boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Summers vows new tone with faculty

Pledges to temper his words, actions

CAMBRIDGE -- Lawrence H. Summers yesterday offered conciliatory remarks to his critics, pledging at a meeting attended by several hundred Harvard professors to "set a different tone" in his relationship with the faculty and acknowledging widespread complaints that his leadership style has frozen out critical voices on campus.

The meeting was less contentious than a session held last week, according to professors who attended, but several participants offered biting critiques of Summers's stewardship of the Harvard campus, accusing him of intellectual dishonesty and humiliating his colleagues. One critic directly called on Summers to resign.

Summers apologized for his remarks last month in which he suggested men held an innate advantage over women in science, but yesterday he also acknowledged the broader complaints about his presidency from those who say he has consolidated too much power in the president's office and tends to rule by intimidation.

"I am committed to opening a new chapter in my work with you," Summers said in his opening remarks at the emergency meeting. "To start, I pledge to you that I will seek to listen more -- and more carefully -- and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work together more harmoniously."

Faculty meetings are closed to the media, and a typical session garners no interest at all aside from coverage in the student newspaper. But the controversy surrounding Summers's leadership had television trucks lined up along Oxford Street across from Lowell Hall yesterday.

Summers walked into the meeting accompanied by Provost Steven E. Hyman and a plainclothes campus police officer. He was surrounded by a horde of photographers. Professors had to wait in a long line to enter as the chants of anti-Summers student protesters -- "We vote no!" -- were met with those of pro-Summers students chanting "Lay off Larry!"

Inside, faculty filled all of the 350 seats in the lecture hall, with a few standing and sitting on the floor. The meeting had been moved from its regular venue to accommodate the heightened interest. The audience was asked to withhold applause.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes the undergraduate college and most doctoral programs, holds monthly meetings.

Last week's meeting was extended to yesterday because so many people wanted to speak but did not get the chance. Even given the second, two-hour session, fewer than half of the approximately 35 professors who had signed up to speak were able to approach the microphone.

Caroline Hoxby, one of two tenured women in economics, the department where Summers teaches, spoke of the ties between scholars, their mentors, and students as a "a great shimmering web" when a university is functioning at its best.

"Every time, Mr. President, you show a lack of respect for a faculty member's intellectual expertise, you break ties in our web. Every time you humiliate or silence a faculty member, you break ties in our web," Hoxby said. "When you engage in speech that harms the university's ability to foster scholarship and that is not thoughtful, not deliberate, and not grounded in deep knowledge, you break ties by the hundreds."

Hoxby and several other professors provided copies of their remarks to the Globe.

Daniel S. Fisher, professor of physics, made some of the most acrimonious remarks of the night, in which he said: "For the good of Harvard, Lawrence Summers should resign. . . . The Harvard we have come to value so highly cannot survive in a climate of intellectual dishonesty."

Fisher said administrators have terminated a variety of committees because they were not interested in their recommendations.

He said that the drive to build new research facilities in Allston was driven by the pursuit of research dollars and that it amounted to "theme-park science."

In sharp contrast, biologist Douglas Melton, codirector of Harvard's new stem cell center, praised Summers for his vision in planning to expand the university's work in the sciences and establishing a new campus in Allston, as well as for his concern about undergraduate education.

"It's the first time in my 20-some years at Harvard that the president has caused members of different departments to come together and ask what we should teach and how we should teach it," Melton said after the meeting.

"It creates a certain amount of tension, but reminds us that our job is to advance knowledge by asking and answering questions. . . . I don't mean to suggest that the heartfelt sentiments of my colleagues are not valid. But they describe a president and a university that is unknown to me," he added.

Susan J. Pharr, a member of the official standing committee on women, praised the task forces working on women's issues at the university, but she criticized Summers for his attitude toward the problem before his comments at the National Bureau of Economic Research meeting on Jan. 14 sparked a firestorm.

At a meeting with female professors, someone asked Summers whether he would acknowledge that Harvard has a history of discrimination and that some problems persist, said Pharr, who paraphrased Summers's response: "Yes, that's true, but not, I don't really think, in the last 10 to 15 years; however, if you know anybody who's experienced discrimination, they should send me an e-mail."

Many professors said they were surprised when three well-respected senior professors offered to serve as "brokers" between the administration and the faculty. The former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Jeremy Knowles; government and sociology professor Theda Skocpol; and university professor Sidney Verba said they might be able to help improve dialogue, according to several people at the meeting.

However, some professors said the plan seemed orchestrated, and the offer was withdrawn, at least for the time being.

In pledging to improve the dialogue between his administration and the faculty, Summers said: "No doubt I will not always get things right. But I am determined to set a different tone."

Faculty on both sides of the debate have expressed concern in recent days that the fight over Summers's presidency may poison the atmosphere on campus.

Summers seemed to share that concern, and last night said: "If there are harsh words to be said, I ask only that you direct them toward me, not toward one another.

Whatever our differences, I hope we can take care not to divide the institution we love."

Globe correspondent Scott Goldstein contributed to this report. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives