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In a Pickle, Harvard Chief Tries New Tack

Times Staff Writer

Brilliant and abrasive, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers swept into Harvard four years ago as the prestigious university’s new president, tasked to nudge its esteemed and often-fractious faculty into the new century, kicking and screaming if necessary. The resulting din has unleashed an academic avalanche.

This week, the mercurial, impatient academic showed a hidden side.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 27, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Harvard president -- An article in Saturday’s Section A said Harvard’s board chose Lawrence H. Summers in July 2001 as the university’s 27th president since its founding in 1640. Summers was chosen in March 2001 and took office in July 2001. Also, the university was founded in 1636.

Under pressure from Harvard scholars smarting from his brusque management style and roused by his recent remarks suggesting women might have less innate aptitude than men in the realms of science and mathematics, a chastened Summers spent a long, miserable week -- in public and in private -- saying he was sorry.

Inside the slush-crusted campus on the Charles River, Summers’ flurry of mea culpas was portrayed as the turning point in a four-year tug of war between administrators and professors that had bruised refined egos by the score. But what remains unclear after a month of mounting furor is whether Summers, 50, has been left weakened or transformed.

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His critics in Harvard’s faculty suggest that Summers -- a Harvard alum and former faculty member -- had overplayed his hand in a high-stakes campaign to remake the university. Even many of Summers’ defenders conceded he had stumbled badly. But they insist he will emerge as a stronger leader to press his ambitious plans to widen Harvard’s campus across the river, unite its scholarly fiefs and revamp its curriculum.

“We clearly need a president who’s bold and has a visible public presence,” said history professor James Kloppenberg. “But we also want someone who is thoughtful and thinks first before shooting. Too often, he’s ended up shooting himself in the foot.”

The tremors have rippled far from Harvard, as befitting the nation’s oldest university and its academic pinnacle. Some educators wondered whether Summers’ controversial pronouncements signaled an awkward attempt to return Harvard’s presidency to an influential public perch largely abandoned since the 1940s. And conservatives eager to extend their culture war into academia rushed to champion Summers as a victim of leftist political correctness -- an odd fit for a star scholar and bureaucrat who had spent most of his career in liberal Democratic circles.

“What you have in a college presidency is a whole lot of responsibility and not a lot of authority,” said Robert Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education. “Summers may have been trying to change that formula, but a college president has to walk a tight wire, and I suspect he’s learned that the hard way.”

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Summers first scrambled to make amends last month after ruminating out loud in an address to a meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research. During the meeting, according to transcripts he later released under pressure, Summers suggested that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” -- rather than discrimination -- played the most crucial role in the low representation of women in science and mathematics posts.

Summers hedged his remarks with a researcher’s dry, elliptical cautions, but women scientists in the audience homed in on his suggestion that innate differences between men and women explained the fact that science and mathematics have long been male provinces.

“If my reading of the data is right -- it’s something people can argue about -- that there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well,” Summers said.

After several participants stormed out and later publicly rebuked him, Harvard’s own experts in those fields pounced on Summers’ statements, saying he distorted research that did not support his conclusions.

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Psychology professor Elizabeth Spelke and social ethics professor Mahzarin Banaji wrote in an open letter to the campus that “the views he expressed at that meeting are wrong, and the most powerful barriers to gender equity in math and science come from the factors he ignored or downplayed: the pervasive, implicit prejudice against women.” Spelke is known for her research on gender relations.

“There’s a fine line between stimulation and provocation and I think his problems occur when his leadership moves into the zone of provocation,” said Kay Shelemay, a professor of music and member of Harvard’s Committee on General Education.

Summers apologized publicly four times to his faculty. For a tense two days this week, it seemed as if contrition was not enough. Angry critics rumbled that they would seek a vote of no confidence during a meeting of Harvard’s undergraduate liberal arts faculty.

Instead, nearly 200 came out in support of Summers as president, even though many registered displeasure with his performance and leadership. The threat of taking a formal stand against him evaporated after Summers told the crowded meeting: “If there are harsh words to be said, I ask only that you direct them toward me, not toward one another.”

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“He’s not the gentlest and most tactful fellow,” veteran physics professor Roy Glauber said as professors hurried out over an icy brick pavement, “but he was apologetic and somewhat accommodating. It’s a start.”

