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Bets are placed for next Harvard president

Nature volume 440, pages 89 (02 March 2006) | Download Citation

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Researchers hope Summers's successor will share passion for science.

The repercussions of Larry Summers's resignation as Harvard president are being felt both within and beyond the university's courtyards. His exit has cast a shadow on plans to promote science at the institution, and highlights the challenges faced by university leaders worldwide.

Summers's announcement on 21 February that he will step down in June marked the climax of a year of intense criticism from academics unhappy with his brusque leadership and lack of consultation with faculty. Former Harvard president Derek Bok will stand in as interim leader until a new president is chosen.

“The university remains absolutely committed to a vision of building science at Harvard.”

Summers's departure leaves some Harvard scientists in a state of disquiet. One of his central ambitions for the university was to develop the sciences, particularly interdisciplinary research, which he viewed as essential for Harvard to remain at the forefront of academia (see Nature 433, 190–192; 2005). “There is a sense of unease,” says David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, one of the projects championed by Summers. “We want the successor to share his sense of priority.”

Who next? Harvard scientists are hoping the next university president continues to prioritize science. Image: HARVARD UNIV.

One of Summers's boldest plans was to place science facilities at the core of a vast new campus to be built in Allston, Boston. Just days before his resignation, the university unveiled concrete plans for the first building on the Allston campus, a 46,450-square-metre complex that will house the Stem Cell Institute among other science initiatives.

Steven Hyman, Harvard provost and top administrator, told Nature that expansion of science remains a main priority for the Harvard Corporation, the governing body responsible for selecting Summers's successor. “The university remains absolutely committed to a vision of building science at Harvard,” he says. But because most details have yet to be thrashed out, some academics say Summers's departure provides an opportunity to reassess the plans, for example, which areas of research merit investment. “There are concerns about the direction to go and how fast to go,” says physicist Gary Feldman, one of Summers's critics. “We need a careful and impartial assessment of Harvard's needs.”

With so much at stake, all eyes are on the selection process for the next president. Many faculty chafed at Summers's corporate management tactics — he previously served as US treasury secretary. The selection committee will therefore probably choose someone already senior at another university or from within Harvard, predicts William Funk of executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International, who helps universities find new presidents. “I think this time they'll be very risk averse and choose someone steeped in academe with a proven track record,” he says.

Because of Harvard's position at the pinnacle of the US university system, Summers's resignation is attracting intense scrutiny from academics nationwide. They say Summers's run-ins with faculty reveal the difficulties faced by a modern university leader, who must increasingly spend time away from campus raising funds and liaising with the wider community.

Although it is easy to develop sweeping plans, a good director must be able to sell them to faculty and staff, says Ingrid Moses, chancellor of the University of Canberra, Australia, and former president of the International Association of University Presidents. “They are the ones who are crucial for implementation,” she says, “hence the importance of interpersonal skills.”

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