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After Summers

Cambridge venture capitalist Howard Anderson wants to nominate Che Guevara as Harvard's new president.

''Why?" asks Anderson. ''He would be considered a 'moderate' by the Harvard faculty. He has a medical degree so he would be considered acceptable to academics. His Argentine background would appeal to the one-worlders. And he has been dead for 39 years so the faculty would have no problem getting him to roll over."

It was a day for gallows humor in Cambridge in the wake of the resignation of Harvard president Larry Summers after more than four turbulent years. The famously impossible-to-manage faculty is easy to ridicule, but there is plenty of blame to go around in the train wreck at the World's Greatest University.

Summers is a brilliant man with a brilliant vision for Harvard. He was hired as a change agent, and that he was, accomplishing much in a short time. But he simply offended too many people, picking too many ill-conceived fights. It would make for an intriguing management case study -- but not one likely to be taught at the Harvard Business School.

Where to begin with Summers' legacy? I would start in Allston, where Summers has fast-tracked Harvard's campus of the future in a way that no one expected. Just last week, a day after the former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was suggesting Summers was untrustworthy, Harvard disclosed plans for a huge new science complex, including a state-of-the-art stem cell lab. Hurt feelings heal, but the seeds that Summers planted in Allston have the potential to move the Massachusetts economy ahead for generations.

Summers also did hard stuff like trying to reverse the ancient Harvard ethic of ''every tub on its bottom," the principle that left every school to fend for itself. He expanded study abroad, increased the faculty, assured there would be financial aid for low-income students, and did unglamorous but important things like getting the university on a single academic calendar and centralizing purchasing.

''His legacy will be one of great accomplishment," says Boston businessman Joe O'Donnell, who bleeds Harvard crimson and just finished six years on the Board of Overseers. ''Many people could not have done in 10 years what he did in 4 1/2 years."

But for all his vision, for all his energy, he was a leader who too many were unwilling to follow. Too many couldn't, or wouldn't, work with him. Too many good people came to feel they couldn't trust him, a fatal flaw in any leader. Often it was too much about Larry.

Harvard will be looking for a president, but also deans for the schools of arts and sciences, business, and education. The dean of engineering and applied sciences, a huge growth area, is leaving, as is the chief financial officer. They are leaving for various reasons, but there are big holes to fill. The capital campaign is muddling along.

Summers could be charming, but too often he acted like just another tenured professor debating a colleague in the faculty dining room. The president of Harvard can't toss out the proposition that men may or may not have more innate talent in the sciences and not expect a firestorm. And he gave his enemies too much ammunition, such as his refusal to punish his close friend, economics professor Andrei Shleifer, for his role in violating conflict-of-interest rules by investing in Russia while heading a foreign-aid program there.

Harvard is a place of astonishing depth. It can call on someone of the stature of Derek Bok to step in at a moment like this. But the university will be working through this for a long time at the very highest levels. Ex-Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, Summers' mentor, may be only the first to leave Harvard's governing board.

Harvard needs someone with Summers' vision and drive, but someone willing and able to have others assume ownership of that vision, too. No one person -- no matter how brilliant -- can govern an institution this complex alone. If nothing else, we have learned that.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at or 617-929-2902.

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