But this week, one professor placed a no-confidence vote on the agenda of the next faculty meeting on March 15. Still, after the lessening of tensions, the move appears to have little faculty support.

A no-confidence vote would have no practical effect because Summers could only be fired by the Harvard Corp., the executive board whose members have so far indicated solid support. But such a move could signal the willingness of an embittered undergraduate faculty to blunt Summers’ efforts to transform Harvard’s curriculum.

When Summers was chosen by the board in July 2001 as Harvard’s 27th president since its founding in 1640, he quickly cast a more activist silhouette than Neil L. Rudenstine, his predecessor.

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Like many heads of American universities during the 1980s and 1990s, Rudenstine was a quiet, consummate fundraiser who took care to knit together Harvard’s disparate constituencies -- professors and researchers, students, well-heeled alumni and most of all, the influential board members who oversaw Harvard’s future.

When Rudenstine retired, pleading exhaustion from 80-hour weeks, board members sought Summers to steer Harvard’s long-awaited expansion of its campus across the Charles River in Allston and overhaul the courses taught to its undergraduates -- in part by bringing more emphasis on science.

“The board knew what they were getting,” said Richard Zeckhauser, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“You’re not going to get the Allston campus built without ruffling some feathers. Larry Summers came in and upset the apple cart.”

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At Treasury, he was known as an acerbic whose withering rejoinders alienated other economists as well as Republican legislators who questioned the Clinton administration’s financial policies. The choice of Summers to lead the university seemed to invite a shift back to an era when Harvard presidents pontificated on public matters.

Charles William Eliot towered over American academia in the 1920s. And after World War II, Harvard titan James B. Conant played a similar role. Conant inveighed against the use of the GI bill to aid the education of returning veterans. His elitist stance provoked little controversy at the time even though the bill passed and transformed American higher education.

Summers brought his own stylistic issues to the job. Accustomed to government pomp, Summers took to getting around Boston in a chauffeured limousine. Faculty members who once had easy entree to Rudenstine’s office found Summers’ quarters guarded by campus police.

Summers’ defenders say his activist manner has been a tonic to a campus that had overdosed on gentility. He has often showed up at undergraduate dorms to engage undergraduates in intellectual debates.

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“He’s not the shy and retiring type,” said law professor Alan Dershowitz, who backed Summers’ right to make provocative statements even though he disagreed with some of them. “He talks with his hands, he’s effusive and ebullient, sometimes he interrupts, gets in people’s faces What people get wrong about him is this is the way he listens, he just doesn’t sit there and smile at you.”

Summers also arrived with a reputation as a classic Democratic liberal. As a young economics researcher, he had found worth in the nation’s maligned welfare system. In the upper rungs of the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department, he had a “clear history of working for progressive causes,” said Gene Sperling, Clinton’s top economic policy advisor. Sperling cites Summers’ support of debt relief for struggling Third World nations and universal education for deprived girls.

But Summers soon made a series of controversial decisions that came across to many faculty members as attuned to the conservative zeitgeist. Summers plunged into a dust-up with African American celebrity philosophy professor Cornel West that ended with West’s defection to Princeton. Then, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Summers moved to raise the profile of ROTC military trainees on campus, a tack that galled peace activists.

Sperling and other Summers intimates say he has not changed his stripes. But when Summers’ comments on the innate differences between women and men inflamed the campus last month, conservative commentators cast Summers as a victim of an American academy ruled by political correctness and doctrinaire left-wing thought.

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“When you have these extreme leftist movements like militant feminism come along and try to change basic human values,” intoned radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, " ... it always comes back and catches up with them.”

“Look, President Summers was genuinely surprised and troubled by the response,” said Zeckhauser, an old friend who invited Summers to dinner the night he appeared before the liberal arts faculty this week. He pleaded other plans. “He was not going out of his way to ruffle feathers like some of these conservative talk show hosts. He was unaware he was perceived as brusque. It’s simply his personality.”

Now, after the apologies and the consciousness-raising, Summers faces a period in which he has to make accommodations with a faculty of roused critics and supporters worried about his ability to profit from his mistakes.

“He’s learned about the slights people have felt over the last few years and how they’ve eroded the sense of community at Harvard,” said Kloppenberg, the history professor.

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“The concern is that he’s known all this before, but he didn’t care to do anything about it and wasn’t willing to change. This time, he has to take real steps. If you’re bold without generating support, you’re flirting with failure.”


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