March 10, 2005

News & Opinion: Harvard under attack by CAVE People

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 4:10 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

It’s not his politically incorrect comments or his insensitive executive style that threatens Lawrence Summers’ job. LS has implemented an initiative to retool Harvard and come up against the same forces that predictably oppose every change in any organization, The Citizens Against Virtually Everything (CAVE people).

Lawrence Summers came to Harvard in 2001. Just six months into his assignment he saw a system that was prejudiced against younger candidates and more likely to hire “extinct volcanoes” – academic giants well past their prime. He directed Harvard’s deans to look for attitudes over experience and offer tenure based more on future promise rather than past accomplishments. The CAVE people didn’t like it.

Summers also encouraged Harvard’s staff to concentrate more on scholarship and teaching. His clash with one professor, who missed classes to work on a political campaign and make a hip-hop record, announced to everyone that lifetime tenure was not a license to do as one pleased. The CAVE people felt uncomfortable.

He even expressed support for the governments Reserve Office Training Corps (ROTC was banned from Harvard during the Vietnam era.) The CAVE people saw this was serious.

Summers had sent everyone at Harvard a message, “things were going to change.”

Just as the human body has organisms that attack anything new or unfamiliar (the immune system), organizations have people who attack all new ideas, novel solutions and calls for change. Overtly and covertly these antibodies in human form (known as the CAVE people) attack to keep changes from taking hold. Their tactics are never direct. They avoid addressing the reasons for change or the actual merits of any strategy. CAVE people instead like to attack the man or woman.

Professors started complaining about Summers’ management style. They criticized how he “centralized” decision-making and took on the “trappings” of some big shot CEO, instead of a more modest Harvard colleague. Lawrence Summers was “brusque and reckless, “ they whispered. Unfortunately none of their complaints showed any real traction.

Then in January Lawrence Summers suggested that innate aptitude might be a factor behind the fact that females are underrepresented in science and engineering. In the meeting was Harvard alum/MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins. She left the room in a huff saying, “I felt I was going to be sick. My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I was extremely upset.”

The CAVE people saw an opening. One professor of physics echoed Hopkins, calling the president’s remarks “shocking.” Another professor (of history) cried Summers was making “sweeping claims that women don’t have the ability to do well in high-powered jobs.” “It’s crazy to think that it’s an innate difference,” chimed in yet another Harvard professor.

The Daily Kos expressed the CAVE people’s strategy succinctly:

So let’s see now – the President of Harvard University says that he BELIEVES that women are innately inferior in the sciences BUT he would love to be proven wrong. Hmmm, Harvard has a problem attracting women for its science disciplines and the President of Harvard states that women are innately inferior in the sciences. Yes, that’s just what you like to see right? Personally, I don’t see how he continues as President of Harvard after this. (Italics mine)

In February dissenters among Harvard’s faculty called for referendum on Summer’s leadership.

Yeah, I know he didn’t handle that subject well. And I agree his words could be some sort of Freudian slip. But after 18 months of talking to leaders at all levels of organizations I know the hidden agenda of the CAVE people when I see it. Time and time again I’ve seen CAVE people attack change by shooting the messenger rather than the message. To me this is another example.

The lesson is before any leader tries to change anything she must first plan to outmaneuver the CAVE people. (There’s a simple five step action plan in It’s Not What You Say… It’s What You Do).

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.