Harvard in crisis

The president of one of America's top universities has caused a furore that could force him from office. Paul Lewis finds an institution split on whether Larry Summers should survive
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The Independent Online

Harvard University is a calm place during the winter months. A blanket of snow brings the campus to a silent standstill. Students stay tucked away in cosy libraries, professors scurry home before the icy dark descends, and tempers remain cool.

This year, however, the seasonal tranquillity was broken by an off-the-cuff remark by Harvard's president, Larry Summers - a remark that swiftly snowballed into one of the worst crises the university has ever faced. A crisis which, moreover, slices to the very heart of the most sensitive debates in American academic life today.

It all began on 14 January, when Summers addressed a conference on diversifying the science and engineering workforce. After stressing that he would be speaking unofficially, Summers proposed that differences in the "intrinsic aptitudes" of men and women was one possible explanation for women's under-representation in the sciences. "I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong," Summers added, provocatively.

Two days later the Harvard president's controversial musings on the "intrinsic" inadequacies of women had been reported across the world. A month later, in an event unprecedented in Harvard's history, the university's largest faculty passed a vote of no confidence in their president. In America, where university presidents are more powerful and more famous than their vice-chancellor counterparts in Britain, regular updates on the Summers saga have become a staple feature of the news diet. "Who could imagine such a thing?" says Nancy Hopkins, the MIT genetics professor who unintentionally leaked Summers' remarks to a journalist from a New York taxi. "I didn't even know it would become a story at all."

Hopkins doesn't fault Summers personally. "It's his source I take issue with, because relying on simplistic genetic explanations of career choices is just bad science," she says. Many in the Harvard community are much less forgiving.

"Larry Summers was an unfortunate choice for president," complains the chair of Harvard's anthropology department, Arthur Kleinman. "He clearly lacks the skills to lead this university." Down the corridor from Kleinman's office sits J Lorand Matory, the professor who proposed the devastating motion of no confidence for which 218 faculty of arts and sciences professors voted, with just 185 against - a stinging public censure. Although only Harvard's board, "the Corporation", has the authority to sack the president - and it steadfastly refuses to do so, Professor Matory and others see the February vote as serious enough to warrant Summers's resignation. Regardless of where they stand on the question of resignation, however, few academics believe the vote was purely a reaction to Summers's remarks about women. Rather, as Professor Kleinman puts it, Summers's comments on genetics simply exposed an already "deep, festering wound."

Summers, in short, has a reputation for being light on diplomacy. In his former jobs, first as the chief economist at the World Bank and later as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary, he acquired a reputation for his abrasive touch. Shortly after arriving at Harvard, too, Summers found himself under fire for allegedly insulting the renowned African American studies scholar, Cornel West. West eventually left Harvard for Princeton, but not before denouncing Summers as a "bull in a china shop".

Paul Ward, the president of the American Council on Education, reiterates that the Larry Summers calamity is primarily a consequence of Summers's style of leadership. "Presidents vary," he explains. "Some feel that their leadership role gives them a free reign, whilst others see themselves as purely representatives of their institutions." Summers's approach to leadership is, different from that of his more restrained peers, says Ward. "Larry is forceful, aggressive, and contrarian." The Harvard science historian Everett Mendelsohn is more explicit: "Larry Summers has a tendency to bully in meetings."

Not all faculty members agree that Summers is a bully, and many are rallying to his side, defending his right to academic freedom of speech. The professor of Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse, criticises a "consortium of women" whom, she alleges, are trying to dislodge him. "You have this preposterous situation where President George Bush speaks his mind even when he knows what he says is unpopular," she argues, "while the president of a university is made to feel inhibited in what he says."

The reason for this inhibition, Wisse contends, is that unlike the Washington polity, Harvard does not have a balance of liberals and conservatives - it lacks the latter. "The place is so unbalanced that people cannot tolerate another's point of view," she claims. Doug Melton, a biology professor, agrees that the president should be free to speak his mind. "I want to be part of a university in which the president challenges people," he says. Another fan of Summers, professor Larry Katz, praises Summers for his willingness to ask "absolutely necessary" questions. "He's excellent," Katz says, "many people - including students - are behind him."

In fact, students, like their professors, are divided. A recent poll found graduate student opinion relatively split, with a slight majority supporting Summers. For every student disappointed in their president's performance, there is another willing to extol his virtues. "He's just a brilliant guy, doing a great job," argues Sam Lessin, a social studies undergraduate. Sarah Howard, an African American studies student, disagrees, "Summers has abominable leadership qualities," she declares.

But perhaps the most crucial Harvard constituency in this debate will turn out to be the alumni. In private, Summers's advocates agree that his position may become less tenable if the alumni donating tap is turned off. Paul Zofrass, who graduated from Harvard in 1969, says the affair has done nothing to damage his regard for Summers. "It doesn't matter if what he said was politically incorrect," Zofrass says, "I remain committed to Harvard."

Zofrass's loyalty, however, contrasts with a growing resentment against Summers amongst other alumni. Benjamin Levy, who was in Zofrass' class at Harvard, volunteers for the Harvard College Fund - regularly calling old classmates to encourage philanthropy. "Many of the alums I call are unhappy with what they've read and are hesitant to give at the moment," he reports. Levy will donate to the university this year, he says, but will "give a little less."

"I'm not alone in being disappointed with the ridicule Summers has brought against this university," he says, recalling a board meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association last month, when directors of the association made jokes about their president's "knack for offending people."

Another alumnus, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees with Levy's concerns. Summers's failings will prompt many alumni to "reconsider whether or not they wish to support the university financially," she warns. These "reconsiderations" could be offset by Harvard's renewed commitment to address gender inequities. The university recently announced the creation of two university-wide task forces that will report in May with concrete proposals to reduce the barriers for women at Harvard.

The recommendations of the task forces have the potential to be radical: Stacie Weninger, the senior analyst and project manager for one of the task forces, refuses to rule out the introduction of quotas for women professors. Professor Hopkins is hopeful that some good may come of the situation. "The mere fact that we're having this conversation might just help," she says.

Ironically, in a rarely quoted section from the end of his infamous January speech, Summers made just that point. "If I have provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said," he concluded, "I will have served my purpose." But if the alumni disagree with him, Summers' serving days may be numbered.