Harvard President Lawrence Summers has apologized, pronounced himself a changed man, and has now released a transcript of his much-debated remarks on women’s aptitude in science.
But with each step he’s 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.
Furor could lead to no-confidence vote
“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 professor of Chinese society and anthropology. He said the transcript distressed him, though he is ambivalent about whether Summers should continue as president. “The more it continues, the worse it will be for the long-term direction of the university,” Watson said.
Summers faces a faculty meeting next 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 which 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 just 12 branches of the sprawling and loosely governed Harvard empire.
“I think the faculty vote is largely irrelevant because it’s not the full faculty,” said law professor Alan Dershowitz. “I think 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 that they thought the release of transcript boosted Summers’ position. Two economics professors circulated a letter of support — signed by at least 80 faculty — expressing support for Summers.
Blunt style erodes good will
John Bethell, who edited Harvard Magazine from 1966 to 1994, said past confrontations between Harvard presidents and faculty have always 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 expects Summers to survive, but that his management methods have 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.”
Summers has apologized repeatedly for his remarks, most recently in a letter posted with the transcript Thursday. His spokeswoman, Lucie McNeil, said in an e-mail Friday that Summers is “talking to many members of the faculty” and that governing board members “have expressed their judgment.”
Fueling heated debate
The dispute over Summers’ remarks at a National Bureau of Economic Research Conference has spread far beyond Cambridge and brought renewed attention to the debate over why fewer women than men reach top-level science jobs. The presidents of Princeton, Stanford and MIT have published an op-ed piece critical of Summers’ comments. And this week, graduate students at Yale protested that President Richard Levin had not spoken out on the matter.
In Harvard’s science center Friday, of a dozen students interviewed, only one said she had read the nearly 7,000-word transcript of Summers’ remarks, though others said they had followed the dispute closely and planned to read it later.
Sopen Shah, a pre-med student who had read the transcript, said she disagreed with much of what Summers had said. But after reading his words, she was now more inclined to believe “Summers didn’t mean to be offensive, maybe he just misunderstood.”
David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said it is not uncommon for a president to continue in office despite faculty no-confidence votes, though often threatened votes never materialize and grievances are worked out in faculty meetings.
“Speculation about a no-confidence vote is part of the politics preceding the meeting,” Ward said. “The vote is much tougher to come by. ... Sometimes the political or institutional fallout of such votes begins to weigh on people.”