Winders: Urged to go all in or not at all

Larry Summers is correct.

Believe me, as an American who has been subjected to his pompous style of unelected economic guidance for a quarter century, that is a painful sentence to write. But during an appearance at Western last week, the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury offered an interesting nugget for the future direction of this university.

Understand, Summers is a feisty and formidable intellectual. Although his stage presence comes across as a bit of a droll lump of flesh, don’t let that betray his fierceness. You cannot trick or trap him, and his amazing resume shields him from the criticism of even the mightiest opponents.

Watch the Monk Debates from earlier this month if you don’t believe me.

So his Beattie Family Lecture was a wonderful ‘get’ for the Faculty of Law and, in turn, Western.

Sure, Summers didn’t touch on his role in the California energy crisis, and subsequent Enron collapse, or how his anti-regulatory crusade and vindictive nature (ask Brooksley Born, former Chair of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission) helped fuel the economic crisis. Those issues remained untouched by his hand-picked interviewer and a crowd who correctly opted for decorum over confrontation.

But despite his unabated pontification, Summers offered an interesting lesson while discussing his turbulent tenure as Harvard University president. (Funny, he didn’t discuss what made his tenure turbulent, either.)

Under his watch, the Ivy League powerhouse was considering developing a tissue engineering program. Frankly, it matters not what the program was, just the fact nothing existed at the time is key. Harvard was considering entering into something new.

The debate on the president’s desk centered on how far to go: Should Harvard hire a researcher and dip its toe in this emerging field? Find a safe and comfortable middle ground? Or go all-in and hire a full team? It’s a discussion that takes place across university campuses all the time.

For Harvard, the answer was simple: None or three.

If you are Harvard University, Summers explained, and you choose to do something, then you are going to do it at a world-class level. All in or not at all. In Summers’ view, either Harvard was going to hire an elite team to define the future of tissue engineering or it was going to stay out and focus on other areas.

Neither answer is necessarily incorrect, as both are a matter of organizational priorities rather than moral commitment. But greatness doesn’t commit halfway.

There’s a lesson in there for us.

Like it or not, we know the future will be about smarter choices. Increased competition for top students, researchers and funding dictate we cannot do everything with excellence. That means we’ll need to, as an old editor of mine would say, “decide which of our children we love more.”

The future holds less room for error or vanity, an odd lesson coming from Summers who commits the former as often as he indulges in the latter.

I know that’s not a popular sentiment. Our society has trouble picking winners. We look for the solution where everyone gets a trophy. And in some cases, I have no problem with that. But off the youth soccer field, it’s a formula for failure.

Yes, it’s difficult for a large organization, with numerous stakeholders competing to make their name known, to prioritize. But our elevation out of the ‘sea of sameness’ falling across the hundreds of ‘OK universities’ depends on it.

As we develop new programs, it is important to ask why we are doing it. Are we developing the program just to say we have one? Or are we developing it to be the Canadian – or even world – leader? Those decisions can be uncomfortable for all involved.

But it’s a vital thought. Even if it came from Larry Summers.