Harvard: No Longer Most Likely To Succeed

Larry Summers' bold reform plan for Harvard could be derailed

Since he became president of Harvard University in 2001, Lawrence H. Summers has laid out an extraordinarily ambitious agenda for reshaping the nation's premier university. His goals include a long-overdue improvement in the education of undergraduates, increasing the role Harvard plays in science and engineering, and a huge expansion of the campus into Allston, across the Charles River from Harvard Yard. It's exactly the kind of daring vision the Harvard Corporation was expecting when it chose Summers.

But with Summers enmeshed in a highly publicized battle with Harvard's powerful Faculty of Arts & Sciences, that agenda could be derailed or slowed. Few expect Summers to lose his job over the fracas, which was sparked in January when he made his now-infamous comments that gender differences could help explain why fewer women than men excel in science and math. Corning Inc. (GLW ) CEO James R. Houghton, senior fellow of the Harvard Corp. -- the only body that can fire Summers -- strongly backs him. And while faculty members met on Feb. 22 to discuss Summers' performance, they did not hold a no-confidence vote -- though that could still happen at a meeting set for mid-March.

The same day, 186 professors signed an open letter supporting Summers. "I think he will survive," says Rita Bornstein, a leading expert on college management. But she warns that Summers is still in a critical testing period. "If you look at the sad story of presidents who fail," she says, "usually it is because they don't try to fit into the culture of the institution."

Pushing through reforms at Harvard would be difficult in the best of times. The president cannot simply order people around. He must build consensus with a constellation of powerful deans and their faculties. Yet there is broad support for quite a few reforms Summers has set in motion, and many faculty members believe Harvard must change if it is to remain a leading university. But Summers' critics say he has needlessly antagonized professors with his autocratic style. And he has alienated many by passing over internal candidates and giving tenure to outside stars. "He has mishandled the faculty," says a professor who backs Summers. "And very few people like him."

Turning that reputation around will be crucial if Summers is to remake the undergraduate program. He wants to modify the curriculum, increase foreign studies, and hire as many as 140 additional professors, roughly a 20% increase. To his credit, Summers has faculty committees looking into these reforms. But many of the changes will have to be approved by the now-divided FAS. "The danger is that faculty will dig in its heels," warns an influential Harvard professor.

Similarly, to bolster the sciences and technology, Summers is talking about launching an engineering school while expanding initiatives in the biosciences and other cutting-edge fields. But his remarks about women may make it hard for Harvard to recruit top female scientists, especially if it is seen as a more hostile environment than other universities. Summers will have to live up to recent pledges to greatly increase efforts to hire more women scientists.

The Summers controversy could even harm fund-raising. With a $22.6 billion endowment, Harvard has long been the envy of higher education. Now it's planning to raise an estimated $5 billion over the next few years to help pay for Summers' plans. The last thing it needs is an im- age problem. "Perceptions matter in fund-raising," says Scott G. Nichols, associate dean of Harvard Law School. "Money is attracted by strength."

Summers may survive this dust-up, but backers and detractors alike say he'll have to adopt a more collegial style in a hurry. Otherwise, much of his vision for Harvard could die on the drawing board.

By William C. Symonds in Boston, with Aaron Bernstein in Washington

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