February 24, 2006

Harvard President Summers resigns amidst faculty pressure

Harvard University President Larry Summers resigned last Tuesday, bowing to faculty pressure that had been steadily building for nearly a year. The decision came in reaction to numerous complaints, but most concretely in anticipation of a no-confidence motion slated to be passed by the Faculty of Arts and Science during an upcoming meeting.

In a letter to the Harvard community, Summers, a former US secretary of the treasury, noted “rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty” that made it impossible to continue to lead.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Corporation, the university’s most powerful governing body and the only group with the power to fire Summers, issued a statement accepting the resignation, “with regret,” but hinting at the embattled situation behind the scenes: “This past year has been a difficult and somewhat wrenching one in the life of the University.”

According to The Harvard Crimson, the expected no-confidence vote would have been the second such movement in less than a year. Since the first motion, which took place in March 2005 and included a statement of rebuke against his public remarks concerning women and science, discord between the administration and the Faculty of Arts and Science had reached an impasse.

Summers’s firing of the Dean of Faculty, William Kirby, as well as his mishandling of a government lawsuit against a professor of economics and personal friend, added to faculty anxiety concerning his leadership abilities. The resulting atmosphere pushed the Faculty of Arts and Science to call on the Corporation to “intervene in the escalating battle between professors and the central administration,” according to a February 14th Crimson article.

While national media outlets note his outspoken nature and brash commentary as ammunition stoking faculty rage—an editorial in Thursday’s Financial Times claimed the resignation “tells the world a great deal about the delicate state of the personalities that inhabit those hallowed halls”—student commentaries from other universities suggest the faculty’s reaction was a more insidious move against a president with an especial devotion to improving the undergraduate experience.

In yesterday’s paper, Yale’s Daily News editors said, “Summers’ demands for faculty to become more involved in undergraduate teaching were responsible in no small part for the furor that prompted his resignation.”

The vision of Summers as a boon to undergraduates was echoed in the reaction of the Harvard student body. In a poll conducted by The Crimson and published last Monday, only 19 percent of the undergraduate population felt he should leave. According to the paper, after the announcement students donned “Viva El Presidente Summers,” while shouting, “Stay Larry, stay.”

The official stance of the student paper remains decidedly pro-Summers. In an editorial published just hours after the announcement, the staff painted a picture of their president as a man of “worthy vision” who became, by his final hours, “no longer willing to defend himself against the barbs of an uncompromising segment of the Faculty.”

But with 19 percent of the Harvard community supporting his resignation, a large number of students now have reason for celebration.

“It’s about time,” said Harvard junior Regina Schwartz in an e-mail interview. “His lack of respect for women and undervaluing of many well-respected professors should have [been] cause enough to fire him.”