Why Harvard's Summers Flunked the Presidency

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Harvard president Lawrence Summers

Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who announced his resignation Tuesday after a tumultuous five years in office, was known for his rough touch. He saw it as his job to prod a potentially complacent institution. But his tenure was marked by often bitter departures of some of the universitys highest-profile minds, from Cornel West in 2002 to the recent resignation of William Kirby, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The monthly meetings between Summers and Harvard faculty were never love-ins, but sources tell Time.com that the most recent meeting, on February 7th, turned into an unusually bitter showdown, not just over Kirbys departure, but also over new allegations tying Summers to an old scandal.

At issue is Summers handling of a Russian fraud scandal involving a close friend and colleague, Harvard Economist Andrei Shleifer. Shleifer and Harvard were found liable for combined penalties of nearly $30 million in 2004 after they were charged with defrauding a U.S. government program designed to help Harvard economists privatize the Russian economy in the 1990s. The scandal has long been considered one of Harvards darker hours, but a new 28-page expos by investigative reporter David McClintick, published in the January 2006 issue of Institutional Investor magazine, brought new heat on Summers, whom the article describes as going out of his way to protect his old friend and protg Schleifer, who is still a senior faculty member at the university. In part because of the report, the faculty meeting in balustraded University Hall found Summers under sustained attack, according to mechanical engineering professor Frederick Abernathy.

I was somewhat taken aback. I had not expected to have something like 10 people speaking out against him, says Abernathy. Some were asking point-blank for his resignation, others were saying they were going to put a lack of confidence motion on the agenda for the next meeting. [The denunciations] went on for almost an hour.

J. Lorand Matory, professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies, says that the Shleifer affair had long been whispered about, but in part because the economics department closed ranks around both Shleifer and Summers, few spoke out about it. Until now. People were coming out of the woodwork, he says. The article has been forwarded around campus for weeks, and the ethics issues surrounding the Shliefer case were on many peoples minds, including Abernathys. He took the microphone and asked Summers about the allegations raised by the article. But Summers, a longtime confidant of Shliefer — not to mention a fellow economist who was a Treasury Department official during the time the Harvard-Russia-U.S. government fiasco was unfolding — took the Fifth. He said something about how he had recused himself from the case and had poor recollection of what happened, says Abernathy. It was unbelievable. How could he not address this?

Abernathy says that he later asked William Kirby — the same dean who resigned this month — whether the Committee of Professional Conduct that Kirby sat on would potentially look further into the Shleifer case. According to Abernathy, the answer was a qualified yes. He just told me that yes, thats the kind of thing they look at, says Abernathy.

Kirby could not be reached for comment.

There were, of course, other sparks that might have lit the last fire for Summers. As Matory puts it, Summers was brought in because somebody had the bright idea that we needed a ringmaster to whip us into shape, and as such, was destined to clash with faculty. And humanities professors had long simmered about Summers perceived prejudice against the softer sciences — he had reportedly told a former humanities dean that economists were known to be smarter than sociologists, so they should be paid accordingly. The brusque handling of mild-mannered Kirbys departure was, in the minds of many, an insult too many, with rumors of dismissal leaking from the Presidents Office and preempting the customarily genteel resignation process. If anyone could have eased tension between Summers and the faculty, it was Dean Kirby, says Matory. But he even drove Kirby to the edge.

So was it roughing up the faculty or glossing over fraud that did Summers in? The Harvard Corporation, the seven-member board that steers the university, isnt commenting beyond an announcement that they accepted the resignation with regret. But Summers has been remarkably resilient through other flashes of faculty anger, even last years no-confidence vote on the heels of the women-in-science imbroglio. And he came into the job with a reputation as a blunt talker.

Abernathy thinks that although Summers had weathered many storms before, the suggestion of impropriety, and his obduracy in responding to it, was simply too much: This may well have been, he says, the final nail in the coffin.