Harvard University President Lawrence Summers announced his resignation Tuesday morning amid spiraling conflict with professors critical of his leadership and management style.
Summers’ announcement that he will resign effective June 30 followed a year of conflict with members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who planned to vote on a no-confidence motion at the end of the month. In a letter to the Harvard community, the five sitting Fellows of Harvard College announced that former Harvard President Derek Bok will step in as interim president beginning July 1, until Summers’ successor is chosen. During the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that some members of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s top governing body, had begun conversations with professors to discuss their concerns about Summers.
At the upcoming Feb. 28 meeting of the faculty, Summers also would have faced a motion asking the other corporation members to intervene in the dispute. The recent conflict with faculty had intensified following the January resignation of Dean of the Faculty William Kirby, which sparked reports in the Harvard Crimson and other publications that Summers actually fired Kirby. The Harvard president lost a no-confidence vote last March in the wake of an uproar that followed his controversial comments regarding women’s intrinsic abilities in math and science.
Philip Kuhn, a Harvard professor of history and East Asian languages, said he thinks Summers had good intentions but could be too heavy-handed in working with faculty members. Kuhn said running a large university is not easy, but it requires “a reliance on reason and consensus.”
“You can’t run it like a business and you can’t run it like an army battalion, and apparently you can’t run it like a Cabinet department,” Kuhn said.
Summers served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President William Clinton LAW ’73.
Yale President Richard Levin — who, like Summers, was a professor of economics before becoming a university president — described Summers as “a man of great intelligence and vision.”
“I’m sorry for him, and I’m sorry for Harvard,” Levin said.
In a letter to the Harvard community, Summers wrote about his accomplishments as president — which ranged from initiating the undergraduate curricular review to launching an expansion of the campus into Allston, an area of Boston across the river from the main campus in Cambridge. While he did not directly address the pending no-confidence vote, Summers alluded to complaints about his management style.
“I have sought for the last five years to prod and challenge the University to reach for the most ambitious goals in creative ways,” he wrote. “There surely have been times when I could have done this in wiser or more respectful ways.”
The Fellows thanked Summers for his service as president, writing in a letter to the community that “Harvard’s paths forward will long bear the imprint of his vision.” They announced that they plan to name Summers to a University professorship — Harvard’s highest honor for a professor — when he returns to teaching after a year’s sabbatical.
But the Fellows also noted the turmoil of the past year, which they described as “a difficult and sometimes wrenching one,” and asked faculty, students and alumni to focus on future progress.
Harvard history professor Nancy Cott, who taught at Yale until 2001, said faculty had lost trust in Summers’ leadership of the university. Cott said tensions between the president and FAS continued throughout 2005, a situation that she said was disruptive to the operations of the university.
“It created an impossible situation for him to act,” Cott said. “I think this is the right solution to the problem, although it will inevitably lead to some difficulty along the way, especially because we have to find a new dean for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”
Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, a supporter of Summers, praised the president’s commitment to undergraduate education and the Allston expansion.
“I’m very sad to see him go,” Glaeser said.
John Blum, emeritus professor of history at Yale and a fellow of the Harvard Corporation from 1970 to 1979, said Summers’ departure was not entirely a surprise, since the past three years of his presidency have been rocky. Blum said he thinks the dispute over Summers’ infamous comments at a conference last year — when he speculated that women might have an intrinsically lower aptitude in the sciences than men — sparked expressions of the faculty’s general unease with Summers, particularly his abrasive manner in leading the university.
Based on his experience as a Harvard Fellow, Blum said he thinks it is unlikely that Summers was fired by the corporation, but the Fellows may have urged him to resign in the best interests of the university. The president of Harvard cannot govern without the support of corporation fellows, Blum said, and he would have little choice but to accept the suggestion.
But Summers may have come to the decision to resign himself, Blum said. He compared the circumstances of Summers’ departure to those of former Yale President Benno Schmidt, who resigned the presidency in 1992 after supporting a controversial proposal to cut the size of Yale’s faculty by 11 percent due to financial constraints. On that occasion, Schmidt decided independently that it was time to resign because of tension with the faculty, Blum said.
Cott, who was a professor at Yale when Schmidt resigned the presidency, said she thinks the conflict between Summers and his faculty was harsher than that between Schmidt and Yale professors.
“It’s just very striking to have lived through being a faculty member at Yale, when faculty unhappiness with the way the president was running things led to his departure, and then to move to Harvard and find the same thing happening again,” Cott said.
Kuhn said the Harvard faculty should be treated as co-equals with the president, since they need to work together to effectively resolve problems. But Kuhn noted that the faculty could have governed themselves more without prodding from the president, on issues including the proposed revision to the core curriculum, gender equality on the faculty, and undergraduate advising. Kuhn said Harvard undergraduates told him they are more concerned with progress on the curricular review than faculty disagreements with Summers.
Based on a poll of Harvard students, the Crimson reported Tuesday that 19 percent of students said Summers should resign, while 57 percent favored his continued tenure.
Bok, the former Harvard president who will hold the position until a replacement is found, was first appointed president in 1970, while Blum was a member of the Harvard Corporation.
Glaeser described Bok as a “man of unimpeachable integrity.”
“Certainly you couldn’t think of a stabler or more serious man to lead the University during this period,” Glaeser said.
Bok stepped down from the Harvard presidency in 1991 after two decades at the helm of the university.