Academic revolt

Remarks last month by Harvard's president about why women lag in the sciences prompt intense criticism of his leadership style by faculty.

Published February 17, 2005 2:08PM (EST)

Harvard University suffered a rebellion in the faculty ranks Wednesday as some professors sought the departure of its controversial president. In an unusual atmosphere of confrontation, Harvard professors are to gather next week to air their discontent with the president, Lawrence Summers, and there was speculation Wednesday that he could resign, or be confronted with a humiliating motion of no confidence by his colleagues.

Summers provoked an uproar last month with ill-judged comments on women in science, a gaffe that brought resentment about his leadership style to a crisis point. On Tuesday night the anger broke into the open at a stormy faculty meeting at which he was accused of instituting a reign of fear and intimidation. He can expect equally harsh treatment next week, since several professors say they are determined to bring about real change in the university's management.

"He has apologized many times. Now the question is, Can we put in place structures that -- if he stays -- will mean that his relationship with the faculties and others in various parts of the administration will be much better," said Everett Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science. He added: "If a no-confidence vote is what it would take to bring about the change, then sure."

Resentment of his abrasive and nonconsultative management style had been growing since his early days at Harvard, which were marked by clashes with African-American professors. But his comments last month at a conference on women and minorities in science appeared to have brought that resentment to a boil.

In a long address delivered without notes, he speculated that women lagged behind men in the sciences and engineering because of innate biological differences, using as an example his young daughter's attitude toward her toy trucks. He also said that women academics were held back by their child-care responsibilities, denying that discrimination continued to be a factor in university hiring and promotion. On their own, the comments would have been explosive, but Summers already had a poor record on hiring women professors at Harvard.

He has tried repeatedly to make amends, appointing two task forces on the hiring of women, and issuing apologies. However, he has refused to release the transcript of his remarks, a decision that has helped to keep the controversy going.

"Many of your faculty are dismayed and alienated and demoralized," Arthur Kleinman, an anthropology professor, told Tuesday's closed meeting, according to a report in the Boston Globe.

Summers was also challenged by the person he appointed to chair the women's task force, Barbara Grosz, who called on him to release the transcript of his remarks. "The work of the task forces will be hampered and the reputation of Harvard as an institution that values free and open discussion will be diminished until the air is cleared," her prepared statement said.

The Harvard president does have his defenders, including several from the economics department, where he worked before serving as Treasury secretary during the second term of the Clinton administration. But a number of professors pointed out Wednesday that there had been little public display of support from Harvard's management body, which appointed Summers and which will ultimately determine his future.

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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