Faculty Meeting Summary

In a remarkable meeting held on the Ides of March in the Loeb Drama Center, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) twice voted to register its lack of confidence in...

In a remarkable meeting held on the Ides of March in the Loeb Drama Center, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) twice voted to register its lack of confidence in and concerns over the presidency of Lawrence H. Summers. The meeting followed highly charged sessions on February 15 and February 22, and provided for the first time a means for faculty members to express formally their opinions about his administration. The February 15 meeting had begun with faculty members' expressions of dismay over the president's remarks at a January 14 symposium on the paucity of women scientists and engineers, and then broadened into wide-ranging critiques of his management style, governance of the University, and stewardship of academic values. That discussion spilled over into the continuing session on February 22.

Voting via paper ballots on a motion by J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies that "The Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers," those participating approved the statement by a margin of 218 to 185 (with 18 abstentions). Anecdotally, at least, estimates before the vote was taken were that the motion would attract support from no more than 40 percent of the faculty.

While the votes were being counted, Thomas professor of government and sociology Theda Skocpol presented a second motion: " The Faculty regrets the President's mid-January statements about women in science and the adverse consequences of those statements for individuals and for Harvard; and the Faculty also regrets aspects of the President's managerial approach as discussed in recent meetings of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Faculty appreciates the President's stated intent to address these issues, and seeks to meet the challenges facing Harvard in ways that are collegial and consistent with longstanding faculty responsibilities in institutional governance." After debate, this motion carried, too, by a margin of 253 to 137, again with 18 abstentions.

The meeting closed with brief remarks by President Summers. He reiterated the substance of those remarks upon exiting the theater, when he told reporters—in the official text released by his office—" As I said to the faculty, I have done my best these last two months to hear all that has been said, to think hard, to learn, and to adjust. I will continue to do that. I am committed to doing all I can to restore the sense of trust that is critical to our work together, and to reengage our collective attention with the vital academic issues before us."

Summers's statement was quickly followed by one from James R. Houghton, Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation. Houghton's statement read, "As I said in my recent letter to the Harvard community [February 17], the members of the Corporation fully support President Summers in his ongoing efforts to listen thoughtfully to the range of views being expressed by members of the University's faculties, and to work collegially and constructively with them to address the important academic matters facing Harvard.

"We recognize the concerns that have been expressed, most recently in today's meeting. We have had opportunity in recent weeks to speak with representatives of the FAS faculty, and we will continue such conversations in the time ahead. We of course take seriously the views of faculty across Harvard, as all of us move forward to advance the University's vital academic aims."


From the outset, the regularly scheduled meeting was anything but ordinary faculty business. The venue was chosen because the Faculty Room at University Hall can hold only a few hundred people, and even Lowell Lecture Hall, where the February 22 session took place, was judged too small. Repeating the February 22 experience, faculty members entering the Loeb had to pass through a crowd of television cameramen and news photographers, and then, inside the lobby, a detail of University police officers in plain clothes. Upon checking in, each voting member of the faculty received a paper ballot pad, with 10 color-coded sheets to record aye, nay, or abstain on the proposed motions and any amendments. Having a paper ballot, instead of a standing or voice vote, had been debated before the meeting; it was a critical matter, some faculty members felt, in enabling junior professors, who are not tenured, to vote freely.

The meeting opened as usual. Seated at a round table in the front of the theater were the acting parliamentarian, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations Peter K. Bol; FAS dean William C. Kirby; Summers; Harvard College dean Benedict H. Gross; and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Peter Ellison. To the left of the stage, in a row of Harvard chairs, sat Provost Steven E. Hyman and members of the faculty's docket committee.

Summers called for approval of the minutes of the previous, tempestuous meetings. That secured, the faculty heard two "Memorial Minutes" summarizing the careers and lives of deceased colleagues, the late William E. Gienapp, professor of history, and John Forrest Kain, Lee professor of economics and professor of Afro-American studies emeritus.

Kirby then called on Phillips professor of early American history Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to report on the meeting that she and five other members of the Faculty Council had had on March 7 with two senior members of the Harvard Corporation to discuss the current situation. The meeting, Ulrich said, had been cordial but brief, with all parties concurring that no one could move forward decisively on major business of interest to the faculty until all voices had been heard. The parties agreed to meet again in the spring, she said, and the professors had invited the Corporation members to meet with department chairs; they agreed to do so.

