Stuntz on the Future of Harvard:
Harvard lawprof Bill Stuntz has a very interesting (and very pessimistic) essay in The New Republic (free registration req'd) on the Lawrence Summers resignation and the future of Harvard. An excerpt:
Harvard is the General Motors of American universities: rich, bureaucratic, and confident--a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers's resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM's fate. From now on, the decline will likely be steep. And not only at Harvard: Among research universities as in the car market of generations past, other American institutions will follow the market leaders, straight to the bottom. The only question is who gets to play the role of Toyota in this metaphor.
Cornellian (mail):
From my point of view, Cornell seems to be doing just fine.
3.1.2006 12:05am
Since some large percentage of the value of a Harvard degree is the credential, I'm not sure how it can fall straight to the bottom. As long as strong students prefer Harvard, a Harvard diploma will be a sign of being a strong student. And as long as a Harvard diploma is a sign of being a strong student, strong students are going to want to go to Harvard...

It's not like you can compare your degree from University X and your friend's degree from University Y along some objective measure like horsepower/mpg/luxury features.
3.1.2006 12:20am
Mark Meador (mail) (www):
I like to think that here at the University of Chicago, despite the occasional paranoid pandering of our administration to minority interests, the true spirit of the liberal education lives on.

crescat scientia; vita excalotur
3.1.2006 12:30am
Noah Snyder (mail):
I really think there's a tendancy to blow the Summers incident out of proportion. The essential problem was that he wasn't very good at getting along with people. There's no huge conclusion about the future of the academy to draw from that. That article makes several good points, but the connection to Summers's firing are tenuous at best.
3.1.2006 1:04am
Wintermute (www):
Orin, it looks as though we should have gotten you early instead of Princeton; but we got you at last, didn't we? When we took over University Hall in the late 60's, before you were a twinkle in your daddy's eye, well, the sky started falling right then. Here we are in the 21st century, and the sky is falling again, only now it's couched in these neo-terms of "brand" failure. I guess it's been falling since 1636, eh? I once thought Stanford (another of your alma maters) was the real threat, because the weather is warmer; but cold weather makes you stay inside and read books and do research; so I guess I was wrong. I was underwhelmed in person by Marty Peretz way back when; but I hope his new editor makes his rag worth reading again. I dissed the last Stuntz piece you touted, so I'm gonna pass on this one; but I'm gonna keep RSS'ing you and Gene because you're too smart for an ideological hack and Gene is one of those immigrants who love what this country is about more than most natives do. Carry on, gents.
3.1.2006 1:22am
INteresting. In Stuntz's article, Summers is Khrushchev; but Khrushchev was too brash, and unstable, and the party leaders opted for the relative quiet (and stagnation) of Brezhnev.
3.1.2006 1:25am
Wintermute, I'm afraid you've lost me.
3.1.2006 2:31am
Mark F. (mail):
Considering the billions of dollars that Harvard has, why do they have to continue to charge that outrageous tuition? They should offer all students 100% scholarships.
3.1.2006 2:42am
So what is Stuntz' problem? Can't get his articles published in the Harvard LR? Can't get them published anywhere? Can't get tenure? Can't get on the governing committees? Won't be able to play bridge with Summers any more at the faculty club?

Now, it's easy to imagine that a generation hence, Chinese or Indian universities will dominate the world, or perhaps that some intellectual entrepreneur will bring Oxford or Cambridge back to the top of the heap.

Let me see...if a generation hence, Oxford and Cambridge might come back to the top of the heap, that would mean they are not at the top of the heap now, and won't be for quite some time, but they could be in the future.

So why couldn't Harvard decline and resume its current position of coasting on its rep?

It seems to me the solution is to retire all the superannuated perfessors, put all the rest on max 5 year contracts, and "allow those who don't perform to seek employment elsewhere." They'll get all the hot sh** hotrods they want.
3.1.2006 3:04am
snowball (mail):
Orrin: The Stuntz piece is just terrible. It's all emotion and no analysis. Obviously, he thinks Larry Summers was a visionary ousted for his vision.

