Challenges to Harvard’s President: An Update
Developments since the confrontational Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting following the announcement of the forthcoming resignation of Dean William C. Kirby...
The following are developments since the confrontational Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting following the announcement of the forthcoming resignation of Dean William C. Kirby. At that meeting, faculty members criticized President Lawrence H. Summers and raised questions about the search for a successor dean. Early in the meeting, the FAS Faculty Council outlined a proposal for a search committee, consisting of six senior professors, who would exercise unusual authority over the search, subject to faculty reaction and further council action. (The composition of the current Faculty Council was usefully detailed in the Crimson on February 16; see the sidebar accompanying the news article.)
1. The former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Peter T. Ellison, Cowles professor of anthropology, prepared a statement and discussed with the Boston Globe’s higher-education reporter the reasons for his decision to step down from the deanship, announced in February 2005 and effective that June. His statement, dated February 14:
I’m very sorry to see in the circumstances surrounding Dean Kirby’s decision to step down the apparent repetition of a pattern of Presidential behavior that I experienced. There were three specific events that helped to motivate and then confirm my own decision to resign as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The first occurred in 2004 when I was working on a new Ph.D. program in the life sciences that would unify our efforts across the University. I went to a meeting with President Summers along with Provost Hyman and a colleague from the Medical School to report on the progress in this effort. Instead, I was immediately engaged by President Summers in a discussion of the appropriateness of the GSAS and its dean to be responsible for this program (as is the case of all Harvard Ph.D. programs). He asserted that I was compromised by my appointment in the FAS and raised various scenarios that would involve transfer of responsibility for the new program to the Provost. I tried to respond to this unanticipated and quite aggressive line of discussion as best I could, but finally had to leave, being late for a meeting with our alumni council, without ever having had a chance to speak to the original agenda for our meeting.
However, several days later I heard from life sciences faculty that my medical school colleague had subsequently circulated a message indicating that responsibility for the new life sciences Ph.D. might well be transferred away from the dean of the GSAS and given to the Provost. I was appalled and immediately offered to resign, since I felt that my authority had been seriously undermined. Dean Kirby asked me to reconsider and told President Summers about the situation. I had another long, heated conversation, this time by phone, with President Summers and explained why I felt unable to carry out my duties under such conditions. At the end of the conversation he agreed to write a letter to the life sciences faculty making clear that no transfer of authority for the new Ph.D. program was going to occur. On that understanding I agreed to withdraw my resignation. This was on a Friday, and he said the letter would be sent on Monday. It was never sent.
When it was clear that the letter wasn’t ever going to be sent, I resolved to resign but decided to wait until I saw several initiatives through to completion, including the new life sciences Ph.D. program, a five-year funding package for Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences, and the plans for more and better university housing for graduate students. I achieved those goals last year and announced my resignation. The third event, which convinced me I had made the right decision, occurred in an FAS faculty meeting last spring when Professor Thomas asked the President quite clearly and explicitly if there had ever been conversations at any level about transferring responsibility for Ph.D. programs away from the GSAS. His answerand I quote it in its entiretywas, “No.”
Unfortunately, it now seems that a similar pattern, involving undermining the authority of a dean in front of others, hollow statements of support, and denials that appear less than fully truthful, has again unfolded. This does not seem to me any longer to be a matter of style or personality, but of character. It may be the way people treat their colleagues and subordinates in Washington, but it is not the way it has been done, or should be done, in an institution like ours. When someone with the skill and integrity of Dean Kirby does not flourish in his post, something is seriously wrong. I would not now recommend to any colleague that they consider serving as dean under this President.
2. The Faculty Council, after two meetings, issued this statement on February 15:
The Faculty Council expresses its appreciation to the FAS members who have thoughtfully replied to our request for input in the FAS Dean search process. On balance, having considered the options, we believe that a plan resembling the one put forth at the February 7 meeting, giving a strong role to the Faculty in the process, would be the most appropriate.
However, a significant number of faculty have expressed doubt that any search at this time could succeed because they lack sufficient confidence that it would result in a dean who could enjoy the support of both the President and the FAS. As a result, we believe that this issue must be resolved before the search for the next FAS Dean can begin.
3. Separately, motions were drafted to put before the February 28 faculty meeting a second no-confidence vote concerning the administration of President Summers. The faculty previously voted a lack of confidence at its meeting on March 15, 2005.
4. On February 16, the University announced a $50-million professorship challenge fund, meant to encourage donors to endow professorships in all the faculties except business and law (the former recently concluded a capital campaign and the latter has one under way), particularly in the rapidly expanding FAS. Gifts of $3 million can receive a $1 million match, funding a $4 million chair. (See the University website for details of the program and the donors to the fund.)
5. On February 17, the University announced selection of an architect and site for a 500,000-square-foot life-sciences laboratory building in Allston, the first tangible commitment to be made toward new campus development on the formerly industrial and commercial land acquired beyond the Business School. Stem-cell researchers would be among the tenants. No other surrounding projects were outlined, nor were details on financing or academic management of this project, slated to be sited south of Western Avenue. President Summers, reportedly vacationing with his children, was not present for the announcement. (See the University website at www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2006/02/17-allston.html for details, including a photograph and map of the site.)
6. During the long Presidents’ Day weekend, the Wall Street Journal’s Saturday edition reported, “Harvard’s Board Weighs Summers’s Presidency,” quoting “people familiar with the matter” who related inquiries being made by Corporation members among deans, faculty, and alumni. The Boston Globe followed with a page-one story on Sunday, February 19, headlined, “Harvard board said to weigh Summers’s fate,” and the New York Times ran a similar article.
Tuesday morning, February 21, the Journal featured on page 3 a report, “Summers to Quit Harvard Presidency.”