Faculty clout helps oust Summers

Harvard's president will resign this year, ending an era marked by struggle with faculty.

When Dwight Eisenhower took the helm of Columbia University and met faculty scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi, he congratulated the Nobel prizewinner for his success as a "university employee." Dr. Rabi took umbrage: "Mr. President, the faculty is the university."

That was the late 1940s. But in the decades since, that sentiment has survived within the halls of academia, through social revolutions, scientific advances, and structural overhauls in the way higher education is governed.

And, for many faculty at Harvard University, it echoed again this week when president Lawrence Summers announced he will step down at the close of the academic year, ending a power struggle with faculty that bristled at his assertive and politically incorrect manner.

But the unraveling of Dr. Summers's presidency - Harvard's shortest since the Civil War - was about more than a conflict of personality. It was also a contest of visions about what kind of reform Harvard needs. Summers's vision, some say, undermined Harvard's scholars.

"The university without the faculty is a group of red brick buildings," says Everett Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science at Harvard. "One important lesson is for senior university administrators to increase their ability to listen to what is being said and being thought about [among] faculty."

To be sure, Summers has his share of supporters. Many find him refreshingly independent. Like many institutions, Harvard sought in Summers a more corporate approach to leadership, an outsider who could get the job done. But the ensuing wars between a powerful faculty and a man whose task was to "shake things up"is perhaps a lesson in the limits of such leadership styles, especially at an Ivy League school with such deeply entrenched traditions.

Summers's administrative approach may have been less divisive at the turn of the last century. Back then, many of America's esteemed universities were run unilaterally, says Roger Bowen, the general secretary of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, whose organization was formed to combat such leadership. "The prestigious ones were run by tyrants," he says. But a sense of shared governance and culture of academic freedom flourished over the past century.

In recent years, says Margaret Miller, who teaches higher education at the University of Virginia, faculty feel their clout has eroded as universities have turned to corporate models of leadership in an effort to boost endowments and make schools more competitive.

Clashes with Harvard's Arts and Sciences faculty, the school's largest and loudest Summers critic, began almost at the outset of his tenure, when a skirmish with Cornel West spurred the popular black studies professor to leave for Princeton. Later, a firestorm over his comments suggesting that intrinsic aptitude between the sexes might account for lower representation of female scientists in top ranks ricocheted across the globe, and landed Summers his first vote of no confidence by 218-185 last March.

He since has apologized multiple times, and his supporters point to his accomplishments while governing the nation's wealthiest university, such as establishing a stem-cell research institute and expanding the campus boundaries.

But after speculation grew this winter that Summers was responsible for a popular dean leaving his post, Summers was to face an unprecedented second vote of no confidence next week. The seven-member governing board, the only body with authority to fire him, had reportedly been meeting with faculty to assess the depth of anger, when Summers announced his resignation Tuesday and preempted the vote.

"I have reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard's future," he wrote.

Harvard students are split on whether his resignation bodes well for the university, says John Kalis, president of the Harvard Graduate Council. A poll conducted by The Harvard Crimson student newspaper recently reported that only 19 percent of students said he should resign. The Crimson had supported Summers in an editorial: "No confidence in 'No confidence.' "

But the professor who pushed the anti- Summers motion, Judith Ryan, called the resignation a relief after weeks of turmoil. "I know we all want to get moving on," she says.

In a bid to calm the administrative storm, Harvard has asked a former president, Derek Bok, to be interim leader. "He knows the culture, he knows the language ... and he knows the limits of presidential power," says Dr. Miller.

Miller does not expect the event to affect hiring decisions for administrators at other schools. For one thing, Harvard's faculty is notably influential because their academic renown gives them career bargaining power. Other faculty don't have that luxury. "[They] tend to be rather reticent in most places most times," says Dr. Bowen. "When it does dander up and speak loudly, it behooves everyone to take note."

Some Harvard faculty say they aren't resistant to change, but that the idea to "shake up" Harvard from day one was misguided. "It didn't need to be shaken up," says Dr. Mendelsohn, "because Harvard was wise enough to know that shaking may break too many things that might be good."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Faculty clout helps oust Summers
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today