But how "visionary" was Summers? His supporters have mentioned that he increased financial aid to non-wealthy students, questioned the way tenure was awarded, wanted to commit greater resources to the sciences, and seemed to care about tenured faculty actually teaching undergraduates.

Well, an earlier poster mentioned Princeton, which presents an interesting point of comparison. As far as I can tell, Princeton's president (1) has implemented a substantial increase in financial aid for poor and working class students (and did so before Harvard followed suit), (2) has previously advocated the abolition of tenure and more recently has called for a review of the way tenure is awarded after complaints from junior faculty, (3) has committed to substantial funding for the sciences and engineering (she is a molecular biologist), and (4) has emphasized the importance of undergraduate teaching by professors.

And somehow the Princeton faculty haven't tried to oust her. Are they a bunch of closet rightwingers compared to Harvard's faculty? If so, why would Cornell West have left Harvard for Princeton?

Maybe--just maybe--the difference is personality. You know, Princeton's president has a decent one and Summers doesn't. I don't understand why Stuntz and his ilk insist on turning Larry Summers's personality issues into a Great Moment in American History.
3.1.2006 4:37am
Lev --

Professor Stuntz is a tenured member of the Harvard Law School faculty and the vice-dean for intellectual life. He recently published a piece with the Harvard Law Review, William J. Stuntz, The Political Constitution of Criminal Justice, 119 Harv. L. Rev. 780 (2006), and his other articles have also been quite successful, e.g., William J. Stuntz, The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law, 100 Mich. L. Rev. 505 (2001); William J. Stuntz, The Uneasy Relationship Between Criminal Procedure and Criminal Justice, 107 Yale L.J. 1 (1997). I don't know if Stuntz plays bridge, or Summers for that matter, but given the fact that Summers will be returning to Harvard as a faculty member in the economics department, I don't think they'll have a problem playing cards if they so desire.

Any other helpful theories?
3.1.2006 4:59am
stranger from a strange land far away (mail):
Well, Mr Sully, if the universities in India and China are all that great why are scholars and students there so eagerly voting with their feet, leaving these top-gun institutions behind for a position at American schools? Or Oxford and Cambridge? Or ETH Zurich or TU Karlsruhe or Ecole Polytechnique?

Whatever the merits of Prof. Stuntz's legal scholarship might be, his musings regarding the future of the American research university are pure bullshit, and that's that.
3.1.2006 9:13am
H Alum:
I'm with Noah. This is, at best, a hack job by Stuntz. His points about the potential for a paradigm shift in the structure of universities aren't unreasonable, but his sweeping assertions about Summers and the Harvard-as-GM theory are without factual support. Maybe higher education does need to change, but there's little reason to think that Harvard will be in trouble anytime soon, nor that the Summers resignation will have any long-lasting effects. Harvard is still Harvard, and we'll see the same type of extremely qualified candidates lining up to replace Summers just as we did five years ago when Rudenstein stepped down.
3.1.2006 9:57am
Kate1999 (mail):
You have to understand Stuntz's piece in light of the decline of Harvard Law School in the last 50 years. Harvard has gone from having the best faculty in the country without question to being just somewhere in the top 10, and in the last 10 years they have had a very hard time attracting the best faculty members (many of whom would rather be at Yale, Stanford, Chicago, NYU, or Columbia). Harvard Law School got in trouble becuse it became complacent, and faculty members started to care a lot more about their pet causes rather than merit. It was the story of the last 30 years. It's pretty sad to see: the Harvard Law faculty these days is just remarkably filled with small-minded dead weight. The new Dean, Elena Kagan, is doing her best to change that: she is a nice and friendly version of Lawrence Summers. But the ouster of Summers is going to make that harder for Kagan: Summers had threatened to deny tenure to law school professors who didn't make the cut, and that threat had lit the fire under the younger faculty members and led others who hadn't accomplished very much to find their way to other school. When you read Stuntz's piece, realize that he is really talking about Harvard Law School, not Harvard University. The departure of Summers is a huge blow to those (like Stuntz) who care about the future of Harvard Law School. And given that this is a blog about law, that seems worth noting.
3.1.2006 10:09am
ThirdCircuitLawyer (mail):
In response to Lev, Stuntz is one of the leading scholars of criminal procedure in the country (and some would say *the* leading scholar). He publishes his articles wherever he wants, and could go to any university he wants. He is generally considered one of Harvard Law School's "star" faculty members.
3.1.2006 10:17am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
I vote for the University of Phoenix.
3.1.2006 10:19am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Actually, we should be able to replace these institutions with .mp3s from The Teaching Company, Wikiversity, blogging, and the Net in general.
3.1.2006 10:36am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
Mark, Harvard is a private institution that doesn't need to be told how to spend its money. As long as people are willing to pay money to go there, why should it forego that tuition, and choose to subsidize tuition, rather than, say, research, or faculty salaries?
3.1.2006 11:30am
Michael B (mail):
Stuntz makes several probative points, for example in the following extended quote, a couple of critical notes on Summers specifically, then some general notes on the entrenched status quo currently populating the professoriate:

