Professors at Harvard Confront Its President

Published: February 16, 2005, New York Times


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Feb. 15 - President Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard was confronted at a meeting of his own faculty on Tuesday by some of the university's most influential professors, who expressed strong dissatisfaction with his leadership and charged that he was damaging the institution.

These professors, including two department heads, said after the meeting that they had emphasized that their concerns went well beyond the furor that resulted from Dr. Summers's recent comments suggesting that innate sex differences could account for the lack of women in science and math careers.

 "Many of your faculty are dismayed and alienated and demoralized," Dr. Arthur Kleinman, chairman of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said at the meeting, referring to a "crisis concerning your style of leadership and governance."

The comments came at the first full meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes the undergraduate college and the graduate school of arts and sciences, since Dr. Summers's remarks.

 Most speakers took aim at Dr. Summers for what they described as an autocratic management style that has stifled the open debate that is at the core of the university's values. While their comments were respectful, they were forceful and were greeted by strong applause.

 "I've never seen a faculty meeting like it," said Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies. "So many people stood and spoke from the heart about how they felt about his leadership."

Professor Eck recounted part of what she had said: "My question, Mr. President, is one I ask only with reluctance and respect: how will you now respond to what is clearly a widening crisis of confidence in your fitness to lead our university?"

 Dr. Summers, who has often been confrontational in his meetings with the faculty, began by apologizing yet again for his remarks and then seemed to take pains to listen. "If I could turn back the clock, I would have said and done things very differently," he said, according to The Harvard Crimson, the only newspaper allowed to attend such meetings.

 Dr. Kleinman said: "He heard a lot of hard things and he seemed to listen. At the end he apologized for giving the sense that he was governing by fear and intimidation."

The 90-minute meeting ended with a unanimous vote to hold an emergency meeting of the faculty next Tuesday so professors could continue to discuss their lack of confidence in Dr. Summers's leadership.

 Attendance yesterday was about twice the usual number, with more than 250 professors crowding into the meeting room at University Hall.

 Several, including Barbara J. Grosz, chairwoman of a new task force on women in science and engineering, called on Dr. Summers to release a transcript of his remarks about science and women. Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology, said, "President Summers appears to be apologizing profusely, yet he refuses to release for honest discussion his actual remarks." The result was that commentators have cast his critics as "unreasonable opponents of academic inquiry and openness," with Harvard "ridiculed as a center of close-minded political correctness."

One of two professors who spoke in support of Dr. Summers was Ruth R. Wisse, the Peretz professor of Yiddish literature, who said her colleagues were allowing sexual politics to silence the open discussion Dr. Summers intended when he spoke about women at a conference last month, The Crimson reported.

Lawrence Katz, an economics professor and admirer of Dr. Summers, said afterward that he thought Dr. Summers was "humble and forthcoming, and he clearly articulated that he in no way intends to intimidate."

 In the last several days, the faculty has been preoccupied with the outcome of Tuesday's meeting.

"It's as if the business of the university has ground to a halt until this matter is resolved," said Prof. Henry Louis Gates, the chairman of the African American and African studies department, adding, "It is clear that much of President Summers's legacy will be determined by how he deals with this crisis."

 In the past week, Dr. Summers has invited prominent female professors to meet with him, and asked their advice on how to repair his relationships within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Several months ago, many of these professors met with Dr. Summers to voice concerns over the sharp decline in the number of offers of tenure to female professors since he became president.