Summers has apologized for his provocative remarks, installed two task forces to study women on the faculty and women in the sciences, and vowed to help address rifts in the divided academic ranks. Meanwhile, his presidency has also drawn praise for new programs like one instituted this school year to attract talented students from less-privileged backgrounds by allowing families making less than $40,000 to pay nothing.
Largely symbolic vote
Last week, in a largely symbolic act, a faculty group passed an unprecedented no-confidence vote against Summers. The Harvard Corporation, the only body that can fire Summers, reiterated its support for him that night.
The next day, Josh Mendelsohn sits in a Harvard Square restaurant, noting wearily that he's not too happy about how bad all the fuss makes Harvard look. The senior thinks the faculty fight with Summers creates a picture of Harvard as closed to critical thinking and unpopular views like the ones Summers expressed. He has helped start "Students for Larry," a group that defends Summers in the national media.
It's campus activism mixed with Madison Avenue-style attention to image. With graduation looming in June, Mendelsohn is already protecting his alma mater's reputation.
"As more stories like this come out, with faculty members seizing on one issue to make a bigger point, Harvard loses its ability to be a bellwether for higher education," he says. "When it's hard to take this group of faculty seriously, it's hard to take the rest of the school seriously."
Still, Mendelsohn is not entirely dismayed by the state of upset: His group has been cited in every major national newspaper - just that morning it was even noted in the British paper The Guardian. The 22-year-old former president of Harvard's Republican Club points out that a pro-Summers petition has 600 student signatures. The group wants to sell pro-Summers bracelets modeled after the yellow "Live Strong" wristbands for cancer survivors.
While some faculty have called for Summers' resignation, many believe he will ride out the difficulties. But his cause is not helped by the new Harvard Rules, the expose of Summers by Richard Bradley, the John F. Kennedy Jr. biographer who then went by the name Richard Blow. The book posits, without scientific evidence, that Summers could suffer from Asperger's syndrome, a condition marked by a kind of social autism. Summers did not cooperate with the book, which includes unflattering anecdotes, and aides have said he will not comment on its contents.
Not surprisingly, Bradley's book is absent from the Harvard section of the campus bookstore, where a giant history of the Harvard library sits next to tomes like Harvard Observed and Harvard A to Z.
"Harvard is also used to controlling what is written about it," says Bradley, a Yale graduate with a master's degree from Harvard. "There's very much a `circle the wagons' mentality with some alumni. They're very concerned, but they hate the fact that the university has received so much bad publicity. In a way, what Larry Summers has done is inadvertently turn Harvard into a tabloid story."
But to some, the power of Harvard is only enhanced with each word that is written about it. Tourists still peep in the first-floor windows of the freshman dorms inside the Yard. Visitors can be overheard comparing the grand buildings like Memorial Hall to magical Harry Potter settings. "Where is the Chamber of Secrets?" one asked.
On a recent morning, Nahal Rodieck, 38, poses her daughter by the iron gates on the threshold of Harvard Yard and, with one snap, cements her ambitions for the 9-year-old girl. The Iranian-American mother from Tucson, Ariz., on her first visit to the campus, knows about Summers' comments. She says she took her child to the campus to reinforce the idea that no matter what she hears about Harvard over the years, she should always believe that she belongs on this campus.
"I'm passing the torch of the dream of going to Harvard," she says, looking at the girl. "It's the most prestigious university in the world, and I want her to go."