It's been several months since Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made a remark he would deeply regret.
At a meeting of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mr. Summers suggested that one reason women have fewer top jobs in the sciences might be due to "the intrinsic difference between men and women. "
That comment set off a storm of protest at Harvard -- and across the nation - culminating in a vote this week (March 15) in which a majority of the Harvard faculty opposed Mr. Summers' continued leadership of the nation's oldest institution of higher education.
The Harvard president has repeatedly apologized for his remark. In a letter to the faculty following the incident, he wrote that the comment was speculative and perhaps all wrong. But that did not stop the Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences -- the largest faculty group on campus -- from pressing ahead with its vote of no confidence. The Tuesday vote was the first of its kind in Harvard's 369-year history.
The resolution simply read, "The faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers."
Following the 218-185 vote, Mr. Summers addressed a group of protesters at Harvard. "As I said to the faculty," he told them, "I have tried these last couple of months to listen carefully to all that has been said, to learn from it and to move forward. And that is what I will do."
Mr. Summer's comments have sharply divided the faculty. Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse believes academic freedom of speech is on trial. She told NBC television that Mr. Summers has the right -- like any citizen -- to express his opinions.
"Astonishingly," she said, "the President of the University feels inhibited now from saying anything about one of the issues which is in fact one of the most important issues that we face, and that is, what is going to be the role of women."
Harvard history professor Everett Mendelson responded that the debate over Mr. Summers' remarks is not a referendum on academic freedom. Rather, he told NBC, it reflects the faculty's problems with Mr. Summers - formerly U.S. Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton -- ever since Mr. Summers took the job at Harvard three years ago.
"Coming out of government, he had had a rough time in Washington," Professor Mendelson explained. "We had been warned. As one columnist put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education…'Harvard was in for a rough ride.' What we have watched over these three and one half years are a series of mistakes in governance, in management, not only style, but management competence.
Mr. Mendelson said that those experiences culminated in the remark in January about women. "President Summers raised a storm because he addressed an issue in a careless and unknowledgeable way," he said in his NBC interview. "Let's be very frank. For the past three years during his presidency, the percentage of women receiving tenure at Harvard across the board has declined."
The vote against Mr. Summers -- while symbolic -- carries no power. Any decision on his tenure would have to come from Harvard's corporate board, which has issued a press release saying that it fully supports the University president.
[Photos courtesy Harvard University]