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Even Summers Allies Unsure of His Future Capability to Govern

By Marcella Bombardieri
THE BOSTON GLOBE

As Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers faces a no-confidence vote and the university’s governing board considers whether to remove him from office, some of his biggest supporters on the faculty are questioning his ability to lead the divided university.

“I’m a little sad and a little nervous,” said Larry Katz, an economics professor and a friend of Summers. “Here is someone I think is a brilliant scholar, and a person of great skill and integrity, but he seems to have failed to connect with so many other bright scholars on campus.”

Asked if Summers could still govern successfully, Katz said, “I think it’s unclear. Everyone has to think about what’s in the best interest of the university, not the specific interests of any one person.”

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, home to almost half of the university’s professors, has scheduled a no-confidence vote on Summers for Feb. 28. The vote is only symbolic, but some professors expect it to pass by an even wider margin than a similar measure last year. Many of Summers’s opponents have been pushing the governing board, known as the Corporation, to remove Summers before the meeting.

Two professors and a senior official who have spoken with Corporation members say the board is considering doing so, although board members have been publicly silent. One board member reached at home Sunday declined to comment, and others did not return phone calls.

Kennedy School of Government professor David Gergen said he hoped Summers, arts and sciences professors, and the Corporation could work out “an amicable agreement on how to proceed.” But Gergen didn’t know exactly what that would be.

“My sense is that there are significant reservoirs of support for him, including in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” said Gergen, a confidant of Summers. “But all of us can see the realities. These are difficult times.”

Summers had done many good things for Harvard, from planning its dramatic expansion into Allston to hiring strong deans at the Kennedy School and Law School, Gergen said. But he stressed that he didn’t know the full story behind the grievances of Summers’s critics.

The governing board, known as the Corporation, “is going to have to consider its fiduciary responsibility, to consider what’s in the best interests of Harvard,” he said.

Some Summers supporters say they are frustrated by the president’s attempts to appease critics. Summers was so chastened by faculty criticism last year that he is no longer offering the bold leadership he once did, said psychology professor Steven Pinker.

For example, Pinker said, Summers removed himself from a curriculum review committee on which they both served. Without Summers’s vision, the results of the committees work were “thin gruel,” he said.

“If he’s just going to be accumulating enemies and not advancing curriculum reform or other initiatives, it makes it a little harder for his supporters to articulate why we are his supporters,” Pinker said. “No one can deny there is a crisis. For people who think he’s been treated badly …. he’s got to give everyone a reason to put their trust back in him.”

In some quarters outside the faculty, Summers’s future is still viewed optimistically. He remains popular with undergraduates, and the Crimson, the student newspaper, has recently editorialized in his favor. In one piece, the student newspaper wrote that the new accusations against Summers, such as complaints over the departure of a dean, appear “underwhelming.”

“If the faculty does have other legitimate, timely concerns with Summers, it needs to enumerate them … rather than continue to blast the president in the face with water that was long ago under the bridge,” the Crimson wrote.

Jack Corrigan, an alumnus of Harvard College and the law school who is also a longtime friend of Summers, said the president’s accomplishments have been lost amidst the attacks on him. Corrigan cited several projects designed to benefit the public, such as the new Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a project with Google to digitize Harvard’s library, and a program that ensures that low-income parents do not pay for their children to attend the school.

“These are very significant and aggressive steps,” he said. “The bottom line is that students still want to go to Harvard, and alumni still give money.”