutions like Sadistic College, which in some ways is unique but in others depressingly not, the imposition of a powerful personality in the presidential chair can bend and deform campus life in truly pathological ways. Faculty become infantilized even more than they already are, tenure and promotion devolves into messy familial-like demonstrations of fealty, and the socio-cultural politics of pleasing the patriarch make a mockery of any semblance of professional standards or measurements. The toxic environment of Sadistic College, with its medieval structure of lord and serfs, has arguably destroyed the institution as an independent entity, and when and if the president of Sadistic College eventually goes away (don’t hold your breath), I bet you dollars to donuts that the institution actually folds. After so long under the reign of a neurotic autocrat, how could the board, alumni, or faculty actually govern themselves? And since so many of the donors to Sadistic College have been seduced by the snake oil charms of this particular president (which I must admit the president is fairly skilled at), there goes the geese with their golden eggs.
And there’s that annoying little bottom line again! Keep the money coming in, and you can do whatever you want over there among the ivy-covered brick buildings while we sit in a ziggurat of Mammon pouring over figures. Faculty of color canned constantly? Who cares? How much are we paying out annually in undisclosed settlements to ex-faculty? Tax write-off, the cost of doing business! Not a worry as long as you keep priming the pump! Quotidian life for faculty and staff is miserable? Brownie, you’re doin’ a hell of a job!
But let the children of Harvard celebrate! For a short time, you’re free of the Witch. Glory BE! Just remember though, she’ll be back, and payback is a bitch, girlfriend!