In most industries, a company would cater to customers paying $41,000 per year, but Harvard has been able to take its undergraduates for granted. (It was a radical innovation when Summers called attention to surveys measuring students' dissatisfaction.) Harvard has long known that the best students will keep coming, not for its classes but simply for its reputation. Smart students want to go where the other smart students go.Tierney puts his finger on the real complaint against Summers:
He dared to suggest that professors teach survey courses geared to undergraduates' needs — an onerous idea to academics accustomed to teaching whatever's in their latest book....Interesting. I had a reporter call me for comments the other day when Summers resigned. But I really hadn't followed the Summers story, other than the very conspicuous controversy over what he said last year about women and science. I never went to Harvard, so I'm normally content to let the old institution -- which the NYT can't stop talking about -- stew in its own juices. The reporter had to prod me with questions about how professors behave, how perhaps they disregard the interests of students and seek only to teach highly specialized courses focused on their own scholarly interests and narrow perspectives. I found myself saying, repeatedly, but I'm in the law school. You couldn't run a law school like that!
Senior professors can shunt off the more tedious jobs, like teaching freshmen or grading papers, to low-caste graduate students or visiting lecturers. Or they just neglect the jobs that don't appeal to them....
You might expect the Harvard history department to devote a course or two to the American Revolution or the Constitution, but those topics are too mundane. Instead, there's a course on the diaries of ordinary citizens during the Revolution, and another, "American Revolutions," that considers the American and Haitian Revolutions as "a continuous sequence of radical challenges to established authority."
Summers had some allies in his reform efforts, especially in the professional schools. The professors in the business, law and medical schools know their schools' reputations depend on properly training students for jobs in the outside world. The opposition to Summers was concentrated among the college professors who aren't accustomed to being judged by anyone except fellow academics.