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Faculty Group Votes Lack of Confidence in Harvard Chief

Lawrence Summers' leadership style and comments about women in science spur rebuke.

March 16, 2005|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The largest organization of faculty members at Harvard University passed a vote Tuesday expressing a lack of confidence in President Lawrence H. Summers, whose management style and controversial remarks about women in science have roiled the venerable institution.

The 218-185 vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is nonbinding. It was not clear Tuesday whether any of the university's nine other faculty groups would undertake similar action.

Summers reports to the Harvard Corp., the university's governing board, which has steadily supported him throughout a campus storm that began two months ago.

The measure passed by the arts and sciences faculty said: "The faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers."

A second motion, which passed 253 to 137, expressed regret over Summers' comments at a January economics conference suggesting that women were innately less capable than men in mathematics and science. This measure also faulted "aspects of the president's managerial approach."

As he left the two-hour meeting at a theater near the Harvard campus, Summers said: "As I said to the faculty, I have tried these last couple months to listen to all that has been said, to learn from it, and to move forward, and that's what I am going to do."

Although students passed a no-confidence vote in 1969 against President Nathan Pusey, Summers was the first president to become the object of a similar vote by faculty since the university was founded in 1636.

Tuesday's meeting was closed to the press. Faculty members waited in line, displaying plastic identification cards, in order to gain entrance. Eighteen faculty members reportedly abstained from each vote.

The meeting was "heated, passionate and intelligent," according to Alice Jardine, a professor of French and women's studies.

Janet Beizer, also a French professor, described the gathering as "tense and stressful," adding: "Nobody was happy about this."

But J. Lorand Matory, who introduced the lack of confidence measure against Summers, said he was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

"Honestly, I expected maybe 30% of the faculty to vote in favor of the resolution," said Matory, a professor of anthropology and African and African American studies.

Matory called the vote "a resounding statement," and declared: "He should resign. There is no noble alternative to resignation."

The meeting Tuesday was the third faculty assembly since Summers' remarks about women in January. Those comments ignited festering resentment against Summers, whose forceful management and brusque personality had rubbed some at Harvard the wrong way.

Summers, a former Treasury secretary who took over at the university in 2001, made several public apologies for remarks he said were intended not to stigmatize women, but to provoke healthy intellectual debate.

He also met with faculty members privately and in small groups. In addition, Summers set up two faculty commissions to examine issues pertaining to female faculty at Harvard.

Some faculty members saw Tuesday's vote as an attempt to censor Summers, as opposed to merely censuring him.

"It is astonishing that the president of the United States of America speaks out on very important issues and no one tries to stop him -- whereas the president of Harvard, for expressing an unpopular opinion, gets pilloried," said Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature.

"This is the university, which is in the business of seeking truth," she said. "If you look for truth, you sometimes say things that are not popular. This seems to me to be a negative comment not on the leadership, but on the faculty."

Tom Conley, a professor of Romance languages, said the votes Tuesday might strengthen relations between the faculty and the university president.

"I think he came forward with a positive sense of what it is to disagree," Conley said. "I have a very strong sense of renewal of the democratic process here. People were very upset about the turmoil, but I think we are coming together to work together."

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