"The newspapers have been filled with stories of Summers's supposed obnoxiousness. Few of the stories note the coin's other side: The academic world has never seen a university president so eager to hear and engage opposing arguments. Summers might indeed tell you you're flat wrong, an experience people in my job too rarely have. But you could tell him that he's full of shit--and he'd smile and argue back.

"Problem is, university faculty don't want to talk back to their bosses; they don't want to have bosses. And their preferences matter. The past 40 years have seen faculty take near-total control of leading universities. These institutions are democracies of a peculiar sort: Only a part of one constituency gets to vote."

And shortly thereafter, in a similar and similarly telling vein:

"Summers was brought down not because he was politically incorrect or bad at soothing academic egos, though those things contributed far more than they should have. The core problem is that he wanted to shake up the comfortable world of higher education. Most Americans think of universities as a bastion of the political left, and in one sense they are. But in a deeper sense, institutions like Harvard embody a particularly blind sort of conservatism: All change causes discomfort, and so must be resisted" emphases added

The combination of an ideologically entrenched and an institutionally entrenched self-regard, together with the "I've got mine" apathy and self-satisfaction which greatly helps sustain those entrenched qualities, is likely to produce the outcome being suggested. Presently there are no prominent signs of revivification on the horizon, neither ideologically nor institutionally; Summers's is but one case in point.
3.1.2006 12:14pm
"The only question is who gets to play the role of Toyota in this metaphor."

I think some of your co-conspirators would say George Mason University.
3.1.2006 12:37pm
blackdoggerel (mail):
I agree with Kate1999. Professor Stuntz's views are colored, I think, by his experiences at Harvard Law School, which track what Kate1999 said. This is why I'm not keen to dismiss his concerns about Harvard becoming complacent and self-satisfied. That is exactly the mentality that contributed to a relative decline in the quality of the HLS faculty in the last two decades (to which, by the way, certain HLS professors will admit sotte voce). (There were, of course, other contributing factors, such as the divisive 1980s period and its fallout.) Only in the last few years has HLS made a commitment to hiring many more of the nation's leading legal scholars -- many of whom, you'll note, come from other schools -- rather than just taking anyone and everyone who comes up through its ranks. And this is one of the reasons why HLS has been getting positive momentum in recent years. But it required a fresh outlook, a reevaluation of priorities, and a commitment to executing those initiatives, and not just being satisfied with the way things are.

