Harvard Law Reacts Strongly to Summers Departure


Harvard president Larry Summers greets supporters after announcing his resignation Feb. 21.

On February 21, Harvard University President Larry Summers announced his resignation after years of tangling with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Summers’s tenure, which will officially end June 30th, will be the shortest of any Harvard president since 1862, when Cornelius Felton died after two years in office.

Summers had a long history of troubles with the FAS, including controversy over divestment in Israel, Professor Cornel West, his 2005 remarks about women in science, and most recently, the resignation of FAS Dean William Kirby. These scuffles resulted in a March 2005 no-confidence vote in Summers that passed 218-185, and with another no-confidence vote scheduled for February 28, Summers decided to call it quits.

But away from the Yard, the deans and faculty of Harvard’s graduate schools had a much different picture of the Summers tenure: a positive one, where there were healthy disagreements, but nothing worth resigning over. At Harvard Law, public voices were supportive of Summers, and urged the public to remember that the FAS does not speak for all.

“I think it’s appropriate for everyone to realize that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences isn’t the only school at the University,” said Dean Elena Kagan, a Summers appointee and former colleague in the Clinton administration. “I think Larry’s been excellent for the law school.” She added, “He’s never meddled or interfered inappropriately with what I view to be law school prerogatives or law school faculty prerogatives.” Professor Charles Fried had similar sentiments, writing to the Harvard Crimson: “I am sorry about and do not understand the disaffection with University President Lawrence H. Summers expressed by many members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, one of the University’s several faculties.”

Indeed, several other deans of Harvard schools expressed support for Summers, although such support may not be unanimous: Design School Dean Alan Altshuler, another Summers appointee, is facing anger from a group of GSD family partly triggered by his public comments supporting Summers. This week the Harvard Corporation issued a letter of support for Altshuler, possibly to quell more faculty discontent while the university deals with the aftermath of the Summers resignation.

Other Harvard Law voices were not as diplomatic as Kagan and Fried in what they had to say about their colleagues at FAS and the direction of the university. “Harvard is the General Motors of American universities,” wrote Professor William Stuntz in The New Republic last week, “rich, bureaucratic, and confident–a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers’s resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM’s fate. From now on, the decline will likely be steep.”

Stuntz saved his best similes for criticism of the FAS faculty: “Evidently, most of my Arts and Sciences colleagues prefer a president who knows and cares too little about what they do to criticize it, whose comments on their job performance consist only of the occasional pat on the back. Most universities work that way: like an awards dinner for a child’s soccer league–no distinctions are drawn; everyone gets a prize. Harvard seemed, briefly, to set a different standard. No longer.”

Even harsher words came from Professor Alan Dershowitz, who spoke widely to the press about his displeasure with the resignation. In a Huffington Post editorial, Dershowitz wrote that the resignation “represents a major victory for hard-left censors over reasoned discourse about controversial issues. The political correctness cops won a big victory[.]” He explained further his view of the FAS in the Boston Globe Feb. 22: “Radical academics do not, of course, burn down buildings, at least not since the 1970s. Instead they introduce motions of no confidence and demand resignations of those who offend their sensibilities (while insisting on complete freedom of speech for those with whom they agree — free speech for me but not for thee!).”

Most scathing of all was the assessment from conservative columnist Ben Shapiro, 2L, who let loose on the FAS in his Townhall column after the resignation: “The behavior of the faculty is a disgrace to the university and a dramatic example of the totalitarian control that the campus left exerts over its administrators.” Shapiro ended with a general indictment of the faculty. “All of which goes to show that for Harvard professors, the university doesn’t matter. The students don’t matter. All that matters is that professors be allowed to pick up their fat paychecks, sit in their tenure-sized offices, spout what they want to spout and buy off students with easy A’s. With Summers’ resignation, Harvard’s faculty adds yet another black spot to their increasingly egregious resume.”

It seems that many of the undergraduates represented by the FAS agreed with the direction of such remarks. When students gathered to protest over the situation, it was in favor of Summers, shouting “Stay, Larry, stay,” and “Five more years.” A Crimson poll conducted shortly before the resignation showed that by a three-to-one margin, undergraduates did not think Summers should resign his post.

Indeed, the undergraduate-run Crimson was a voice of moderation throughout Summers’ tenure, often editorializing on the need for compromise. Its February board editorials, “Faculty, Forgive Summers,” and “No Confidence in ‘No Confidence'” went unheeded by the faculty, and the editorial following the resignation summed up what many felt about the loss of Summers: “Harvard’s Loss.”

Former University President and law school dean Derek C. Bok will serve as interim president until a search committee selects the next president. Bok (LL.B. ’54) served as law school professor from 1958-1968, dean of the law school from 1968-1971, and Harvard president from 1971 to 1991. “I will do my best to carry out the corporation’s request,” Bok said in a statement “There is no institution I care about more deeply.”

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