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Harvard board said to weigh Summers's fate

End to faculty strife is sought

The governing board of Harvard University is considering removing President Lawrence H. Summers from office to end the escalating strife between faculty members and Summers, according to two Harvard professors and one senior official who have spoken with members of the board recently.

Though other options could still be considered, the board may act quickly to avoid what is expected to be a lopsided vote of no confidence from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences scheduled for Feb. 28, they said. Many professors in recent days have been pushing the board to act now, rather than put the university through what many believe could be an explosive confrontation and a painful moment in Harvard history.

Nancy Rosenblum, chairwoman of the government department and a longtime Summers supporter, said she met about a week ago with a member of the board, which is known as the Corporation. The member, whom she would not name, asked her about a range of possible ways of resolving the stalemate between professors and Summers, including Summers's resignation.

Among the questions the Corporation member asked Rosenblum, she said, were: ''How would the faculty react if Larry were to resign? Would there still be agitation? Would the situation improve?"

''They asked about the possibility of his leaving," she said. ''They would ask what would the faculty think. Do you think it would calm the faculty. . . . They were interested in playing out every scenario."

A senior official who also spoke to members of the board said: ''It would be hard not to have the inference" that the board is considering firing Summers.

Summers is skiing with his family in Utah, and his spokesman declined to comment yesterday. His tenure at Harvard, which began in 2001, has been a rocky one, with many professors accusing him of arrogance and ruling by fear. The latest uproar was triggered by the announcement last month that William C. Kirby, dean of Arts and Sciences, would step down. Since then, the faculty has moved to postpone a search for Kirby's successor, with faculty members saying they cannot work with Summers.

In the last week and a half, professors, especially in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as some current and former university officials, alumni, and donors, have mounted an intense campaign to convince the board that Summers can no longer govern effectively and that the increasingly chaotic campus mood is damaging the institution. The board is the only body with the authority to fire Summers.

At the same time, in a shift from their previous posture, the six people who sit alongside Summers on the Corporation have become much more active in soliciting ideas from the Harvard community on how to end the crisis, professors say.

One senior professor said the board appears to be taking criticism of Summers more seriously.

''In all my previous conversations, if I was critical, the answer would be, 'Thank you for telling me,' " said the senior professor who declined to be named. ''That's a neutral response."

More recently, the professor has heard responses such as, ''Yes, I gather," or ''So I've heard."

The sense of urgency appears driven by the coming vote, which would be the second no-confidence vote against Summers in a year. Numerous professors have predicted the no-confidence motion will pass -- most likely by a larger margin than last year's vote of 218 to 185. Some professors have predicted the meeting would probably be a ''bloodbath," with even more heated attacks on Summers than have been heard before. And so far, faculty petitions or student protests in Summers's defense that were seen last year have not surfaced, though a few professors have defended the president publicly and the Crimson has editorialized in Summers's favor.

While the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is only one of Harvard's 10 schools, it contains the undergraduate college and represents the heart of the university. It also has, by far, the largest faculty.

Despite what appear to be increasingly serious questions about Summers's future, some at Harvard caution against predicting how the Corporation will proceed.

The Corporation is a famously secretive body. While members issued several statements in support of Summers amid faculty unrest last year, they have been silent to the public so far during the latest onslaught. They did not return messages from the Globe yesterday or over the past week.

One of the professors who spoke to the Globe said he spoke to a Corporation member Friday and came away with the view that the board had decided to end Summers's tenure. The professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order not to jeopardize his relationship with the Corporation member, declined to describe the conversation in detail. But the professor said he believed ''the majority of the Corporation was going to do what they could to make the votes on the 28th not happen."

The senior official said the people sharing their views with the board are not all in agreement. One key consideration is what the removal of Summers would signal about Harvard -- whether anyone can lead the university and whether it would result in an overly empowered faculty.

''It's this dichotomy between people worried that if Harvard ran a president out, it would become ungovernable, and the view, gaining ground, that actually if we lived through another no-confidence vote and its aftermath, that will make Harvard truly ungovernable."

Rosenblum, a Summers supporter, said she worries that the president cannot be successful in the current climate on campus.

''At this point the question is not pro or anti. The question is: Is he effective?" she said. ''Can we see any way in which his great gifts can really be used constructively? Or has he become so much the target of discussion on all sides that he's eclipsing Harvard. I can't imagine that he would want that to be the case. This is a man who loves the university.

''It's a sad thing," she continued. ''But it's a great institution. There are other able people."

The Corporation members who have been most active in discussions with the faculty have been Nan Keohane, former president of Duke University and Wellesley College; Urban Institute President Robert Reischauer; and Los Angeles investment executive James Rothenberg, the university's treasurer.

The Corporation's senior fellow, Corning chairman James Houghton, has also been in discussions. Many professors said that Robert Rubin -- who as Treasury secretary was both Summers's boss and predecessor -- has been heard from rarely.

Rubin is assumed to remain a stalwart Summers supporter. The sixth board member, Patricia King, has not yet officially assumed her position.

Summers is the seventh member of the board. Houghton was on the board when it chose Summers, while the president has helped pick all the other members. Board member Conrad Harper resigned last summer, saying the president should resign.

James J. McCarthy, professor of oceanography and one of two coordinators of an informal group of department chairs, said the university is in a state of paralysis and that the corporation must act quickly to resolve the situation. But he cautioned that Summers's resignation, if that is the solution, would not be enough. The Corporation would have to immediately appoint an interim president who is highly regarded by the faculty, he said.

That two-pronged remedy ''would bring an immediate relief to the crisis that we have right now," he said. ''If there's another solution, then I feel that we should be prepared to listen to it."

McCarthy added: ''Certainly in my 32 years on this faculty I've never seen any issue where the leadership of the corporation is so desperately needed as it is at this very moment."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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