I'm not as convinced, however, that Harvard's complancency can be read to endanger the quality of American higher education as a whole. Rather, the danger is that other universities that take a more forward-looking view of research priorities, facilities, and personnel -- your Stanfords, MITs, and so forth -- will soon be considered the leading research universities, leaving Harvard to be a quaint but cheery relic along the lines of Oxford and Cambridge, pumping out medieval history scholars and English literature Ph.Ds but unable to produce the world's leading nanotechnologists or stem cell researchers.
3.1.2006 2:03pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
i wonder what stuntz thinks about the "growing disjunction" between the legal academy and the legal profession (to borrow a question from harry edwards).

there was a time when law professors spoke directly to practicing lawyers and judges, now much of legal "scholarship" is esoteric and abstract. many (perhaps most) professors disdain law practice, and practice oriented courses are step-children, if not orphans, at many law schools.

how many law schools offer tenure to clinicians?
3.1.2006 2:22pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Re tenure and general status of clinicians, it's a lot better than it used to be. So if you're looking for signs of a "growing disjunction," that wouldn't be one of them.
3.1.2006 2:56pm
Mark F. (mail):
It's just my opinion that Harvard should offer free tuition. Obviously, they have a right to run their institution as they see fit. I do think that anyone who spends $250,000 on a sociology Ph.D. from Harvard is not making a wise investment.
3.1.2006 5:49pm


If Stuntz really is a tenured perfessor who has in the past written a bunch of stuff that got published, then based on his piece TNR we can come to two possibilities:

1. he is an idiot savant - a person who is very very good in one tiny specific area and an idiot and incompetent outside of that area...not that there is anything wrong with that - there are lots and lots of people who firmly believe that expertise in one area confers expertise in all other areas. Many of the people and lawyers, others are perfessors.

2. he is one of the superannuated perfessors abusing tenure who should be retired forcibly because he has descended into demented incoherence.

That piece was a really really bad example of reasoning, rhetoric, and writing.

That a "star of the Harvard faculty" would publish something of such low quality does, however, say a great deal about the quality of the Harvard faculty. Or, perhaps he should just confine himself to casebooks and law review articles.
3.1.2006 11:30pm
BU2L (mail):
lev, when you say that Stunt'z piece is of "low quality," do you actually mean that it's a piece you "disagree with on the merits?" It seems that way. How is his writing poor? What don;t you like about his argument?
3.2.2006 12:05am

I don't disagree that Harvard has some real problems in its administration and in the dedication of its faculty to open expression and discussion of contrasting viewpoints, opinions, proposals, etc. One need only look at the seminar that got Summers in trouble to see that.

Harvard is no more like General Motors than the US is like a totalitarian fascist state. GM dominated the world in automobile design and production for years, crushing its competitors; Harvard might have been first among universities, but it never dominated "higher education" nor did it crush its competitors. Harvard's model for the university may have been adopted by other competing universities, but Harvard did not crush them.

Contrary to Michael Moore and Stuntz, GM's problems were not caused by "one GM moment", they were caused by bad decisions by management of both GM and the unions over many years. Harvard's problems were not caused by a "GM moment" nor were they caused by Summers - Harvard's problems have been developing for many years, probably since the 1960's. Summers' firing leaving Harvard to "pursue other interests" is merely one little itty bitty data point showing that decline. It does not accelerate the decline, it does not start it, it does not affect it at all.

As I pointed out earlier, Stuntz opines that OxBridge could resume its place among the world leading universities, yet the point, to the extent there is one, of his essay is that Harvard's decline is irretrivable, unstoppable, inevitable. So, as I asked before, if OxBridge could reverse its current state of being in the lower regions, what would prevent Harvard from doing similar, stopping and reversing its decline? The answer I gather from Stuntz is that Harvard just can't.

Others have suggested that all Harvard needs to stop the decline is a corporate board that recognizes there is a problem and has some balls. Others have suggested that the problem is lax standards for tenure, and then abuse of it, and lack of a mandatory retirement age. Stuntz seems to have no comprehesion of even the possibility of effective corrective action. Instead, it is all over for Harvard. It will inevitably end up next to Slippery Rock State in the quality ratings.

