Analyzing Hiring Mistakes at Harvard
INTERVIEW EDGE • MARCH 2006
Larry Summers' resignation as Harvard University's president closed the chapter on the lightning-rod administrator, best known for controversy instead of accomplishments. Summers had superior credentials for the coveted position, but his inability to fit in with Harvard's culture illustrates a problem seen all too often when analyzing hiring mistakes in corporate America.
Summers' impressive resume included faculty tenure at Harvard at age 28, and positions as chief economist of World Bank and Secretary of the Treasury. Given this, Summers' success seemed a foregone conclusion. But Summers could never build consensus for the changes he wanted to implement, because he was constantly at odds with the Harvard community.
Instead of adapting to Harvard's culture, Summers seemed to reject or ignore it. His vocal criticism of Cornel West's musical and political projects ultimately chased the well-known African-American scholar out of Cambridge and into Princeton. Summers also publicly speculated that women might lack the innate genetic qualities required to excel in math and science. These episodes ignited public relations firestorms that tarnished Harvard's reputation and possibly its ability to attract women and minority faculty and students.
Summers' lack of interpersonal savvy and affability produced a heavy-handed style, and consequently many across the university never warmed up to him. The faculty's frustrations resulted in a vote of no confidence last year.
The nine-month selection process should have raised concerns about his personal style and fit with Harvard’s multi-faceted culture, instead of focusing on his credentials. This is a lesson for all seasons.