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In modern academe, leaders face spotlight

The resignation of Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, underscores a simple fact of being a modern university president, specialists in higher education say: There is little forgiveness.

With the intense pressures that presidents work under, controversies -- like Summers' confrontation with star professor Cornel West early in his tenure and his remarks last year about women in science -- can be quite difficult to recover from, they said. That's especially true at Harvard, where the faculty has unusual power.

''There is an old saying in higher education," said R. William Funk, a national managing director of Korn/Ferry International, who helps universities search for presidents. ''Friends come and go, but enemies tend to aggregate."

Symbolic votes of no confidence by college faculties are not unheard of, but they rarely drive the chief executive from power.

Boston University's faculty senate sought John R. Silber's resignation in 1976, but Silber ran the school for the next two decades.

Emerson College president Jacqueline Liebergott has faced two faculty votes of no confidence since 2004 in a struggle between the college and the faculty union, but the Emerson board remains strongly behind her, spokesman David Rosen said.

Analysts said Summers's downfall may say more about his sometimes confrontational style and the unique power of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, than broader trends in education. Summers, they said, angered a constituency he needed to carry out his ambitious agenda.

''When you combine being terribly smart, as he is, and being kind of argumentative at times and aggressive, those kind of folks can sometimes rub people the wrong way," said Robert Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education, a Washington-based advocacy group.

''I rather admired him," Atwell said. ''I think there are too many college presidents that are too cautious."

Rosen, who worked for six years at Harvard, said the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, home to almost half of Harvard's professors, has far more power than most college faculty.

Under the Harvard philosophy of self-reliance -- ''every tub on its own bottom" -- each branch of the university raises its own revenues to support its budget.

As a result, he said, the faculty has always been strong and independent. Rosen recalled that when he arrived at Harvard in 1980, the dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rosovsky, pointed out his window at Massachusetts Hall, where Derek Bok had his office as president. ''He's our tenant," Rosovsky told Rosen.

Funk said Harvard would not have trouble attracting top candidates; it is one of the most desirable positions in higher education.

But the university would probably take a cautious approach in the selection, he said.

''My sense, from the outside, is that there is some healing that needs to go on," Funk said.

James E. Samels, a lawyer and a higher-education consultant who has coauthored a book about college presidential transitions, said that even an institution as highly respected as Harvard is likely to feel some lingering effects from Summers's abrupt departure.

''Harvard's public image took a hit," Samels said. ''There's no question the events of the past year have affected how folks outside Harvard look at the culture of leadership . . . and that could have a chilling effect" on the search.

Samels said the university is likely to look for a ''more collegial" president. ''They need a more selfless leader or at least someone more self-effacing," he said.

Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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