DRENCHED IN controversy over his disputes with some members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers resigned yesterday. He will step down at the end of the academic year, closing the book on a contentious phase of Harvard's history.
Summers was a tornado. At his best he tried to shake up Harvard, to make it a better home for undergraduates and academic excellence. He wanted students to be scienti fically literate. He pushed campus growth into Allston, and laid plans to make Harvard the leading center of stem cell research. And he wanted to break down the old boundaries that still separate Harvard's many schools.
"My sense of urgency has stemmed from my conviction that Harvard has a special ability to make a real difference in a world desperately in need of wisdom of all kinds," Summers wrote in his resignation letter.
At his worst, Summers could be a bully. He stepped on toes. He set fires where he could have shed light. And at times the worth of his ideas was smothered by arrogance. He was facing a second vote of no confidence from the arts and sciences faculty next week.
"One needs to be able to listen," J. Lorand Matory said of Summers's inability to work with some faculty. A Harvard professor of anthropology and African and African- American studies and a past critic of Summers, Matory says the school needs a president who can come up with new ideas. Matory also makes the point that Harvard can still benefit from Summers's participation in the ongoing conversation about university life.
Summers will join the faculty after a sabbatical. And it would be an accomplishment for all involved if he could continue to contribute to university life.
But as president, Summers was losing the ability to be effective, which made his resignation sensible for himself, and for Harvard's governing Corporation. But before finding a replacement, the Corporation must now seek to understand fully whether Summers's brusque manner was the key, or whether the faculty succeeded in blocking change on more substantive matters, such as integrating the work of Harvard's various schools.
Summers's departure raises fears that a small number of faculty from only one part of the university have staged a coup, threatening the success of a new president. Indeed, the faculty have shifted the balance of power.
Derek Bok, who served as Harvard's president from 1971 to 1991, will serve as interim president beginning July 1, and he will have to be a missionary, reassuring aggrieved faculty and polishing the presidency.
The permanent president will have a diffi- cult dual job: to heal internal wounds and to spur Harvard, which will soon be pressed for global preeminence by universities in Singapore, China, Britain, and elsewhere.