Larry, We Hardly Knew Ye; Summers Resigns and Questions Loom about His Legacy, His Successor and the Future of Harvard University

By McGinn, Daniel | Newsweek, March 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

Larry, We Hardly Knew Ye; Summers Resigns and Questions Loom about His Legacy, His Successor and the Future of Harvard University


McGinn, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel McGinn

At noon last Wednesday, several hundred Harvard students filed into a lecture hall and opened their notebooks. Harvard president Lawrence Summers had announced his resignation less than 24 hours earlier, but the students in Life Sciences 1B had an exam to prepare for. So instead of gossiping, they listened closely as their professor explained how to use statistical techniques like Bayes's Theorem to estimate whether diseases will be passed from one generation to the next. It's a lecture that owes its existence, in part, to their soon-to-be ex-president. Life Sciences 1B is a new course, introduced in September as part of Summers's push to get undergraduates jazzed up about science. Its syllabus draws from cutting-edge topics in biology, chemistry and statistics. "The idea here is to completely change how students are introduced to the life sciences," says Prof. Robert Lue, who oversees the course.

As news of Summers's resignation spread through Cambridge, Mass., and beyond last week, it was greeted by a mixture of emotions: relief, jubilation, anger. For some, the spectacle of a rebellious faculty's toppling their president created new worries that the shifting balance of power could limit the effectiveness of future university presidents. For others, it was a chance to reflect on what Summers had actually accomplished during five years at the helm. And since even academics love a good horse race, it didn't take long for the campus gossip mill to begin buzzing with names of potential replacements.

Summers's missteps have been well chronicled, from his feud with Harvard's African-American studies department to the firestorm created by his suggestion that women may lack the "intrinsic aptitude" to succeed as top scientists. Summers spent much of the last year trying to repair the breach, but the animosity remained. After a key dean resigned in January--pushed, reportedly, by Summers--the faculty lambasted the president at its monthly meeting. Summers's supporters say the latest incident was just an excuse to reignite the controversy. "At the end it felt like a political campaign, where people wake up every day and say, 'Is there anything that the other guy said that we can jump on?' " says Gene Sperling, a Summers confidant and former Clinton economic adviser. With a second no-confidence vote looming, Summers worked the phones and weighed his options. It's not clear whether he'd lost the support of the powerful six-member Corporation that oversees Harvard. But he realized he'd have to mount a strong fight to hold on to his job, and he decided to step down. "Rifts between me and segments of the... faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard's future," he wrote in his resignation letter.

For students, the biggest impact of the Summers era will come from the eventual results of the curriculum review launched under his watch. Although a few small changes--like the introduction of the new life-science courses--have already been implemented, most await faculty votes. …

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