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Failure to Court Faculty Dooms Harvard President

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Failure to Court Faculty Dooms Harvard President

Education

Failure to Court Faculty Dooms Harvard President

Failure to Court Faculty Dooms Harvard President

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Harvard University President Lawrence Summers addresses reporters and student supporters about his resignation, Feb. 21, 2006. Reuters hide caption

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Harvard University President Lawrence Summers addresses reporters and student supporters about his resignation, Feb. 21, 2006.

Reuters

The announcement Tuesday that Harvard University President Lawrence Summers is resigning points to the difficulties of running a high-profile university, and the need to balance many constituencies: alumni, governing board, faculty and students.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In our Wednesday workplace news, the institutional culture of a big university, plus tying CEO pay to their performance.

There hasn't been a shorter presidency of Harvard University since 1862. Lawrence Summers announced yesterday he would resign effective June 30th, after five stormy years at the head of the nation's premier university.

Summers is a former United States Treasury Secretary, whose blunt management style alienated Harvard's faculty. Despite repeated attempts at reconciliation, Summers never managed to win their confidence.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, not everyone is cut out to run a major university; especially a high-profile campus like Harvard.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

Lawrence Summers was the first president in Harvard's 370-year history to receive a vote of no-confidence from his faculty. He was headed for a second vote of no-confidence before deciding to step down.

Professor LAWRENCE SUMMERS (Harvard University President): My hope is that history will judge my presidency not on the moments of rancor, but on the things we've been able to do together.

SANCHEZ: In a hastily arranged conference call, Harvard's governing board accepted Summers' resignation with, what it called, great regret. Although no one should be surprised, says Jack McGuire, a well-known consultant in higher education.

Dr. JACK MCGUIRE (Educational Consultant): The signs were all there. My sense was that the resignation was inevitable.

SANCHEZ: McGuire says Summers and Harvard were simply not a good fit. What makes for a good fit? That was one of the questions McGuire explored in a survey of 764 college presidents and chancellors for the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago. The three key things most often cited as crucial and necessary in leading an institution?

Dr. MCGURE: First, leadership, which is, of course, hard to define. But then the other two were interpersonal relations, and a connection with the mission, and an understanding of the culture of the institution.

SANCHEZ: McGuire says everything, morale, trust, and confidence in where an institution is heading, starts with the university president's ability to connect with the people who should want to embrace his or her vision. That didn't happen at Harvard under Summers.

Although, some say it's not fair to blame Summers entirely. John DiBiaggio has been in the hot-seat himself, as President at the University of Connecticut, Tufts University, and Michigan State.

Dr. JOHN DIBIAGGIO (Former President, University of Connecticut): Well, I think, you know, the presidency of Harvard is a difficult task, there's no question about it. The colleges operate quite independently, and have done so for some time.

SANCHEZ: DiBiaggio now advises universities in search of new leadership. He agrees universities often pick people who are seen as a breath of fresh air, someone who'll come in and shake things up.

Summers, for example, would often say that the Harvard faculty as a whole had gotten old and complacent. Well that was unlikely to endear him to those who felt they were being pushed out, says DiBiaggio.

Dr. DIBIAGGIO: Presidents can be change agents, and many have been. But often, when that's the case, you know, their tenures are not long, because universities don't like to change dramatically. They're very traditional places. Some would even say that they're rigid.

SANCHEZ: And that, in a nutshell, seems to be the story of Summers' tenure at Harvard.

At his news conference, Summers was asked what advice he would give the next President of Harvard. He said the next President would be well advised to think carefully about the broad range of views and interest groups on campus, and about the people that make up Harvard. People that he conceded he did not connect with very well.

Professor SUMMERS: There were certainly moments when I could have challenged the community more respectfully, and those, too, are lessons to be learned.

SANCHEZ: Summers' resignation is effective June 30th. He plans to take a sabbatical, then return to Harvard as a member of the group that ousted him: the Harvard faculty.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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