No-confidence vote fails to shift Harvard president

University faculty members may call for Larry Summers to step down.

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Faculty members at Harvard University — encouraged by their own audacity in passing a vote of no confidence in their president — are planning to challenge him further.

Members of the university's Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted 218 to 185 against Larry Summers in a secret ballot on 15 March. Some say they will follow this by calling directly for his removal, and by censuring the Harvard Corporation, the executive board that appointed him.

Summers' lease is all too short: Harvard's largest faculty has challenged the head of the university. Credit: J. IDE/HARVARD UNIV. NEWS OFFICE

Others are wondering how Summers will be able to function as president now that the largest of Harvard's faculties has approved a motion stating: “The faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers.”

“A weakened president will not be able to lead a fund-raising campaign,” suggests anthropologist Arthur Kleinman.

An immediate change in Summers' status seems unlikely, however. The Harvard Corporation continues to support him, and Summers has given no indication that he will step down. In a brief statement made after the vote, he said he would continue to work with faculty to restore a sense of trust.

“Many of us hope a transformation will take place,” says Everett Mendelsohn, a historian of science. He envisages a greater transparency in the dealings of the president — and more power for the faculty.

Lorand Matory, an anthropologist who sponsored the no-confidence motion, says he will call directly for Summers' removal at the next faculty meeting in April. There may also be a move to rebuke the corporation.

Summers came under fire after a speech on 14 January in which he suggested that differences in “intrinsic aptitude” between men and women might be a major factor behind the scarcity of senior female scientists.

Anger over the comments quickly blossomed into a broader attack on Summers' leadership style (see Nature 433 790; 2005). Supporters and critics expressed surprise, however, at the outcome of last week's meeting, in which members also voted 253–137 for a milder rebuke.

Discontent on Harvard's campus in Cambridge,Massachusetts, is bringing other controversies to light. Last year, the Harvard School of Public Health won a five-year, $107-million AIDS grant. According to a column in The Boston Globe last week, Summers and colleagues tried to take control of the project and to silence protests from its lead investigator. One senior faculty member — who declined to be identified — told Nature that the crisis over Summers' tenure had encouraged those involved to start talking. “Now they are less afraid,” the professor says.

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Singer, E. No-confidence vote fails to shift Harvard president. Nature 434, 424 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/434424b

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