“This is a day of mixed emotion for me,” Lawrence Summers said on the afternoon of Feb. 21. He had just announced his resignation after a five-year term as the president of Harvard University. Now, he sounded drained and defanged as he performed what would likely be the last, most public gesture of his very public presidency: a conference call with a group of reporters eager to tell the story of his demise.
So he tried to tell it himself, first.
“I am very proud of what the university has accomplished in the last five years,” he said. And: “This is also a day where I feel very much regret for the rifts and the cleavages that have emerged between me and segments of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that led me to conclude, over the last couple of weeks—reaching an ultimate decision last week—that it was best that I resign as president.”
The call was largely a formality. Over the weekend, a strong whiff of the coming announcement was carried on the Internet and in published reports.
And by the time of the announcement, the story was everywhere.
“I worked very hard over the last year to build bridges, to meet members of the faculty party on issues of concern, on issues of control, but when it became clear that, for a substantial segment, this was just not going to come together, I came to the conclusion that I’ve described.”
Not everyone—least of all Mr. Summers’ supporters—saw things that way.
“I have great disappointment and indignation at the Harvard Corporation for forcing out Larry Summers,” said one supporter, government professor Harvey Mansfield. He said that he didn’t believe Mr. Summers had quit on his own: “By nature, he is not a quitter.”
Other Summers supporters, including some in the law school, sought to distance themselves from the controversies that had roiled the arts and sciences faculty.
A statement released by Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan, a colleague of Mr. Summers’ in the Clinton administration, said: “In his years as President, Larry made great contributions to Harvard, ranging from his advocacy of public service to his leadership in planning the Allston campus. He supported the Law School in every way possible, and I personally enjoyed working with him very much. I’ve admired his energy, intelligence, and boldness, and I’ve been grateful for his help in advancing the Law School’s mission.”
Mr. Summers dismissed the notion, popular among his admirers, that his presidency was the victim of liberal academic agendas.
“No, I think that it’s a mistake to ever try to make complex situations into caricatures,” he said.
Arguably, it was a lesson he’d learned firsthand, in the first great conflagration of his presidency.
On Jan. 14, 2005, he told attendees of a conference on gender and science that it was worth exploring whether some of the disparities in achievement between men and women could be traced to innate differences between the sexes.
Faculty members—male and female—were offended and outraged. Then, as Mr. Summers ham-handedly sought to keep the exact circumstances of his remarks a secret and apologized for making them, the outrage built.
When he finally released a copy of the speech, on Feb. 18, it was clear that the faculty’s objections to him went beyond this issue. Critics called him authoritarian and abrasive. On March 15, the faculty voted 218-185 in favor of a motion that read: “the Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership” of Mr. Summers.
In a Feb. 7 meeting this year, faculty members confronted Mr. Summers about Andrei Shleifer, the Harvard economist who is a close friend of Mr. Summers.
A federal judge ruled in 2004 that Mr. Shleifer had conspired to defraud the U.S. government by investing in Russian companies while also serving as manager of a program designed to help Russia make the transition to a market economy.
Mr. Summers was pressed on whether there should have been a sanction against Mr. Shleifer—these proceedings are kept secret—and he said he’d recused himself in the case.
When a faculty member pressed him for an opinion, according to a Boston Globe account, Mr. Summers said that he didn’t have enough information, infuriating the faculty.
“There was shock and consternation,” music professor Kay Shelemay told the Globe.
Most recently, there was the story of William Kirby. After the dean of the arts and sciences faculty announced his resignation, the faculty accused Mr. Summers of pushing him out.
That—a management issue, not a political one—appears to have sealed his fate.
At the meeting on Feb. 7, the arts and sciences faculty railed against Mr. Summers. Finally, they scheduled the second no-confidence vote in as many years. It was to be held on Feb. 28.
Rifts and cleavages, indeed.
“A year ago, it was ‘We don’t like you, Larry,’” said one faculty member. “This February, it was much more steady: ‘We are worried about the institution.’ That was a much more serious kind of attack.”
This past weekend, there were whispers that Mr. Summers was losing the confidence of the university’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, which had been steadfast in its public support for him. Several papers reported that the corporation had been actively meeting with faculty members in recent weeks to gauge the extent of dissatisfaction with Mr. Summers.
On Monday afternoon, Wiki-pedia.org, the interactive online encyclopedia, updated the entry on Mr. Summers to say that two newspapers would report on Tuesday morning that he was going to resign.
Meanwhile, at The Wall Street Journal, two reporters were down to the wire advancing the same story: that Mr. Summers was expected to resign within the week. The piece was filed about 10 p.m., so it only made it into the New York editions. (The scoop might have gone to The Harvard Crimson. But 20-year-old Zachary Seward, who was the paper’s managing editor until poor grades forced him to take a leave of absence recently, isn’t allowed to write for The Crimson now that he’s no longer enrolled. He is set to intern for The Journal’s Boston bureau this summer, and so he fed the paper his reporting and shared a byline with Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Golden. When reached by phone, the precocious newspaperman said, “I’m too busy working on another story.”)
The Journal report notwithstanding, on Tuesday morning, up in Cambridge, confusion still reigned.
“It would be nice to know if this thing is going to pop today,” sighed one Harvard communications official.
Pop it did, just after 1 p.m., when a new item appeared on the Harvard home page. It announced that Mr. Summers “will conclude his tenure” at the end of the academic school year.
Derek Bok, who led Harvard University in the aftermath of another tumultuous era—the late 1960’s—had agreed to serve as interim president starting on July 1.
The notice also contained a link to letters from Mr. Summers and the five corporation members (a sixth is set to join in May).
Revealing some of the stubbornness for which he is known, Mr. Summers wrote: “I have reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future. I believe, therefore, that it is best for the University to have new leadership.”
Later, he continued: “Believing deeply that complacency is among the greatest risks facing Harvard, I have sought for the last five years to prod and challenge the University to reach for the most ambitious goals in creative ways. There surely have been times when I could have done this in wiser or more respectful ways.”
In their letter, the corporation members said that they would be anointing him a university professor—Harvard’s version of a kind of pan-disciplinary academic god. (Mr. Summers will take a sabbatical for the academic year 2006-2007.)
Of course, such a return could lead to some very awkward situations. Richard Bradley, the author of a critical book on Mr. Summers, Harvard Rules, said that he thought it was unlikely.
“You can’t really stay around the university if you’ve been a successful president and you retire; I don’t know how he stays around when he’s as much of a hot button as he is,” Mr. Bradley said.
In a telephone conference call, senior corporation fellow James Houghton introduced Mr. Summers with the kind of bipolar emotions felt by many across the campus.
“I’m delighted to be talking to y’all today,” he said, before going on to explain that the corporation had accepted Mr. Summers’ resignation “with great regret.”
“I would have preferred,” Mr. Summers concluded in his telephone call, “to stay for more of the completion of this magnificent structure that will be early-21st-century Harvard. But I’m leaving with a great sense of satisfaction for the foundation we’ve been able to lay.”
—additional reporting by Gabriel Sherman