City Journal: That’s Just Brilliant

Even now, no one questions that Larry Summers is brilliant. It’s how he’s always been described—check Google, and you’ll find 457,000 references connecting him with that defining trait. Summers’s brilliance was how, back in 2001, the Harvard Corporation marketed its new president to the Harvard community—one of the youngest tenured professors! Might win a Nobel!—and Summers seemed to agree that his genius was his mandate. He famously told Cornel West what to write about, claimed that economists are smarter than political scientists and sociologists, and proposed that men are smarter than women. Larry Summers was so busy boasting of his intelligence, he talked himself out a job.

Perhaps Harvard’s outgoing president took the cult of brilliance too seriously. He wouldn’t be alone. Maybe because we have grown weary of our anti-intellectual commander-in-chief, maybe because we look at our vapid pop culture and blanch—maybe because so few of us are brilliant—America worships at the altar of genius. We venerate it in Bill Belichick, Steve Jobs, the guys at Google, Stephen Levitt’s Freakonomics, the Moneyball of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and the journalism of the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. We try to raise our children to be baby Einsteins. Brilliance is the secular God.

Problem is, we don’t know exactly what genius is—intelligence is easier to quantify than qualify—and we overlook what it isn’t: Diplomacy. Decency. Humility. Emotional acuity. Wisdom. Some brilliant people have enough of those qualities to become great leaders. Some, like Larry Summers, don’t.

Derek Bok, Harvard president from 1971 to 1991, is back while the university seeks a more permanent replacement for Summers. Bok was a fine legal scholar and extremely capable president who now writes books about ethics and higher education. But . . . brilliant? Probably not. As the Harvard Corporation looks for a new leader, it would do well to look at Bok, then Summers, and remember that brilliance is not enough.


To the Harvard Community:
I am formally resigning my position as President of the University. In so doing, I would like to try to dispel any lingering hard feelings between myself and those who drove me from office by portraying me as an insensitive, egomaniacal bully.
I now realize, for instance, that it was wrong of me to chase Cornel West to Princeton by accusing him of grading “on a socialist curve” and “devoting too much time to ghetto nursery rhymes.” Comparing his hairdo to Spike Lee’s was probably also out of bounds.

Clearly, I should not have made that crack about female scientists “shining my test tube” nor hollered, “Those who can’t add, teach soc!” then laughed hysterically every time I encountered a member of the sociology faculty. Sometimes my bonhomie gets the best of me.

To those who called for Harvard to divest from Israel: I can see how it might have been ill-advised to wear my “Jew-Baiters beware!” lapel pin around campus. My bad. Later referring to professors who proposed a second vote of no-confidence as “tweed-wearing jackals” probably did not help matters.

In closing, let me say to my successor: Good luck, sucker.


Seriously, I apologize for stirring up the natives and wish you luck in continuing my legacy while I am off enjoying my sabbatical.

Best wishes to you all!
Larry Summers

P.S. I left a few cigars in the humidor behind the desk.