Welcome to Harvard Yard—or, more precisely, to the president’s office in Mass Hall.
As Bradley (American Son, 2002, written as Richard Bow) tells it, Harvard found itself in something of an identity crisis at the turn of the new century. Was Harvard still the best school around, or was it being edged out by Princeton and Yale? The Harvard Corporation was worried, so when President Neil Rudenstine retired, it looked for someone who would shake things up a bit. They found their man in Larry Summers, the enfant terrible economist and former Treasury Secretary who became Harvard’s president in 2001. Here, Bradley covers everything from Summers’s responses to 9/11 and the rise of worldwide anti-Semitism to his attempts to crack down on grade inflation. Readers will even get a peek at his love life. But Bradley is most energized by the fracas around Harvard’s African-American Studies department. The best such department in the country, it was built up by President Rudenstine and Henry Louis Gates Jr., but when Summers came along, he immediately alienated Gates and didn’t even meet with him, a powerhouse by anyone’s standards, until he’d been seated as president for several months—and, when he did, he was wishy-washy about affirmative action. Then there was the showdown with Cornel West, which made the pages of the Boston Globe and the New York Times, after Summers told West his scholarship wasn’t up to snuff, that he needed to stop writing popular books and do some serious work. West was livid, eventually leaving Harvard for Princeton. Gates, too, toyed with switching, though for the time being he’s still in Cambridge. Bradley chronicles the West-Gates-Summers battle royal in detail that’s sometimes delicious and sometimes, well, mind-numbing.
Die-hard Crimson-ites may flock to this, but who else will want to read 400 pages of Harvard insider politics? It’s a fluid, solid profile but would have been better as a magazine article.