boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers (left) awaited the start of a seminar in Davos, Switzerland, last month. With him were Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School, and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestle SA.
Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers (left) awaited the start of a seminar in Davos, Switzerland, last month. With him were Laura Tyson, dean of the London Business School, and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestle SA. (Daniel Acker/ Bloomberg News)

Summers waged final, futile battle

Faculty opposition insurmountable

Last month, at a restaurant in Davos, Switzerland, Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers was hosting a seafood lunch for alumni and donors.

It was a rarefied scene. At one point, former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, looking for his own luncheon table, wandered in and greeted the Harvard leader with a hug. A short while later, an upbeat Summers laid out bold plans for Harvard to his guests.

But, immediately afterward, Summers's air of confidence was gone as he took aside his friend David Gergen, a Harvard professor and past adviser to US presidents. Summers had just received word that the impending resignation of Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean William C. Kirby had leaked several days ahead of the planned announcement, a development Summers feared would humiliate Kirby and anger a faculty that was already hostile toward him.

''He knew it was going to be trouble," Gergen said in an interview yesterday. ''He didn't know how much."

On Tuesday, a little over three weeks later, Summers announced that he will step down this June, a stunning defeat for the brilliant economist and former Cabinet member and a rare public debacle for the nation's oldest university.

A glimpse into those final weeks shows a leader grasping to retain his hold on power, sensing his alienation from faculty, but unable to fully comprehend it or resolve it.

He scrambled to find friends to defend him publicly, but ultimately he awakened to the reality: He couldn't stay. It was a realization that made him profoundly angry, still believing the day he announced his resignation that Harvard was ''choosing comfort over excellence," according to a person familiar with Summers's efforts to save his job.

Summers's troubles began only months after he took office, with what critics have described as a browbeating of popular African-American studies professor Cornel West. Summers proposed monitoring West's research, which led to the professor's departure to Princeton.

''I said to myself, I will not be at Harvard long," West said in 2002. ''I'm a free and self-respecting black man, and I will not put up with that kind of attitude."

Faculty members also grumbled that the president was a bully, that he played favorites and ruled by fear. But there was no overwhelming outcry against the president until January 2005, when he mused at a closed-door economics conference that differences in ''intrinsic aptitude" might explain why fewer women than men thrive in science and math.

Critics united
After the remarks were published in a Globe article, professors who had harbored private concerns about the president began to realize they were not alone.

''When the news about his speech on women broke, people began talking to each other, and they began to realize how widespread his behavior was," Mary Waters, a sociologist and prominent critic of Summers, said recently. ''Sharing information increased everyone's disapproval."

Last March, the faculty took the first no-confidence vote in a Harvard president in modern history. Then, over the summer, a member of the governing corporation stepped down, saying that his fellow board members should not have given Summers a raise amid the tumult. He also said he believed Summers should resign.

Still, the campus was quiet last fall. Summers believed he was making progress regaining the trust of the faculty, he said in an interview with the Globe Tuesday. Then Kirby's resignation leaked to the student newspaper, the Crimson, in late January while Summers was in Davos to cochair the World Economic Forum. Many professors believed that Kirby was being pushed out by Summers -- their rocky relationship was widely known -- but Kirby had had mixed reviews as dean, so Summers had ''no sense it was going to be such a source of serious new friction," Gergen said.

What really galvanized the Summers opposition, many professors said, was a widespread belief that Summers must have purposely leaked the news to embarrass Kirby. Kirby was to have made the announcement himself. They had no proof, but the professors' suspicion was a sign of their lack of faith in the president's honesty.

It didn't take long for the opposition to build again.

First, professors, who flexed their collective clout last year, easily tapped into a network of like-minded colleagues. Since last year's controversies, a group of department chairmen had been meeting, and the elected faculty council had become more assertive, asking challenging questions about how the university was being run, said Lisa Martin, a government professor.

''People still had the same e-mail lists on their computers, so they could just pull them out and press 'send,' " Martin said.

At the same time, some professors informally found others beside themselves willing to criticize Summers in public debate.

A colleague of Waters walked across Harvard Yard and was stopped by a professor upset about the Kirby news who wanted to know what could be done. Waters's colleague answered, ''Well, you could talk at the faculty meeting," and the professor did so, according to Waters.

''A bunch of us who spoke last time felt: 'Well, we put ourselves out there. If no one else feels the same way, that's fine,' " Waters said. ''We felt other people needed to speak up, and they materialized."

