Woman may lead Harvard after sexism controversy

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The Independent US

An unusual degree of political intrigue is coursing through Harvard University. Eleven months after its last president, Lawrence Summers, resigned under a cloud of controversy, the highly secretive process of choosing a successor is almost complete.

However, there is another reason that the speculation over who might take the helm of one of America's most prestigious places of learning is unusually intense this time - it seems increasingly likely that that person might turn out to be a woman.

Candidates on a shortlist now before Harvard's presidential search committee are believed to include at least three women presidents at other Ivy League universities: Shirley Tilghman of Princeton, Ruth Simmons of Brown and Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania. Also being mentioned is Alison Richard, presently vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

In its 371-year history, Harvard has never chosen a woman as its president. But at play here is not just criticism that Harvard still harbours an outdated old-boys-club mentality. Making the prospect of a female president even more arresting is the legacy left behind by Mr Summers.

The downfall of Mr Summers, a former treasury secretary in the Clinton White House, was in large part spurred by comments he made in 2005 about the dearth of women in the upper echelons of science and mathematics in academia. His suggestion at the time that this may be due to an aptitude gap between the genders sparked a storm of protest among faculty members from which he never recovered.

Given that history, choosing a woman now to lead the entire institution would, some people say, have an almost poetic quality.

Admittedly, the gossip might be galloping ahead of itself. The workings of the search committee are confidential and only its nine members know which way they are leaning. In December, it shared a shortlist of several dozen candidates with the university's board of overseers; a good many were men.

Other factors aside from gender are clearly informing the process. Observers say that the committee may be focusing more on finding a person with a deep grasp of the university, which would suggest choosing someone from the inside. "If I had to guess, I would say it would be somebody with intimate Harvard connections, perhaps an internal person," Jack Maguire, a former dean of admissions at Boston College and now a consultant to several universities, told The New York Times. But he added: "I wouldn't be surprised if the new president is a woman. It's just time. There are lots of good women around."

It is also possible that they are looking first for someone with a scientific background to boost Harvard's credentials in that area. Selecting a female scientist would be especially satisfying to some, given Mr Summers' unfortunate remarks.

Others at Harvard, meanwhile, fret that if a woman was chosen, she would suffer from a perception of having been selected merely for gender reasons. "You can easily imagine that there's a concern that the choice of a woman who in her own right totally deserves to have this job would be perceived as a reactive choice against the Summers comment," Andrew Gordon, the chair of the history department, told The Crimson, Harvard's newspaper.

Meanwhile, all of the women whose names have been floated have gone on the record as disavowing any interest in switching to Harvard. Not everyone is ready to take these public statements at face value.