Dean Kirby then reviewed the past few weeks, and set the stage for the day's business by saying it was an "honor to serve this great faculty as its dean" by "leading but not managing" the faculty members to empower them to pursue the best scholarly and educational ideas. Working together in the University community, he said, required all its members to have confidence in clear, transparent processes; as a pertinent example, he cited the continuing undergraduate curriculum review, on which faculty votes [originally planned for this spring] would not be taken until it had been thoroughly discussed by the faculty.

During the challenging past weeks, Kirby said, feelings had run high. He was pleased to see that the faculty had moved "from a place of high feeling" alone to a "place of high feeling with staunch adherence" to the values of the University. He had held two open forums between the president and faculty members, and had consulted widely with FAS committees, departments, and individual faculty members. From those conversations, he felt, had emerged a common sense of stewardship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences itself, and "shared and enduring dedication to this institution." In an echo of Lincoln—Gienapp was recognized as an historian of Lincoln—Kirby urged the faculty not to emerge from its debates divided against itself.

Summers thanked Kirby, the faculty members who had met with him, and all others with whom he had communicated, and then passed his responsibilities as chairman over to Kirby for the duration of the meeting. Ulrich then explained the private balloting procedure, and the work of the afternoon began.


Introducing his motion, Professor Matory said, " Twenty years, 20 years, that is the average length of a Harvard president's tenure—and that is why our vote today matters." In light of four years of Summers's unambiguous actions and remarks, he said, the faculty must act similarly, or the Corporation and the public would believe that the faculty was "content" and satisfied with the course of events. Instead, the faculty had to register its desire for something beyond the last month's "cautious" apologies from the president, and so should support both his motion and Skocpol's.

Higginson professor of history and of East Asian languages and civilizations Philip A. Kuhn then rose to move indefinite postponement of Matory's motion, on three grounds. First, he said, the motion was "needlessly divisive." Second, it would establish "nothing practical," since the president serves at the pleasure of the Corporation, and would merely feed a frenzy of media coverage. And third, it was ad hominem, rather than addressing the substantive concerns of the faculty about the curriculum, library funding, instructional funds, the FAS budget, "headlong investment in the Allston campus" at a time of financial stringency, and so on.

Among faculty members who spoke against postponement, and therefore in favor of a vote on the Matory motion, was Weary professor of German and comparative literature Judith L. Ryan, who said that progress on substantive concerns depended precisely on the leadership of the administration and faculty members' feelings about President Summers. Buttenwieser University Professor Stanley Hoffmann said it would be shocking if a "parliamentary maneuver" prevented a vote on the motion.

Other speakers addressed the substance of Matory's underlying motion. Professor of the history of science Everett Mendelsohn said his review of the previous meetings' transcripts revealed "a broad range of people expressing concern, expressing dissatisfaction" on issues from gender to governance, and that this "unprecedented" confluence of concerns had brought the faculty to the day's meeting. "There has been a loss of confidence,"he said. He acknowledged and appreciated the president's apologies and his expressed commitment to change, but the issues raised could not be resolved by "an apology, a smile, and a Valentine card." The issues extend beyond personal management style to fundamental questions of governance, involving the Corporation. The meeting with Corporation members, which Mendelsohn attended, "was cordial, or at least civil. Did we fully understand each other? Honestly, I would say, ' Not yet.'" Harvard needed far more transparent processes so the Corporation could begin to understand faculty concerns, as prior comments by Corporation members indicated they did not. That this meeting took place in the fourth year of Summers's presidency, not the first, was indicative of the seriousness of the issues being raised. Although voting on the resolutions "gives none of us pleasure," it was incumbent on FAS to take action, in pursuit of faculty members' academic goals.

Dumbarton Oaks professor of Byzantine history Angeliki Laiou, citing her long status as a tenured woman in FAS, rose with " extreme reluctance" to  oppose Kuhn's motion and support Matory's. She thought she had seen great changes in the way Harvard treats women faculty members and students, she said, but unfortunately the events since January had taken the University back "more than 40 years." Thinking of women students, "the most vulnerable group," she could only "deplore" the administration's remarks and had to dissociate herself from them. The faculty had been thrown into turmoil not of its own doing, she said, not by any external current in society at large, but by the president's actions.