How much sense does any of that make. I say, not much.
3.2.2006 12:51am
Kate1999 (mail):
Harvard is no more like General Motors than the US is like a totalitarian fascist state.

Lev, your analytical abilities are underwhelming for a commenter at the Volokh Conspiracy. If you would be so kind as to read the Stuntz article carefully before bashing it, you might notice that Stuntz is comparing Harvard TODAY with General Motors FIFTY YEARS AGO. He is agreeing that Harvard is an absolute academic powerhouse right now, very much at the top of his game. Stuntz's worry is that Harvard will not be so great in fifty years. Nor is Stuntz arguing that the Summers resignation is the end of Harvard: he is arguing that Summers was pointing the school in the right direction, and that someone like Summers is needed to help the school stay strong.
3.2.2006 1:10am
Lev --

Since you were brave enough to offer your opinion again despite knowing nothing about the Harvard faculty, I'll take another moment to correct you. On the subject of Stuntz's non-academic and interpersonal abilities (impugned at the point one is accused of savantism), I wonder where you're getting your information. Surely you aren't basing your conclusion on a single piece of his writing; if you are, then Kate1999 is right about you. So, what other Stuntz articles have you read? Did you take his Criminal Procedure class? Or maybe you both clerked for the Court at the same time?

Regarding Stuntz's age, he graduated from law school in 1984 -- he's not even fifty years old. Still, I thought "superannuated" was a cute touch; it nearly makes up for the credibility that is lost when you write "perfessor."
3.2.2006 4:59pm

My reading abilities appear to be much greater than yours, as are my analytical abilities, which is why I referred to GM as once upon a time crushing its competition in the auto industry, something Harvard has never done in the education industry.

Nor is Stuntz arguing that the Summers resignation is the end of Harvard: he is arguing that Summers was pointing the school in the right direction, and that someone like Summers is needed to help the school stay strong.

Actually, he is arguing that Summers was Harvard's last chance to stave off the decline, which he by the way says is already going on. Now that Summers has been fired, Harvard's decline is, according to Stuntz, inevitable, irreversible - unlike the decline that OxBridge has endured which for some reason can be reversed.
3.2.2006 11:44pm

Why do I need to "know about the Harvard faculty" to be able to comment on an opinion essay in a political magazine?

So, what other Stuntz articles have you read? Did you take his Criminal Procedure class? Or maybe you both clerked for the Court at the same time?

That is completely irrelevant to the essay in question. You are arguing that because Stuntz is an expert in some area, he is correct, intelligible, wellreasoned, and logical in all areas he cares to write on. With all due respect, that is a really stupid position.

Regarding Stuntz's age, he graduated from law school in 1984 -- he's not even fifty years old. Still, I thought "superannuated" was a cute touch; it nearly makes up for the credibility that is lost when you write "perfessor."

Some people are old at 20, others have no sense of humor.

Still others will twist and turn and squirm to defend the indefensible, e.g., you and Stuntz' essay, without addressing the substance of it, because the substance is a mess.

Your..."argument"...reminds me of the time a Nobel Prize Winning Chemist opined about how a certain drug, thalidomide, should not be allowed to be used in the US because women in Brazil were using it contrary to the label instructions and warnings.

You would say that the chemist was absolutely correct, because he won a Nobel Prize, published papers in referreed journals, and was a Cornell, e.g. credentialism.

I would say his comments were irrelevant and stupid because Brazil is a Portuguese speaking country and the label warnings were in English.

I allowed as how Stuntz might be an expert in criminal procedure, but that does not mean he has a clue on anything else. He might, but not necessarily, and every publication of his, including criminal procedure stands or falls on its own quality. In any event, his essay is a mess.
3.2.2006 11:56pm
Michael B (mail):
"Harvard is no more like General Motors than the US is like a totalitarian fascist state."

" ... his essay is a mess." Lev

Here's what Stuntz indicates about the GM analogy:

"Harvard is the General Motors of American universities: rich, bureaucratic, and confident--a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers's resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM's fate. From now on, the decline will likely be steep. ... The only question is who gets to play the role of Toyota in this metaphor."

