At Harvard, many students lament Summers' departure

Most of the conflict with departing president has been among faculty

February 24, 2006|By ELLEN BARRY | ELLEN BARRY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- If Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers was worried about how the undergraduates would greet him Wednesday night at his first scheduled event since announcing his resignation, those fears quickly were put to rest.

He got a standing ovation after he walked in. He got a standing ovation before he left. A row of students with red paint letters on their chests spelled out "Larry."

Sarah Bahan, 22, was wistful as she left the meeting. She had kind words for Summers' emphasis on hard sciences. Mark Hoadley, 21, said he could overlook Summers' monotone speaking style, which he said was balanced by a "dynamic mind."

"A lot of students feel bad for him," said Troy Kollmer, 21, "and think he got a raw deal."

The show of loyalty was a surprise for many faculty members and administrators at Harvard, who grew to loathe Summers during a five-year tenure that brought a raw blast of politics to this 370-year-old institution.

In the past, it had been Harvard's students who forced change. In the spring of 1969, amid unrest over the Vietnam War, students angered by an ROTC program on campus raided University Hall and threatened to burn the card catalog at Widener Library. The turmoil hastened the resignation of then-President Nathan Pusey, a classical scholar who had little patience for undergraduate radicalism.

This time, though, students held back while the faculty fumed. Undergrads were well insulated from the tempestuous management issues that arose between Summers and top administrators, and Summers had endeared himself to them by showing up at early morning rugby matches and by gamely boogying at undergraduate dances.

But somewhere in the controversy surrounding Summers is evidence of a change in campus politics, one professor said: These days, it is not unusual for students to find themselves to the political right of their professors.

"This is a sort of `I'm-not-a-feminist-but' generation," said J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies. "I don't know if the word is `conservative' as much as `careerist.'"

The move to oust Summers began in earnest last year, after he gave a speech that questioned whether "issues of intrinsic aptitude" explain the shortage of female professors in Harvard's math and science departments. Already, he had angered many African-American faculty by confronting the scholar Cornel West, who then left Harvard for Princeton. A number of deans and top administrators followed.

Summers' support in faculty circles continued to dwindle until - at a faculty meeting Feb. 12 - there was no one left to speak in his defense.

Many students, meanwhile, thought the "intrinsic aptitude" flap of last spring been resolved. "Our complaints ended when there was a reasonable dialogue," said Jonathan Blazek, 21.

The most comprehensive poll of student opinion came last weekend, when the Harvard Crimson e-mailed questions to 840 undergraduates. The 424 who responded - a sample that skewed slightly male and included more first-year students than upperclassmen - were relatively supportive of Summers.

One reason for the disconnect between student and faculty attitudes toward Summers is that many of the most deeply felt complaints concern his treatment of professors and administrators.

Last month, for example, anthropologist Peter Ellison gave an interview to the Boston Globe, explaining why he had stepped down as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

He described Summers commenting, in a private meeting, that "economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists" - playing into widespread fears that he favored some disciplines over others.

In the same meeting, Ellison said, Summers suggested shifting authority for a doctoral program from the sociology department to the Kennedy School of Government. Ellison said he felt his authority was being undermined. Later, Ellison said, Summers promised to send out a letter affirming his confidence in Ellison - but never did so.

"This does not seem to me any longer to be a matter of style or personality, but of character," Ellison told the Globe.

Many faculty members and administrators told similar stories of a growing climate of fear, said Elizabeth Nathans, a former dean of freshmen. She left Harvard involuntarily in 2005 and now is an administrator at Boston College.

But, Nathans said, students might not have known what was happening: "It is to the faculty's credit that they don't. Faculty members have been very circumspect, trying to deal with it privately."

Since Summers announced his resignation, his most vocal defenders have been students.

On a blog called Summersville, they have placed memorial posters of the president and floated plans for a protest at a future faculty meeting.

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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