Wei-Ming Tu, Harvard-Yenching professor of Chinese history and philosophy and of Confucian studies, opposed postponing the vote. Leadership of a major university in the twenty-first century, he said, involved raising economic capital to fund expansion, progress, and growth in Allston. It also involved human capital, which "can only be cultivated through dialog, communication, and debate." And beyond technical competence, he added, there were issues of cultural competence in fields such as literature and the humanities—fields not subject to quantification or objective measurement, but rather matters of ethical and emotional intelligence. These were "grave issues—we ask our leadership to be sensitive to these issues" because ethnicity, gender, language, class, age, and faith all factor into sympathetic understanding of the world and other peoples. Harvard, he said, should debate all these issues, not just one particular approach, and so the faculty should consider both behavioral matters but also the mindset of how to approach the world.

Clark professor of ethics in politics and government Nancy L. Rosenblum, chair of the government department, supported postponement and criticized Matory's motion as "misleading, misguided, and mischievous." It was misleading, she said, because unlike a parliamentary no-confidence vote, the motion could not lead to a change in government; it was not potent. It was misguided because a "lack of confidence" blurred the degrees and specific instances on which there were disagreements or lack of trust between the president and the faculty—and that the relationship was reciprocal, with the faculty having to bear responsibilities. (The second motion, she said, did convey this mutual responsibility.) Finally, the resolution put all emphasis on the failures of the relationship between faculty and president, but in fact the sides had been meeting and working with each other; all that would be lost sight of in reporting on a vote of lack of confidence.

Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell, chair of the English department, said indefinite postponement would itself be divisive. Voting, in contrast, would enable the faculty to express itself after the past two months of discussion. The result would be a barometer of both present conditions and future ones, much as a barometer helped judge the weather—if it were consulted, and not hidden away in a closet.

By voice vote, the faculty rejected Kuhn's motion for indefinite postponement, and continued the discussion of Matory's resolution on a "lack of confidence" in Summers.

Winthrop professor of history Stephan Thernstrom, declaring that he had no view on Summers's management or administration per se, said the issue before the faculty was a paramount principle of academic freedom. Citing the McCarthy era, he declared, "academic freedom is on trial," with "a victory for President Summers's critics" constituting a "very significant blow" against that fundamental value and against American higher education in general. Controversial ideas and free debate, he said, were the essence of universities, and of the institution of tenure. In the 1950s, "the enemy was out there. It is deeply depressing to me that today the enemy is within."

Referring to the president's January 14 remarks on women scientists and engineers, Thernstrom criticized MIT professor Nancy Hopkins for leaving the room (see "Gender Gap," March-April, page 62)  then and "rushing to phone" reporters, calling her " someone who is not well suited" to academic life. That the president's remarks were "provocative," Thernstrom said, was not divisive; that was the nature of academic argument. Nor was Harvard a "community" in the sense of "the First Baptist Church of Peoria" or "Bob Jones University," which defined themselves with common views. Harvard, in contrast, was bound only by the norm of " pursuing truth fearlessly" to advance knowledge. In this light, the central issue was free speech. Skocpol's motion was troubling in its reference to the president's remarks; also troubling, Thernstrom said, were the president's "abject" apologies for what he had said, when he would better have defended his remarks. "We hardly should have as our ideal a neutered, neutral president who never says anything," he concluded.

Maier professor of political economy Benjamin M. Friedman agreed that what the faculty did today would have significant consequences for Harvard governance in the future. In his experience, he and colleagues often had different points of view, among themselves and with the president, with deans, with department chairs. But doing something that "amounts to changing the terms of engagement" within the University, so that disagreements resulted in calls to the New York Times and votes of no confidence, would long haunt the faculty.

At 5:12 voting began. The docket committee members collected the ballots, and discussion proceeded to Skocpol's motion. Her aim, she said, was to "state our concerns as a faculty with as much determination and unity as possible," by presenting a motion whose language had been worked on by several faculty members.

The motion intended, first, to underline "our concern about the statements made by President Summers in mid January about women in science." In that vein, Skocpol said, she shared Thernstrom's commitment to academic free speech, and so had advocated that Summers release the transcript of his remarks [which he ultimately did, on February 17]. What she regretted about the president's remarks  was "not that they were politically incorrect, but that they were just plain incorrect" and demonstrated a "lack of weight"and "hastiness." Skocpol said, further, that one could vote to regret the president's mid January remarks and their adverse consequences for the University even if one had no opinion about their factual correctness, given the poor judgment shown in delivering such remarks, in the form they were delivered, in the academic symposium where the president spoke. The comments and their aftermath had had adverse consequences for women scientists, including Hopkins, "who does not deserve to be pilloried in any way." Charges of "political correctness," in fact, had themselves become a threat to squelch free speech.

