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Embattled Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers shook hands with students yesterday after he announced he will step down June 30.
Embattled Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers shook hands with students yesterday after he announced he will step down June 30. (David Kamerman/ Globe Staff)

Summers to step down, ending tumult at Harvard

President faced revolt; Bok to be interim head

CAMBRIDGE -- Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, facing a faculty revolt and eroding support from the university's governing board, announced yesterday he will resign, ending the briefest tenure at the Ivy League school's helm in 144 years.

Summers will serve until June 30, take a year's sabbatical, and then return as a university professor, the highest rank for Harvard faculty members. The resignation allows Summers to avoid what was expected to be an embarrassing vote of no confidence from the school's largest faculty next Tuesday.

Derek Bok, the president of the university from 1971 to 1991, will serve as interim president.

After his resignation was announced on the Harvard website, Summers, 51, appeared resolute as he walked out of Massachusetts Hall late yesterday afternoon. He smiled as roughly 100 students greeted him with applause and shouts of ''five more years." Summers walked toward the students, who hugged him, shook his hand, and patted him on the back. Some students wore ''viva Summers" T-shirts and carried signs saying ''Stay, Summers, stay."

''This has not been a simple day in my life," said Summers, standing on the frozen ground outside the hall as he addressed a crowd of roughly 200 reporters and students. ''I look back on the last five years with a great sense of satisfaction and pride. . . . I look forward to the years ahead. . . . For me it is bittersweet.

''I believe that Harvard is a more restless, more striving, and more dynamic university than it was five years ago."

University officials said a search for a new president would begin promptly.

Summers took charge of the university in July 2001 and almost immediately alienated some faculty with his aggressive management style. Summers, in an interview with the Globe yesterday, said he could have been more ''respectful" as he ''pushed and prodded" the Harvard community to improve. The latest round of attacks on him began earlier this month when professors criticized him for pushing out Arts and Sciences Dean William C. Kirby.

Summers, Harvard's 27th president, said yesterday in a media teleconference call that he resigned ''very reluctantly" and that his frustrating rifts with the faculty of arts and sciences ''led me to conclude that it was best to step down."

In an interview with the Globe, he said he first began thinking about resigning after a faculty meeting two weeks ago, during which about a dozen professors criticized him harshly and no one rose to his defense.

He said he finally made his decision last Wednesday, informed members of the Harvard Corporation, and then left Thursday on a long-planned ski trip to Utah with his family. While in Utah, he said, he was working out details of his departure with the corporation, the university's governing board.

Asked if the corporation had prodded him to step down, he said ''different people expressed different ideas, but it was my decision."

Still, a person at Harvard who spoke to Summers yesterday described him as quite angry about the outcome.

Board members called the past year at the university ''difficult and sometimes wrenching" in a letter on the university website. But they praised Summers's vision in expanding Harvard's programs and campus, which has included recruiting new deans and creating a stem cell research institute.

James R. Houghton, a Harvard board member and chairman of Corning Inc., spoke with Summers during the teleconference call with the media.

''Larry Summers has served Harvard with extraordinary vision and vitality," said Houghton.

Summers's announcement triggered a mix of sadness and relief on campus.

Harry Lewis, a computer science professor at Harvard since 1974 who had been pushed out as dean of Harvard College by Summers, compared the announcement yesterday to Watergate and the downfall of President Nixon. He said the university had been suffused with ''gossip and rumors and a sense of inevitability."

''It's sad that it came to this," said Lewis. ''Summers is very bright and very talented, and I just think his talents were not the right one for this position. They were talents that worked maybe better in the other roles that he's had."

Summers, an economics professor, served as treasury secretary under President Clinton.

Jay Light, acting dean of Harvard Business School, wrote a letter to students and faculty calling the resignation ''a sad moment in Harvard's history."

''Larry was an energetic and a forceful leader with an inspired vision for Harvard's future," he said in a written statement.

The sponsor of the planned no-confidence vote, professor Judith Ryan, predicted that the faculty dissent would end, especially with the appointment of Bok.

''I know that Derek Bok commands such respect that he will receive the support," said Ryan, a professor of German and comparative literature. ''I'm very relieved that the turmoil is over. ''

Some professors were upset that Summers, whose base salary is about $580,000 this year, will stay through the end of the school year.

''It's a serious mistake letting him stay around until the end of June," said Daniel S. Fisher, professor of physics. ''The time for a graceful transition was last June, and it's well past that."

Within months of becoming president, Summers had a confrontation with African-American studies professor Cornel West over his work; West later left for Princeton.

Last year, Summers sparked international outrage by speculating at an economics conference that innate differences between men and women might be one of the reasons women lag behind in science and math careers.

This led to an apology and a no-confidence vote in the faculty of arts and sciences in March of last year.

Asked in an interview with the Globe about regrets about specific actions he took, Summers mentioned only one: his speech about women and science. ''I would not have spoken the way I did" at the conference, he said.

But he said he considered himself ''someone who wanted to lead the institution to new places and to challenge it and change it. I took satisfaction in the extent to which I was able to do that."

Along with the recent faculty complaints about the ouster of Kirby, a former dean made new accusations about Summers and his problems working with professors and administrators.

Professors also expressed concerns about Summers's role in Harvard's defense of his close friend Andrei Shleifer, an economics professor who a federal judge said conspired to defraud the US government. Summers said he had no role in Shleifer's defense.

As he stood in front of the throng of reporters and students yesterday, Summers focused on his achievements, from the expansion of science programs and the university campus to financial aid for students of modest means.

''Harvard's greatest days are in the future," Summers said, in parting, then turned and walked back toward his offices, guarded by campus police.

Adrienne P. Samuels and Kathleen Burge of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com; Bombardieri at bombardieri@globe.com.

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