Ten days after the leak that forced Kirby to rush his announcement, arts and sciences professors held one of their regular meetings with Summers at University Hall. Many attendees were surprised by how many professors spoke up against Summers for the first time, as the president sat in front of them. They included zoologist Farish Jenkins, who called Summers ''repeatedly untruthful" and said the university was in a ''patently dire" state.

Several suggested Summers should resign, and one professor called for a second vote of no confidence, which the faculty scheduled for next Tuesday.

As he left that meeting, the new reality was beginning to sink in. ''It was clear from the tone and organization at the meeting that there were many people in determined opposition," Summers told the Globe. ''I just realized the level of rancor was very high."

Summers said he turned to people for advice about what to do, and according to the person familiar with Summers's efforts, the president also was working the phones to try to rally support from arts and sciences professors before the no-confidence vote. Summers asked professors to speak on his behalf at the upcoming faculty meeting or write letters to the Corporation.

The problem: He couldn't come up with very many people to stand up for him.

''One person said it was just sad because everyone else knew it was 'game over,' " the person said.

Summers's version of the last two weeks was different. ''Certain people came to me eager to do things to counter the impressions left at the faculty meeting, but my feeling was that it would be difficult to advance the university's renewal by dividing it, so I didn't encourage campaigns," he said.

A few professors did defend Summers to the Globe in the days before his resignation, saying they thought he should remain. One, the chairman of molecular and cellular biology, said he would have stood up to support the president at the Feb. 28 meeting.

But in one of his biggest bastions of support, his own economics department, people felt hamstrung, Professor Larry Katz said, before Summers announced his resignation. They were also surprised, he said, that no one from the Corporation sought their views.

''Support for him is extremely strong, but people worry that anything that comes from economists is likely to backfire," Katz said over the weekend. ''We are all at a bit of a loss. People seem to think our views are knee-jerk."

Corporation reaches out
During the same period, those crucial two weeks between the last faculty meeting and Summers's resignation announcement, many professors were contacting the Corporation, most of them to complain about Summers. And the Corporation reached out to deans and other top officials to ask them if they thought Summers's presidency was salvageable and to gauge how much support he had outside arts and sciences. ''The consensus [among the officials] was that an organized effort [in Summers's defense] probably didn't make sense," said one senior official who spoke with the Corporation.

Summers said on Tuesday that his resignation was his decision, but many people who spoke to the Corporation sensed that most of its members also believed that he should go.

They were also under increasingly intense pressure from faculty members, some of whom planned to escalate their attacks on the president. One professor e-mailed the Corporation on Monday saying that if Summers did not step down this week, there were people who were planning to go to the media with negative stories about Harvard, said a professor who did not send the e-mail but who saw it.

Corporation members had already been discussing Summers's leadership problems for months in a series of exchanges among themselves and with others at Harvard, said another person familiar enough with the situation to know how events unfolded.

The Corporation had been paying much more attention to the governance problems since last year's vote of no confidence.

The idea of easing him out of the job appeared to be ''in the backs of their minds," even before the latest uproar, ''but it wasn't focused," said another professor who talked to the Corporation.

Changing moods
That professor also said that the Corporation appeared to be seeking a graceful exit for Summers. An abrupt departure would have been ''undignified and even brutal," the professor said.

In the last two weeks, Summers ''was alternately in a fighting mood and despondent," said the source who was familiar with the president's efforts. Others who saw the president described him as distracted and tired.

Summers's schedule last week also raised eyebrows. His ski trip to Utah with his family was described as long planned, but he canceled a lunch appearance Thursday at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics with only a few hours advance notice. Many were also surprised he did not join the mayor the next day to announce plans for the first building on Harvard's new Allston campus.

As he made calls Tuesday to share his announcement, Summers was angry, said the same source. ''He expressed the view that he did nothing to warrant the degree of faculty reaction."

Speaking to the Globe, Summers was more diplomatic but acknowledged his unhappiness with the way it ended. ''I also have some frustration with the rifts with the faculty of arts and sciences that led me to conclude that it was best to step down," he said.

Gergen, who also spoke to Summers Tuesday, described him as ''surprisingly upbeat, given what he'd gone through," he said.

Gergen added that there were people who believed Summers could have turned around the vote of no confidence. But the president decided it would be futile to fight on. ''I think he came to the conclusion that, win or lose, he couldn't govern," Gergen said.

Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. 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