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Harvard students back their president

CAMBRIDGE -- Even as Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers confronts the biggest crisis of his career, besieged by a faculty rebellion and reports that the university's governing board is considering ousting him from his post, students appear willing to cut him a break.

While faculty portray Summers as a brusque and beleaguered leader who is unable to rally the support of his troops, students yesterday said they more often see him as a smiling face who appears at study groups or ice cream socials to chat, debate, or sign dollar bills, as he did when he was treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton. Now, some say they are perplexed that Summers is still under fire.

''I don't think he's made mistakes of such a proportion that would warrant his being removed," said Victoria Ho, 19, a biochemistry major. ''That's a pretty drastic measure. . . . It just seems like a very big step to take."

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which passed a no-confidence vote against Summers last year, is slated to take a second vote on Summers a week from today.

For most undergraduates, Summers is the only president they have known and they have supported him in spite of the controversies over the last few years, from his speculating about women's aptitude for science to his clashing with deans and high-profile professors.

A recent online poll of 424 undergraduate students conducted by the Harvard Crimson found that only about 19 percent of students said Summers should resign. More than half of the students who responded to the poll, about 57 percent, said he should remain. The Crimson has published editorials backing Summers.

Graduate students in the arts and sciences faculty last year rejected a no-confidence vote after their professors passed one. This year, Ben Lee, president of the Graduate Student Council of the Schools of Arts and Sciences, said that the students are not planning another vote.

''A lot of people feel that this issue has dragged on rather long," said Lee. ''It's not constructive for graduate students to be heavily involved at this point."

In January 2005, Summers sparked outrage when he said at an academic conference that innate differences between men and women might be one reason why fewer women succeed in math and science careers. He later apologized, but that, together with complaints about his management, led the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to pass a no-confidence vote, 218 to 185, the following March.

Summers tried to make amends by reaching out to faculty and students, appointing task forces on women and academia, and committing $50 million to women's advancement at Harvard. But tensions simmered. They boiled over last month when William C. Kirby, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean, announced plans to resign. Some professors said that Summers pushed out Kirby, who remains on the faculty.

Several faculty lashed out at Summers at a meeting earlier this month and several professors say the university's key business, including a review of the undergraduate curriculum, is paralyzed by the stalemate between Summers and the faculty.

The tension is such that members of Harvard's governing board have been meeting with key faculty members to ask for suggestions on resolving the current dispute, including discussion of the possibility that Summers would resign.

Some students support the faculty's opposition to Summers.

''I personally do not support him," said Leandra Santos, 19, a sophomore majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies. ''If the faculty themselves are giving him a vote of no confidence, then he should step down."

But for most students, Harvard is noticeably quieter than last year. Yesterday, Harvard Yard was filled with baby strollers, squirrels, and students rushing to Widener Library to finish homework on the last day of a long weekend. No fliers attested to the controversy on campus.

Some students said that if Summers didn't lose his job because of his comments on women and science, then he probably wouldn't lose it now. Alex Lee, 21, a senior in applied math, said it seemed like Summers's opponents were dredging up old complaints.

''I haven't seen anything horrible," said Lee, who met Summers at an ice cream social his freshman year, and asked him to sign a dollar bill.

Last year, Michele Hacker, a graduate student in the School of Public Health, was so upset by Summers's remarks that she attended forums about women and science. But this year she has paid little attention to the controversy. Kirby is a high-profile dean but he isn't in her department.

''The students have other things to worry about. It's been less clear to students how Larry Summers staying or leaving is going to affect them," Hacker said.

John Kalis, 24, president of an umbrella group of Harvard's graduate student councils representing nearly 13,000 students, said Summers should stay.

''I think he's had a rough go of it. I think he's learned some hard lessons," said Kalis. ''I think he's going to be able to go forward and be productive."

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com

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