Lost Confidence

A faculty vote goes against Harvard's president; Summers asks professors to work with him.
March 16, 2005

Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Tuesday approved a resolution stating that it "lacks confidence" in the leadership of President Lawrence H. Summers.

The vote -- 218 to 185, with 18 abstentions, by secret ballot --  is not binding on the Harvard Corporation, the university's governing board. But even the toughest critics of Summers had been saying that they did not expect Summers to lose a confidence vote. The Harvard Crimson reported that Summers and faculty members seemed surprised when the totals were announced.

The Crimson reported that Summers spoke after the results were announced, saying: "Let me just say that I have done my best these last two months to hear what has been said, to think hard about what has been said, and to make the appropriate adjustments, to learn from what has been said and what's been done. And I will continue to do that. My hope would be that this faculty will now be in a position to move on to address the vital issues that it faces."

The sponsor of the no-confidence resolution, J. Lorand Matory, called for Summers to leave office. Matory, a professor of anthropology and African-American studies, told reporters after the faculty meeting, "There is no noble alternative to his resignation."

The faculty also approved, by a wider margin, a second resolution, expressing regret over the statement Summers made in January about women and science, and over some parts of his managerial style.

The senior member of the Harvard Corporation, James Houghton, issued a statement last night expressing the board's support for Summers, The Boston Globe reported. The statement said, "The members of the corporation fully support President Summers in his ongoing efforts to listen thoughtfully to the range of views being expressed by members of the university's faculties and to work collegially and constructively with them to address the important academic matters facing Harvard."

Summers has been under fire ever since he gave his January talk, in which he offered his analysis of reasons why there are so few women in senior positions in science. He suggested multiple possible reasons, including different ability levels in men and women, and he also suggested that discrimination plays a minimal role. As the uproar over his comments grew, Summers apologized and said that he should not have offered his analysis without having a better sense of the issues.

But even as Summers apologized, the debate broadened. Summers became president at Harvard in 2001, and he was widely viewed as having been charged by the Harvard Corporation with making tough decisions that had the potential to offend various Harvard constituencies. He has pushed Harvard to improve in the sciences, but many humanities professors have felt slighted. He has questioned departmental priorities and tenure recommendations. He has put more of an emphasis on undergraduate education. And he has made plans for a major expansion of Harvard, with a new campus in nearby Allston.

Harvard is notoriously decentralized, and some Summers supporters say that he faces opposition because he has shown leadership on long festering issues. But critics of the president include some who agree with his initiatives, but who say that he treats the faculty (or at least some of its members) with contempt. The debate has also broadened to one of academic freedom -- with backers of the president saying that he is being punished for voicing unpopular opinions and critics saying that he does not tolerate dissent.

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