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Lawrence H. Summers left after last night’s vote by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Lawrence H. Summers left after last night’s vote by Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. (Globe Photo / Josh Reynolds)

Summers gets vote of no confidence

Signals he'll stay despite faculty call

CAMBRIDGE -- Members of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a vote of no confidence yesterday in Lawrence H. Summers, dealing a stunning rebuke to the president of one of the world's top universities.

The vote, which astonished even some fierce critics, made clear that the faculty's disenchantment with Summers is deeper than many had imagined. After the vote, Summers renewed his pledge to improve relations with Harvard's scholars.

''My hope now is that our faculty will be in a position to move forward strongly and in a united way in the important issues that we are facing," he told reporters gathered outside the Loeb Drama Center, where the meeting had been moved to accommodate more than 550 participants.

The motion, stating simply that ''the Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership" of Summers, passed by a secret ballot vote of 218 to 185, with 18 abstentions. A second motion that offered a milder censure of the president passed 253 to 137, also with 18 abstentions.

The votes have no official impact. Only Harvard's governing corporation has the power to fire Summers, and it has stood by him since his comments in January suggesting that women might not have the same ''intrinsic aptitude" in science as men touched off a bitter campus debate about his management of the university.

Last night, James Houghton, the corporation's senior member, reiterated in a statement that ''the members of the Corporation fully support President Summers in his ongoing efforts to listen thoughtfully to the range of views being expressed by members of the university's faculties and to work collegially and constructively with them to address the important academic matters facing Harvard."

But resolutions like that adopted last night are unheard of in modern Harvard history, and critics expect the faculty votes to carry great symbolic weight on campus. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is only one of Harvard's 10 schools, but it represents almost half of the tenured and tenured-track faculty. It includes the undergraduate college and the traditional PhD programs and is considered by many to be the heart of the university.

''This is something the corporation has to take seriously," Everett Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science, said in an interview after the meeting, where he voted for both motions. ''These two motions are a serious critique of the president and indirectly of the corporation."

Mendelsohn said he ''accepted at face value and respected" Summers's apologies, but added that ''whether in the face of these [votes] he can do his job is something he'll have to look hard at."

Summers, whose demeanor in the meeting was described by faculty as very somber, indicated afterward that he did not intend to resign. ''As I said to the faculty, I have done my best these last two months to hear all that has been said, to think hard, to learn, and to adjust," he said in a statement after the meeting. ''I will continue to do that."

The embattled president was hounded by dozens of protesters, many of them students, as he headed for a waiting car after the meeting. Some of them sang, ''Hey Larry, goodbye," to the tune of Steam's 1969 hit, ''Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."

But inside the Loeb Drama Center, home to the American Repertory Theatre, the mood was described as serious and low key, with less applause and tension in the air than at two contentious faculty meetings last month. Only the student newspaper is allowed to attend faculty meetings.

Over 800 people had the right to vote yesterday, according to a Harvard spokesman, but nontenured professors rarely attend faculty meetings or vote at them because their position at the university is less stable.

J. Lorand Matory, who introduced the resolution for a vote of no confidence, was surprised with the outcome, saying he expected only about 30 percent of the voters to support his motion.

''This was a resounding statement that he should resign." said Matory, professor of anthropology and African and African American studies. ''There is no noble alternative to his resignation. This is about his management style. He is dictatorial and autocratic."

But even some who supported the motion said they weren't convinced that the only thing Summers could do was quit.

''I feel confused about whether he should resign," said Judith Ryan, professor of German. ''But this is really about change and the way business is conducted on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences."

Morton Keller, coauthor with his wife, Phyllis, of ''Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University," said last night that he knew of no vote of no confidence in a Harvard president at least since the Civil War, although he said there had been talk of such a vote against James Bryant Conant in the 1930s, when he fired some popular instructors.

''The real decision is in the hands of the corporation, and they have to weigh a lot of things," Keller said. ''Obviously that vote carries a lot of weight one way, but acceding to it will open up possibilities in the future that any responsible corporation would be very concerned about."

Several professors defended the president at the meeting.

''As someone who went into the academic profession 50 years ago in the days of Senator McCarthy, I said this is very menacing and would set a terrible precedent," said Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor. ''It is a very bad blow to the conception of academic freedom."

One professor offered a motion that would have prevented a vote on the no-confidence resolution, but it was soundly defeated on a voice vote.

The text of the second motion, introduced by Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology, read: "The Faculty regrets the President's mid-January statements about women in science and the adverse consequences of those statements for individuals and for Harvard; and the Faculty also regrets aspects of the President's managerial approach as discussed in recent meetings of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Faculty appreciates the President's stated intent to address these issues and seeks to meet the challenges facing Harvard in ways that are collegial and consistent with longstanding faculty responsibilities in institutional governance."

Skocpol said some of her colleagues told her they voted for the no-confidence motion but not her resolution because they found it too conciliatory.

But she said she told the gathering that she meant it to ''indicate the faculty was determined to remain vigilant and united as we moved forward."

''It wasn't a statement that everything is fine," Skocpol said.

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at

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