In the wake of a vote last week by many Harvard faculty members indicating a lack of confidence in the university’s president, Lawrence Summers, questions linger as to whether Summers will be able to effectively lead the institution.
The faculty vote, which is unprecedented at Harvard and at other universities including Yale, has no formal implications. A narrow majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences supported the resolution at a March 15 faculty meeting, with 218 professors in favor, 185 opposed and 18 abstentions. The seven-member Harvard Corporation, the only governing body at the university with the power to remove Summers, has reaffirmed its support for the president, although the corporation, which meets bi-weekly, could easily reverse its position.
Summers, who has had a rocky tenure since assuming the presidency in 2001, has been under fire since January, when he made controversial comments about women in science. He has repeatedly apologized for his comments, but he has not indicated plans to resign, instead expressing his willingness to amend his management style in response to faculty discontent.
Still, Summers’ position at Harvard remains tenuous. Although the resolution passed by Harvard’s faculty is mostly symbolic, several professors said in most cases a president would have resigned in response.
“In his position, I would feel somewhat abashed about continuing, but he has a very different personality than mine, and I actually doubt it’s even crossed his mind to resign,” said longtime Yale professor Cynthia Russett, who specializes in intellectual and women’s history. “Whether he can mend his fences is an open question. He has certainly made efforts in that direction, but they do not seem to have mollified the faculty much.”
But Summers’ staunch determination to hold onto his job could not compete with the will of the Harvard Corporation if its members wished to remove him. Although the corporation officially stands behind Summers — senior fellow James Houghton released a statement last week supporting Summers — the breadth of the corporation’s support is questionable, said former Harvard Corporation member John Blum, a professor emeritus of history at Yale.
“We don’t know what the feeling in the corporation is,” Blum said. “I don’t know whether Mr. Houghton is speaking for himself or for a majority of the corporation or for the whole corporation.”
Even if the corporation fully supports Summers now, its support may be tentative, Blum said. But chances are slim that the corporation would fire Summers outright, due to a “tradition of civility” that exists among institutions of higher learning, Blum said.
“What they would do would be to go to the president and say, ‘We no longer support you, you’ve got to resign,'” he said, noting that former Harvard President Nathan Pusey, unpopular among students and faculty alike for his handling of a riot during the 1960s, was ousted in this way.
But Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom, who said he voted against last Tuesday’s no-confidence resolution, said he thinks a “sudden and dramatic change” in the corporation’s support is unlikely.
“Since this controversy, [Summers] has done everything possible to placate his critics, to apologize,” Thernstrom said. “It could be that the controversy could reach such a level that Summers would give the university such bad publicity that he would have to go, but it appears to me this is just going to die down. I suspect a few months from now the faculty meetings will be back to normal business, with few in attendance.”
Other faculty members said they are concerned about the effects the controversy will have on the university, both internally and externally. Harvard anthropology and Afro-American Studies professor J. Lorand Matory, who introduced the resolution and, after it passed, called for Summers’ resignation, said in an interview last month that Summers could negatively affect the university’s ability to recruit faculty, especially women.
“If Summers remains in office … I can imagine a significant number of top people choosing different institutions,” Matory said. “It’s a great university, but there are places with a better attitude toward [women]. I think it’s tragic.”
Russett said she thinks the faculty vote is a sign of further divisions developing among Harvard faculty.
“Things are going to be tense,” she said. “One wonders what this does to collegial relationships within the faculty themselves, you know, if a line has been drawn. That can be extremely unpleasant.”
But Thernstrom said he thinks any divisions will be along departmental lines and will not necessarily lead to tension among professors who interact on a regular basis.
“I bet not too many people in sociology voted for Summers, I bet people in chemistry and physics did, so that the faculty you interact with are likely to be thinking the same way about this,” he said.
Indeed, Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin said she has not encountered faculty in her department who are discontented with Summers.
Although it is uncertain if Summers will survive the unrelenting criticism of faculty members, Summers is working to put forth a less abrasive front.
“I certainly think since he obviously is desperate to keep this job, I think he is going to make a big effort to behave a bit differently,” Thernstrom said.