He allows that the casual observer is likely to believe otherwise and proceeds to draw an additional, more limited analogy with U.S. housing and health care, particularly noting that the quality of housing and health care has undeniably risen with the corresponding rise in costs. By contrast, with the rise in cost for higher education he observes:

"Higher education is similar--on the cost side. Benefit is another story. There is little reason to believe that undergrads and graduate students are better educated today than a generation ago. More likely the opposite. Teaching loads of senior professors have declined; probably teaching quality has declined with it. The culture of research universities has grown ever more contemptuous of students, especially undergraduates, who are seen as an interruption of one's real work rather than the reason for the enterprise. Which means that, year by year, students and their parents pay more for less. That isn't a sustainable business plan."

He then proceeds to take note of problems with post-graduate programs, the compartmentalization of knowledge, overspecialization and self-indulgent scholasticism. In sum, Stuntz's piece is a telling reflection of deeply entrenched and critical problems. How precisely accurate he will be with his decades-long prognosis remains to be seen, but his depiction of current circumstances is accurate and telling and his prognosis, not at all improbable, should not be mischaracterized or dismissed, especially so as it reflects broader societal problems.

Repeating the idea that "his essay is a mess" is no doubt satisfying at some level, but it does not inform or help forward the discussion on a well reasoned/rational basis. Repetition and dismissiveness, in their varied and sundry forms, in their variegated and sophisticated forms - from high school teachers to Hollywood - are the two most formative and sustaining forces of an ideological complex, not of informed debate and uncoerced discussion.
3.3.2006 3:19pm
Bill Stuntz (mail):
I thank Orin for his kind post -- Orin has long been nicer to me than I deserve; I'm very grateful -- and I thank those who have commented on my TNR article, including those who have been critical of it. I'm sure there are things I got wrong, and obviously no one knows whether my, or anyone's, future predictions will turn out to be correct.

One issue that has generated a lot of comment in this thread (surprisingly to me) is the line about Oxford and Cambridge possibly becoming leaders in the field again. The reason I think that could easily happen is perfectly consistent with the prediction that Harvard will decline, and steeply, over the next couple of generations. The key difference is that Oxford and Cambridge already HAVE declined. They may be close to bottoming out. It's vastly easier to turn around an institution that recognizes how far it has fallen -- the people I know in British universities do recognize that -- than it is to change an institution that regards itself as wholly successful. I guess the lesson I draw from GM (Ford too) is that a sensibility like that, over time, will kill even the most successful institutions. My father spent most of his career in management in a large corporation, and I have a number of friends and relatives who work in that world. Stasis is death in the business world; self-satisfaction is like a cancer. In universities, the cancer has metastasized.

Not many people have said this, but I think the weakest part of my argument concerns the hard sciences. I could well be totally wrong there. I don't know that culture well, and I could easily imagine that that part of the academic world functions just fine. Market forces operate differently there, and the sciences tend to have agreed-on standards for distinguishing truth from error. Those things matter. But the story is very different in the humanities (especially), social sciences, and professional schools. All of those sectors of universities have raised prices massively without much improving the quality of their product. All tend to think of themselves as perfect just as they (we) are. Some institutions are better than others; the decline won't be as steep in some places than in others. But I'd bet that the whole American higher education market declines. Institutions like Harvard will be hit hardest, because they have the farthest to fall.

Lastly, I recognize that Larry Summers has his problems. But he has one great virtue that very, very few Deans and Provosts and university Presidents have: he doesn't think his institution is perfect the way it is, and he is always looking for ways of doing things better. I think that's what got him into the most trouble. Which is sad, for those of us who love universities. As I do, and as I'm quite sure Larry Summers does.

Sorry for the long post, and sorry for coming to the party late. If anyone else wants to say anything, I'll promise to let others have the last word. Thanks to all.
3.4.2006 1:09pm