Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Disaster on the Charles

The Harvard Crimson reported this morning that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) votes, 218-185-18, to express lack of confidence in Summers. Click title for full story. Excerpts:

In a sharp and unexpected rebuke of University President Lawrence H. Summers, members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) voted yesterday that they lack confidence in his leadership.

Voting by secret ballot,... 218 faculty members affirmed a motion put on the docket by Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies J. Lorand Matory ’82, stating that “the Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers.” One hundred eighty-five voted against and 18 abstained from the motion, which was tantamount to a vote of no confidence.

A second motion, expressing regret for Summers’ Jan. 14 remarks on women in science and certain “aspects of the President’s managerial approach,” also passed the Faculty.

Two hundred fifty-three faculty voted for that motion, which was submitted by Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol. One hundred thirty-seven faculty members voted against the motion, and 18 abstained.

The two non-binding motions, unique in Harvard’s history, are largely symbolic gestures—only the Harvard Corporation, the University’s top governing body, can force Summers to step down.
Summers was stoic while the FAS docket committee announced that the lack of confidence motion had passed the Faculty, but once the announcement was finished, he covered his mouth with his hand, and his expression soon changed to one of surprise and deep disappointment.
The 421 faculty members who voted on Matory’s motion represent over half of the 802 voting members of FAS. Full professors, associate and assistant professors, and a smaller number of administrators and professors who hold appointments in other University schools are allowed to vote at Faculty meetings.

Typical meetings, held once a month in the Faculty room during the school year, draw anywhere between 100 and 150 faculty members.

Like Summers, Faculty members seemed shocked by the result of the lack of confidence vote. After the meeting, professors contacted by The Crimson—including Matory—said that they did not expect the lack of confidence motion to garner so much support.
“Honestly, I did not think that the resolution would achieve more than one-third of the votes,” Matory said.
Some professors spoke against both motions, saying that they represent an attempt to stifle discourse and debate in what should be an atmosphere of academic freedom.

“Academic freedom is on trial, and...a victory for President Summers’ critics will be a very significant blow to academic freedom in American higher education,” said Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom, who likened criticism of Summers to McCarthy-era tactics of suppressing free speech.

And Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature Ruth R. Wisse quoted extensively from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, in which the 19th-century philosopher defends the freedom of speech.

But Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Comparative Literature Susan R. Suleiman rejected Thernstrom and Wisse’s argument that Summers’ critics were silencing free speech.

“The one thing that really pushes my buttons is when people try to paint every legitimate action as a form of political correctness. I really find that that is a blunt instrument and that is McCarthyite tactics,” she said, provoking applause from many faculty members.

Harvard is now caught in a bad situation. The Harvard Corporation had issued a strong and unanimous statement in support of Summers. However, with this narrow vote of no-confidence by the FAS Summers' position may become untenable - he may simply be unable to govern the contentious University effectively going forward. Even if he stays, he may have to become the compliant trustee who doesn't ruffle any feathers which is bad for the University.

I think Summers, unless this gauntlet from the FAS stiffens his spine and he plows forward aggressivley using the Corporation and other constituencies as his base, should resign as President after the Corporation finds a suitable replacement. That, in itself, could be an unenviable task. Will strong, natural leaders shun the post after the horrendous treatment that the centrist Democrat Summers has received from the University? Will a politically correct choice have to be made? And Condi Rice isn't available.

A final note, the motion that Summers had a bad managerial approach passed by a significantly wider margin. As we said here, the reason why the fury of God descended upon Summers is much more about Cornel West, speaking out against anti-Semitism, and his support of returning ROTC to campus and his threat to perks and privileges of cossetted tenured faculty than it is about women in arts and sciences.

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