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Archive for Saturday, February 19, 2005

Controversy tests Harvard president’s ability to lead

February 19, 2005

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— Harvard President Lawrence Summers has apologized, pronounced himself a changed man and released a transcript of his much-debated remarks on women's aptitude in science.

But with each step he has failed to quell a heated controversy leading up to what may be a turbulent faculty meeting and questions about whether he has the right temperament and vision to lead the nation's most prominent university.

"I do not think it is possible that he can run Harvard effectively after all this," said Daniel Fisher, a physics professor.

The latest development came Thursday, when Summers acceded to a faculty request to release the transcript of his Jan. 14 remarks on why fewer women than men reach top-level science jobs. He suggested biological differences may play a role, with men having a greater range of test scores in math and science -- both higher and lower -- than women.

"This is like a firestorm that's sweeping across the university and burning and burning, and more oil keeps being thrown on it," said James L. Watson, a Harvard professor of Chinese society and anthropology. He said the transcript distressed him, but he had not yet decided how he would vote on a no-confidence measure. "The more it continues, the worse it will be for the long-term direction of the university."

Summers faces a faculty meeting Tuesday at which some academics have suggested they could push for a no-confidence vote -- an unprecedented step in the university's modern history.

Still, Summers' position is far from hopeless. Faculty no-confidence votes are largely symbolic; the Harvard Corporation, the board that governs the university and oversees Summers, issued a strong statement of support for him Thursday. And Tuesday's meeting involves only Harvard's faculty of Arts and Sciences, one of 12 branches of the sprawling and loosely governed Harvard empire.

"The faculty vote is largely irrelevant because it's not the full faculty," said law professor Alan Dershowitz. "The idea of firing a president because of his exercise of academic freedom, free speech, would send the worst possible message. It's sounding more and more like the trial of Galileo."

Some other faculty members said Friday they thought the released transcript boosted Summers' position. Two economics professors circulated a letter of support -- signed by at least 80 faculty -- for Summers.

John Bethell, who edited Harvard Magazine from 1966 to 1994, said past confrontations between Harvard presidents and faculty had been smoothed over before reaching the point of a formal no-confidence vote.

Summers' blunt style surfaced in his previous job as treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, and he had been in scraps with some Harvard faculty before the latest controversy -- though others welcomed his direct approach.

Bethell said he expected Summers to survive, but that his management methods had left him little good will to tap. Much of the discussion at a contentious faculty meeting last week focused not on Summers' remarks but on broader questions of leadership style.

"Harvard faculty people are not used to a leader who is as aggressive," Bethell said.

Fisher, the physics professor, said many faculty "think the whole issue about this transcript, what he did or didn't say, is a tiny part of the major problem."

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