Summers steps down

After a year of controversy and criticism, the embattled Harvard president calls it quits.

Published February 21, 2006 10:03PM (EST)

Just a few weeks ago, we noted the one-year anniversary of Harvard president Larry Summers' controversial remarks about the role of innate sex differences in women's underrepresentation in the high-level sciences. As many Broadsheet readers may remember, in wake of that uproar, Summers issued a hasty apology and, in a peace offering to feminist groups and Harvard faculty members calling for his head, pledged $50 million to be used toward balancing the university faculty's gender ratio. But no amount of backpedaling could gain Summers the needed distance from that damning statement. As our own Rebecca Traister wrote just a month ago, as long as Summers "is still in charge of the institution that educates women ... that's a loss for feminists."

Well, score one for women. Today, in a statement issued on the Harvard University Web site, Summers officially resigned his post, effective June 30. He writes, "Working closely with all parts of the Harvard community, and especially with our remarkable students, has been one of the great joys of my professional life. However, 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 ... 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." Oh, really, ya think?

The New York Times reports that Summers' decision comes after "several weeks of agitation by many members of the faculty," some of whom blamed Summers for the resignation of a popular dean, William Kirby, late last month. According to the Times, the faculty "had scheduled a vote of no confidence in Dr. Summers for their next faculty meeting, on Feb. 28" -- an action that led the university's board to conclude that "the relationship between the president and the faculty could not be repaired." After serving out the remainder of his term, Summers will take a year's sabbatical before he returns to the Harvard faculty.

So, does this mean the Summers saga is over? Who knows. For every feminist fist raised in victory, there is certain to be a pundit who sees Summers as the victim of a liberal lynch mob. For now, I'll just content myself with the knowledge that if nothing else, today's turn of events is evidence that even behind the ivy walls of dear old Harvard, the people have power and change is possible. And that's not a bad bit of education.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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