By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, announced yesterday that he will resign his post, bringing to close a stormy tenure in which the former Treasury secretary made impolitic remarks about women, alienated many black professors and repeatedly clashed with the faculty at America's most prominent university.
Summers decided to step down last week after concluding that he could no longer contain the growing conflict being played out publicly while effectively running the university.
"I looked at the extent to which the rancor had emerged in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and I personally had become a larger issue and concluded very reluctantly that the agenda for the university I cared about and my own satisfaction would be best served by stepping down," Summers, 51, said from his office in Cambridge, Mass., in a 45-minute conference call with reporters.
His resignation takes effect at the end of the academic year. Derek Bok, 75, who served as Harvard's president for 20 years, was named interim president. Summers said yesterday that he will return to the school as an economics professor after a year-long sabbatical.
The marathon power struggle with the powerful Faculty of Arts and Sciences -- which runs the undergraduate program -- has been closely watched by institutions of higher learning as a case study in the ability of college presidents to exercise management control in a historically collegial and decentralized environment. It also spotlights the intense and sometimes ugly political side of academia.
Summers was an unconventional choice for the Harvard presidency. Although he was a tenured economics professor there in the 1980s, he made his mark in Washington -- at the World Bank, and later as President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary -- rather than in academia.
His troubles started early in his five-year tenure when he angered many black professors by taking on prominent African American scholar Cornel West, accusing him of inflating student grades, and criticizing him for writing more about culture than pursuing serious scholarship.
West quit Harvard in a rage and went to Princeton, saying that Harvard was "messing with the wrong black man."
Some faculty members were further infuriated last year, after Summers suggested in a speech that "intrinsic aptitude" could explain why fewer women have excelled in science and math. Summers apologized several times for the remarks, but his brusque personality and top-down management style continued to rankle detractors. The remarks prompted a public vote of no confidence from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last March, a stunning rebuke that Summers was, nonetheless, able to survive.
In recent weeks, the Harvard Corporation, the school's highest authority and the only body empowered to fire Summers, has been calling faculty members to get a handle on the extent of the opposition. Summers said yesterday, however, that the decision to leave was his.
Summers refused to assign blame for his departure but acknowledged that the aggressive manner in which he pursued changes might have "threatened" some faculty members. Some saw him as dictatorial and arrogant, and lacking collegiality in decision making.
"There were certainly moments when I could have challenged more wisely and more respectfully," he said. "Those are lessons to be learned."
His resignation ends the briefest tenure of any Harvard president since 1862, and comes one week before the faculty was set to vote on a no-confidence measure on his leadership.
The announcement, first flagged in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, comes on the heels of a fresh round of conflict between Summers and the powerful Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which was in an uproar over the way he handled the dismissal of Arts and Sciences Dean William C. Kirby. Although Kirby was far from an internal hero, faculty members accused Summers of not treating Kirby with dignity.
The incident last month again riled Summers's opponents. Judith L. Ryan, a professor of German and comparative literature, called for a second vote of no confidence.
"I think this is probably the only possible outcome that best serves the health and welfare of Harvard," said Kay K. Shelemay, a professor of music who has been critical of Summers. "He was unable to lead the institution effectively."
Though even Summers's supporters were starting to privately worry that the rift was a major distraction to the school, many are angry about how it played out.
"It says that one group of faculty managed a coup d'etat not only against Summers but against the whole Harvard community," said Alan M. Dershowitz, longtime law professor at Harvard and a Summers ally. "He is widely supported among students and in the graduate schools."
David Gergen, an adviser to presidents who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, likened the effort to oust Summers to a negative political campaign. "There were people quite determined that he should leave, and they pursued a long campaign to realize this goal," said Gergen, a friend of Summers.
In a letter from members of the Harvard Corporation posted on the school's Web site, Summers was praised for his "extraordinary vision and vitality." The letter acknowledged, "This past year has been a difficult and sometimes wrenching one."
Summers spoke yesterday of his accomplishments at Harvard since his 2001 appointment, including efforts to attract lower-income students and offer them financial aid.
By a 3 to 1 margin, undergraduates polled online by the Harvard Crimson newspaper this week did not think Summers should resign, with only 19 percent supporting his departure.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Don Pohlman contributed to this report.