Summers on the Ropes?

Reports circulate that board members are considering whether Harvard needs a change at the top.
February 20, 2006

For the first time since Lawrence H. Summers became president of Harvard University -- and moved from one controversy to another -- reports are circulating that the institution's top board is considering replacing him.

The reports are not confirmed, those closest to the discussions won't comment on the record and Harvard officially is saying nothing. But one constant in the many debates about Summers since he took office in 2001 has been the assumption that he had strong support on the seven-member Harvard Corporation, the university's top board. So the reports about the board's consideration of removing Summers -- which have come both from the president's supporters and critics -- may be significant.

The reports about the Harvard's board's thinking first appeared Friday in The Wall Street Journal and a more detailed analysis followed in Sunday's Boston Globe. According to the reports, corporation members have been talking to senior faculty members about the impact of a Summers departure and are apparently worried about conveying a sense that the university cannot be governed. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which already last year voted "no confidence" in Summers, is scheduled to vote again on the issue February 28 -- and corporation members reportedly want to avoid the embarrassment of a second vote.

The first vote came in the aftermath of the now notorious remarks Summers gave in January 2005 about women and science. In the talk -- for which Summers has since apologized -- he speculated on the reasons that there are relatively few women in senior positions in science, and he generally rejected the idea that there is still discrimination against women and suggested that they may have less interest in research careers than do men. Harvard has since announced a series of new efforts to help advance the careers of female scientists -- following on the work of committees Summers appointed after the controversy broke.

The latest move against Summers follows the announcement last month that William C. Kirby would be leaving the post of dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Some of the same faculty members who dislike Summers aren't big Kirby fans either, but the resignation has added to a sense of many that Summers can't lead the institution. A number of prominent faculty members are trying to organize the search for Kirby's replacement in a way that would minimize the role of Summers in the process.

Some professors are also upset about reports that the friendship between Summers and Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economist, may have explained the way the university backed Shleifer strongly when federal officials questioned the way he supervised a major project in Russia. Harvard agreed in August to pay more than $26 million to settle a government suit over management of the program, but has never acknowledged serious problems with the efforts. Summers has stated publicly that he has recused himself from decisions involving the program because of his friendship with Shleifer, but a recent article in Institutional Investor raised new questions about Harvard's supervision of Shleifer's work and response to the government suit.

Also last week, a former graduate dean gave a highly critical interview to The Globe. In the interview, Peter T. Ellison said that Summers undermined his authority and made statements that were “less than truthful.” Ellison also quoted Summers as saying that economists (those in Summers’ field) are smarter than political scientists or sociologists. And he said Summers should quit.

Part of the problem facing Summers and Harvard is that the president has just collected too many enemies on the campus. The Harvard Crimson on Sunday quoted even Summers supporters voicing concern about his effectiveness in the current environment. Today, however, the paper noted that a poll of students found that the vast majority want him to stay.

The Crimson also noted that at least one online betting site has set up a line on whether Summers will quit. The odds -- there at least -- favor the president's departure.


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