Harvard University professors confronted president Lawrence H. Summers at a tense meeting yesterday, with several questioning whether he could continue to effectively lead the university after his remarks on women in science brought into public view simmering discontent with his presidency, according to several faculty members who attended the session.
Some professors, including the chairs of the two task forces he appointed following the firestorm created by his comments, said he had a responsibility to ''clear the air" by releasing a transcript of the remarks he made Jan. 14 to a small group of researchers.
While there were also speakers who defended Summers, several professors who addressed the gathering of 200 or more faculty members described a pervasive climate of fear in the university and a crisis of governance, as well as a crisis of confidence in his presidency.
''Many of your faculty are dismayed and alienated and demoralized. There is a legitimation crisis concerning your leadership and style of governance," Arthur Kleinman, chairman of the anthropology department, told Summers. Faculty meetings are closed to the press. Kleinman and several others read their remarks to the Globe or provided copies of their statements after the meeting.
''I have heard several outstanding colleagues say it is time to leave Harvard. I don't believe that, but I fear others do," Kleinman said. ''I ask you then to think hard about how who you are as president has taken us to this dangerous moment."
According to several people in attendance, Summers repeated yesterday the apology he has made several times for his remarks suggesting that innate differences might be one reason why fewer women than men succeed at the top of science and engineering, and he said he would consider the requests to release the transcript. He also reportedly expressed concern about the charges that he created a climate of fear and intimidation, and said that was not how he perceived himself.
Summers declined an interview request. An official in his office who spoke on condition of anonymity described the meeting as ''difficult."
The dominant theme of the meeting was that Summers's comments on women were a last straw for those faculty members who contend that he has seized too much power, insulted professors and ignored their opinions, and embarrassed Harvard with repeated gaffes ranging from his public spat with prominent African-American studies professor Cornel West to the current furor over women.
The faculty unanimously agreed to schedule a special meeting next Tuesday to continue the discussion, an extremely rare move. Professor Everett Mendelsohn, who introduced the motion to schedule next week's meeting, said that faculty members plan to discuss whether to hold a vote of no confidence in Summers, ask him to resign, or ask for less drastic steps that would change the way business is done in Summers's administration.
''Things won't change without real change on many fronts," Mendelsohn told the Globe, describing his remarks at the meeting. ''We've watched this disaster toward centralization of power. . . . A university is not a private-sector corporation, and absolutely needs a plurality of views."
Mendelsohn said that he ''respected the way" Summers handled himself in the meeting. ''His body language was not tense. I was struck that he seemed to be taking seriously what was said."
Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science, also criticized Harvard's governing Corporation and the Board of Overseers, a separate, less powerful body elected by alumni, for their silence since Summers sparked controversy last month with his remarks at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference.
However, one professor read an excerpt from a letter the Board of Overseers recently sent to the chairs of the two new task forces on women. Hinting that the overseers were keeping a close eye on recent developments, the board wrote: ''We look forward to the prompt action and continuing commitment of the Harvard administration to demonstrate Harvard's support for women."
Much of the discussion focused on Summers's refusal thus far to release a tape or transcript of his remarks.
''There are voices among the faculty at Harvard and elsewhere in this nation that, drawing on conservative biases and without first-hand knowledge of what you actually said at the NBER meeting, argue that Harvard is engaged in yet another instance of political correctness placing limits on freedom of speech and inquiry in the university," said Barbara Grosz, chair of the task force on women in science and engineering. ''There are continuing attacks on women scientists, attributing to them arguments they have not made and attitudes they do not have." Without the transcript, Grosz said, ''the work of the task forces will be hampered and the reputation of Harvard . . . will be diminished."
Professor Theda Skocpol turned around Summers's 2002 statement on anti-Semitism that professors calling for divestment from Israel were taking actions that were ''anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."
''By supposedly apologizing, but not releasing his remarks, the president is going along with the campaigns to smear his critics and his own university," she said. ''He is doing this in effect if not in intent."
In echoing the call for the transcript, Kleinman referred to rumors that Summers made remarks at the conference about biological factors for the career choices not just of the two genders but of different races. ''I do not want to believe this allegation is true," Kleinman said. ''But you need to release the full transcript of your talk so we can understand just what you think and how broad your biases are."
Several people who attended the NBER conference have told the Globe that Summers did not make those references in connection to a biological argument. Instead, they said he used them in a preamble, pointing out that there are many demographic patterns in career choice, but that he wanted to focus on women in science.
Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature, said she told the faculty yesterday that the reaction to Summers's remarks on women ''was the closest thing to a Soviet show trial that we are likely to see in our lifetimes." Economist Richard Freeman also spoke in defense of Summers's comments at the NBER conference, which Freeman organized.
Some professors said that even more anger and allegations may pour forth in the next week.
''Many of us in this very faculty room have seen our colleagues who dare to disagree with you . . . met with angry stares, and have seen colleagues bullied into silence," said Mary Waters, chairwoman of the sociology department. ''Mr. President, do you think it is appropriate or beneficial for a university as great as ours to be held hostage to fear?"
Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.