While the paths that Yale President Richard Levin and Harvard President Lawrence Summers — who announced his resignation Tuesday morning — took before assuming the helm bear some similarities, the two men have chosen divergent leadership strategies that have elicited different reactions among faculty and students at their respective schools.
Professors and education experts said Levin exhibits a tendency to weigh issues after careful consideration, whereas Summers can come off as overly brusque. A speech by Summers at an academic conference in January 2005 in which he made controversial statements about women’s innate scientific abilities prompted nationwide meida criticism. Summers subsequently lost a no-confidence vote last March by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and was set to face another no-confidence vote this month following the resignation of Dean of the Faculty William Kirby amid speculation that he had been fired by Summers.
Levin repeatedly refused to comment when other academic leaders, including the presidents of Princeton, Stanford and MIT, in spoke out against Summers last year — a decision that would probably not have had an outcome on the situation at Harvard, experts said, because Summers’ resignation stemmed from internal dynamics at Harvard.
But though Yale may not have played a role in the controversy over Summers, experts and professors said the Harvard president’s resignation could have an impact on Yale, potentially boosting Yale’s relative reputation for undergraduate education and emphasizing the importance of establishing trust between a university president and the faculty.
Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky, who served as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department while Summers was Treasury Secretary, said the two leaders have “dramatically different leadership styles.”
“President Levin leads through building consensus for key issues and initiatives,” Klasky said in an e-mail. “With respect to President Summers, it is well known that he was charged with moving Harvard in a different direction, to ‘renew it’ as he himself has stated. With this charge from his Corporation, he felt the best way to proceed was to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciated this nor wanted the changes he was advocating.”
The greater size of Harvard relative to Yale can make it difficult for a president to communicate effectively with all constituencies of the university, Yale historian and professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said.
“Harvard in some ways is a more difficult place to be the president of because it is so large, with so many different constituencies,” Smith said. “Yale has a tradition, which sets it off from Harvard, to talk to each other pretty well.”
Summers’ five-year tenure is the briefest since the Civil War, while Levin, who was appointed to his current post in 1993, is currently the longest-serving Ivy League president.
Still, the two share some common traits: Both are economists by training and personal friends. Levin has spent the years between earning his doctorate in economics from Yale in 1974 and the beginning of his tenure as president first as professor and then chair of the Economics Department and as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences before assuming the presidency. Summers received his doctorate in economics from Harvard in 1982 and spent the following years both as a professor at Harvard and in official capacities in Washington before serving as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from 1999 to 2001.
Richard Bradley ’86, the author of “Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University,” said the absence of criticism by Levin following the remarks about women and science seems logical.
“Any criticism President Levin might have made would probably have been viewed as a product of the Yale-Harvard rivalry, rather than considered on its merits,” Bradley said in an e-mail. “In any case, criticizing the president of another university doesn’t seem like Levin’s style.”
Advocacy by university presidents including Levin during the past year on Summers’ behalf would not have affected the outcome of the firestorm at Harvard, said Tim McDonough, a spokesman at the American Council on Education.
“This was the working relationship that President Summers had with the Harvard faculty and the Harvard Corporation, the trustees,” McDonough said. “The advocacy by presidents from other institutions wouldn’t really have had an impact on that.”
Philip Kuhn, a Harvard professor of history and East Asian languages, said Summers’ resignation will have a negative effect on Harvard.
“Things had reached a point where there weren’t too many good alternatives. There were only bad alternatives.” Kuhn said. “His resigning was bad, and his not resigning was bad. His relationship with the significant portion of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was not productive. I don’t consider this a good thing for Harvard.”
Bradley said he thinks the recent events at Harvard will negatively impact the image of the College, and raise Yale’s profile by comparison.
“Harvard as an institution is stable, but Harvard College is in upheaval, and that’s definitely going to affect the undergraduate experience,” Bradley said in an e-mail. “By comparison with Harvard right now, [Yale] looks better and better.”
Yale English professor Wai Dimock said Summers’ resignation is indicative of the impact of Harvard faculty opinion on the University.
“It really speaks to the power of the faculty in bringing about this tremendous institutional change,” Dimock said. “I think that it suggests some kind of institutional landscape is changing.”
Princeton economics professor Ricardo Reis said he thinks Summers’ decision to resign was unfortunate.
“He was very much a good leader at Harvard and was pushing Harvard in a positive direction,” Reis said. “He had very ambitious plans for Harvard, and they were for the most part plans with which I agreed.”
Summers will resign from his position effective June 30. Former Harvard President Derek Bok will serve as interim president beginning July 1 until a successor is chosen.