News your connection to The Boston Globe

Summers vote roils Harvard

The high drama of Tuesday's no-confidence vote in Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers has left the faculty bewildered. The move was not only a surprise to almost everyone on campus, but virtually unprecedented at a major research university, so there is no blueprint for what happens next.

''Many of us are confused at this point," said historian Charles S. Maier. ''It's not a parliamentary system," in which a vote of no confidence would bring down the government, so ''you don't know what consequences arise from the vote."

The regular administrative business of the university has slowed as professors ponder what the 218 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences really meant when they voted to say ''the faculty lacks confidence" in Summers. Did most of those 218 want to push Summers to step down? Or did they want to influence the governing corporation, which alone has the power to fire him? Or simply to send a clear warning?

Critics are questioning how Summers, who has indicated he has no plans to resign, could win back enough trust to continue to govern the university. Others are more optimistic, but no one seems to be proposing specific steps that Summers might take to improve his standing.

''On the one hand, we are very protective of the university and realize it would be real turmoil if he were to suddenly resign," said one critic, sociology professor Orlando Patterson. ''But at the same time, we've just been so bruised and battered by the to-ing and fro-ing of the president that there is a genuine lack of trust."

Though it's uncertain whether Summers will eventually regain the authority to push through his ambitious agenda, it is becoming clear that the crisis that developed following his Jan. 14 remarks on women in science cannot help but delay some projects.

For example, William C. Kirby, dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, was scheduled to make a presentation on the ongoing, top-to-bottom review of Harvard's curriculum at Tuesday's meeting, but because of two motions about Summers on the docket, there wasn't time.

A spokesman said the schedule for the curriculum review remains fluid, but some professors say they cannot imagine there will be time before the end of the semester to vote on the review, which has been in development more than 18 months.

''I have been at two meetings so far today where all faculty are talking about is how it will be possible to get the business of the university done in this climate," Mary Waters, who chairs the sociology department, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. ''We are all perceiving a slowdown in response time from the university, and we assume that this controversy is taking up a lot of energy that otherwise would go to moving forward things at the university."

Several professors declined to be interviewed because they said they were at such a loss to understand what had happened and the implications for the future that they had nothing to say.

History provides little guidance. Richard P. Chait, a specialist on university governance at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said votes of no confidence are not unknown at schools with unionized faculties or on politically charged public campuses.

But he said, ''I certainly do not recall an instance where a major private research university has had a vote of no confidence."

Boston University's faculty senate called for president John Silber's resignation in 1976, when BU was not yet considered a major research university. The BU trustees nearly ousted Silber, but he survived and led the university for the next two decades.

Some Harvard faculty members said they thought the no-confidence vote spelled the beginning of the end of Summers's presidency. ''He has less moral authority; it's hard to see how he's going to lead the faculty," said Patterson, who suggested that Summers step down after ''a graceful period of transition," perhaps at the end of the academic year.

But many professors disagree and express hope that the president can grow and change.

''I think he's an intelligent person who is willing to change his mind or recognize when he's been wrong," said Susan R. Suleiman, a professor of comparative literature. ''As to whether he'll be able to do it, that's a whole other question."

Suleiman voted for the second resolution passed on Tuesday, a censure criticizing Summers's comments on women and his ''managerial approach," but suggesting a willingness to reevaluate his presidency based on changes he has promised to make. That measure passed 253-137, with 18 abstentions.

After Tuesday's meeting, Summers renewed promises he has made to listen to his critics and learn from them.

''I am committed to doing all I can to restore the sense of trust that is critical to our work together and to reengage our collective attention with the vital academic issues before us," said a statement he issued.

At Tuesday's meeting, Philip A. Kuhn, a history professor, tried to prevent a vote on the no-confidence measure by proposing that it be postponed indefinitely. His effort failed on a voice vote.

Kuhn said Summers ''could be a great president for Harvard" if he can develop a more collaborative style.

Before Tuesday's meeting, some of Summers's critics had been hopeful that the no-confidence measure would get a vote of 30 or 40 percent, which they said would have represented a reprimand. Instead, it drew 52 percent, with 44 percent opposed and 4 percent abstaining.

While most professors say they had made up their minds before the faculty meeting, some speculated that the outcome could have been different if the afternoon had unfolded differently.

Some Summers critics said they were very offended by the president's defenders, especially Stephan Thernstrom, who said the vote of no-confidence reminded him of McCarthyism. Thernstrom also criticized Nancy Hopkins, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who walked out on Summers's Jan. 14 talk.

Some believe that faculty members voted strategically, changing their mind about the second, milder motion after the no-confidence vote passed. ''I think people voted for the second who otherwise would not have, because they thought it softened the meaning of the first," said Maier, who voted for the second motion, but isn't sure how he would have voted if the first motion had not passed.

Bombardieri can be reached at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months