Second, Skocpol continued, there were concerns about "aspects of the president's unilateral managerial approach," which had harmed both the collegiality and the operations of the faculty. Those concerns had been raised by a wide number of people. Skocpol appreciated the president's statements of intent to change, but the faculty had to be vigilant and was looking for real changes in the way things were done. To that end, the faculty had to assert its longstanding role in governance.

Her motion, Skocpol said, did not imply either confidence in the University's leadership or the faculty's sense that all was well. Rather, it intended to state that "important problems [were] identified in our recent discussions, but not yet solved."

Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature Ruth Wisse pronounced Skocpol's motion "more pernicious than the first one," and, echoing Thernstrom, invoked John Stuart Mill on the importance of free speech in the search for truth. Were the resolution to pass, she could imagine editorial cartoonists depicting the VERITAS shield being gagged, or Alice in Wonderland-like depictions of the Queen ordering, "Off with his head!" Public officials, thought to be subservient to the electorate, were now proposing policies that were unpopular, she said, but the president of Harvard would be rendered unable to speak his own mind.

Dillon professor of the civilization of France and professor of comparative literature Susan R. Suleiman countered that legitimate reactions to the president's statements were being depicted as " political correctness," a form of blunt, McCarthyite attack that was itself intended to discourage or taint free speech. The president's statements on the scientific abilities of women were " incredible," and in fact he had acknowledged his misstatements. So Thernstrom had it wrong in suggesting that the president defend his own errors. The president had apologized, but it was his actions in speaking as he did on January 14 that sparked the reaction and surfaced "tremendous" problems within the University of concern to the faculty.

Johnstone Family professor of psychology Steven Pinker failed to see any principle underlying the motions criticizing the president. Summers had given a talk on women in the sciences, and his content dealt with a controversial, empirical issue—not a matter subject to a vote on its correctness. Unlike a corporation president who spoke carefully so as not to move the company's stock price, a university president had to address public issues. If he could not, would the same limits be placed on deans, department chairs, search-committee members? Nor could a president speak only on matters of his direct expertise; his job compelled him to act on stem cells, faculty retirement plans, and other issues—that was the nature of the work. Voting in favor of the resolution could only be seen, then, as declaring that the University wanted its president to hew to dogma, in line with majority sentiment.

Higgins professor of natural sciences Barbara J. Grosz, who chairs the president's new task force on women in science and engineering, and who had forcefully advocated release of the January 14 transcript at the February 15 meeting, rose to make three factual statements. First, she said, Summers had spoken on January 14 not as just another scholar engaged in academic debate, but, according to the program, as Harvard's president addressing a research agenda. Second, criticism of his remarks was not criticism of expressing an opinion, but of expressing an opinion not based on the literature, including research presented in the conference proceedings. Finally, she said she knew from talking to Nancy Hopkins and the Boston Globe reporter who first covered the story of the January conference that Hopkins had not rushed to the phone to call the media and that the conference was not the initial, chief subject of the conversation.

Cowles professor of sociology Orlando Patterson said that the matters before the faculty were not primarily about academic freedom, and that it did matter what a president says: he is not just an academic colleague in discussion with another. Thinking otherwise was "naive." He was disturbed, moreover, by a Globe account that morning of a disagreement between the president and the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health concerning a major AIDS project there. That raised again the issue of governance and management, and so he supported Skocpol's resolution.

Saltonstall professor of history Charles S. Maier agreed that the issue was not academic freedom or silencing of opinion. The question before the faculty concerned governance, and faculty management of its own affairs.

With that, results of the first resolution were reported, the second vote was taken, and that motion passed, too.

Kirby gave the final word to Summers, who told the faculty in a husky voice that "I have done my best these last two months" to hear what had been said, "to make appropriate adjustments, and to learn." He said, "I will continue to do that." He hoped the faculty would turn to substantive issues, "the curriculum and many other things." It would be "tragic" if differences of view "were in any way to diminish the vision and creativity of the faculty addressing the vital challenges before it." And then, at 6:00, the meeting adjourned.

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