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In media age, role of college president evolves

The furor over comments made by Harvard President Summers offers a window into forces at work in academia.

Uttered in the staid halls of an academic conference on workforce diversification six weeks ago, Lawrence Summers's remarks on women and science have gained the shrill echoes of Howard Dean's infamous scream from a year before.

For Dr. Dean, it was a primal, delirious yelp. For Dr. Summers, it was a deliberately provocative hypothesis - a suggestion that along with discrimination and socialization, one reason for the underrepresentation of women in academic science might be a matter of intrinsic aptitude. As with Dean, it was a moment at the microphone that refused to die, bringing ridicule and threatening a luminous career.

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Dean, of course, recovered and thrived - recently voted in as Democratic Party chairman. For Summers, too, the worst may be over: After hours of excoriation at faculty meetings, talk of a no-confidence vote, and condemnation from academics at rival institutions, he remains at the helm of the nation's oldest university, vowing a changed style and a fresh start. The university's executive governing board has stood behind him, and while opponents still talk of voting no confidence in him at a March 15 meeting, such a resolution does not appear to have wide faculty support.

Yet the flap continues to reverberate in the halls of academe and persist in the press and at water coolers across America. In part, the interest stems from the topic Summers raised: whether gender differences stem from nature or nurture. But it's also because this is Harvard - and the battle at the nation's most prestigious ivory tower echoes a larger transformation in American universities.

At many colleges presidents simultaneously have greater power and greater vulnerability than in the past. They increasingly are expected to fulfill a kind of CEO role - navigating a network of constituencies from donors to community leaders. At the same time, their moves are scrutinized as never before, and their tenure in office has been shrinking.

"A president has to have moral authority to effectively lead any institution of higher education," says Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors and former president of the State University of New York at New Paltz. "That moral authority has been weakened, but I don't think in any way destroyed. Harvard is magical, it's seen as the peak of the higher-education hierarchy. Larry Summers is as close to an academic pope as we have in this country - and consequently, he is always in the public eye."

That exposure, say academic experts, is one factor in the quickening turnover of university presidents.

Controversial tenure

And at Harvard, always watched more closely than other universities, the shadows of Summers's missteps are many. Just weeks after his arrival in 2001, he reprimanded Afro-American studies professor Cornel West for a shortage of scholarship - and several stars of the department threatened to decamp. Dr. West eventually left for Princeton. Summers has also drawn fury for his intensifying emphasis on research in the life sciences, reorganizing Harvard's curriculum, and plans for a new campus across the Charles River that will more than double the school's geographic size.

While many have applauded Summers's changes and praised his bluntness, others accuse him of bullying and autocratic insensitivity, and deplore his top-down decisionmaking.

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Summers career can justly be called brilliant: A tenured Harvard professor at age 28, he has garnered some of the nation's highest academic honors in the social sciences. He went on to become the World Bank's chief economist and then secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton. Yet on campus, he's often considered as arrogant as he is erudite.

To James Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth College and the University of Iowa, the mixed reception has been largely "a question of [Summers's] appreciation of the culture of academia" - the consequence, perhaps, of an age in which college presidents are often chosen as much for managerial skills as for ivory-tower expertise.

No longer 'philosopher-kings'

Dr. Freedman points to presidential luminaries of the past century: Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia from 1901 to 1945; Abbott Lawrence Lowell, at Harvard's helm from 1909 to 1933 (a bronze statue of his beloved dog Phantom remains on campus); and Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, president from 1929 to 1945.

It wasn't that these men weren't controversial or political. Mr. Hutchins drew ire for his push to reorganize university departments and abolishing college football, and Dr. Butler ran for vice president on the ticket of William Howard Taft. But speaking out today is infinitely riskier, says Freedman, with presidents dogged by fear of alienating alumni, trustees, students, legislators, and donors.

Fundraising has become a crucial component of the job, with money "such a priority that the president becomes more like a corporate businessman crafting partnerships and less like a public intellectual who might be a bestower of wisdom for the entire society," says Stanley Fish, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Add to that a growing public skepticism, and it's a far cry from the mid-century mood, when Americans greeted their university presidents as repositories of the nation's wisdom.

"Higher education has taken an enormous beating in the public eye as costs go way up and support goes way down and students are transmogrified into consumers, faculty are reimagined as labor, and presidents are reclassified as CEOs," says Dr. Bowen. In the corporatization of higher education, "we become more commonplace, more like the business world, and we have opened ourselves to public attack."

It's a shift of seismic proportions, he says, but the earthquake has taken years.

Still, many insist, no matter how delicate or difficult the job, there's no excuse for ignorance, no justification for an offhand remark that might betray bias.

From the mouth of someone as momentous as Summers, worries Susan Ganter, executive director of the Association for Women in Science, a single comment can reverse years of gains.

"What we worry about when someone with that level of prestige makes that statement, is that a lot of women out there are listening and it will deter them," she says.

And no matter how fully - if reluctantly - many academics have relinquished the idea of presidents as "philosopher-kings," Dr. Nelson says, they still want to respect their leaders. In terms of Harvard colleagues' esteem, "I don't think Summers can completely recover from this."

No wonder, says Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It's the president of Harvard, and he sounds like he's wielding a caveman club in his rhetoric."

As calls for no-confidence votes die down, thanks in part for repeated notes of contrition and responsiveness by Summers, middle ground may still be hard to find.

Daniel Fisher, a professor of physics and applied physics, was the only one to explicitly call for Summers's resignation at a meeting last Tuesday, urging faculty members to look beyond the specifics of the controversy to the president's general "misgovernance of Harvard," years of "double-speak and squandered opportunities."

The question now, for many on campus, is when the drive for censure will be sated. To Dr. Fish, the ordeal harks back to the Puritan days of Harvard's founding in 1636. "During the Cornel West flap, the image I kept having was of [Summers] being roasted over a spit in public for about five months," he says. "Now I think the metaphor would be more like serial humiliation, as in some sort of Puritan practice of putting offenders in the socks or making them wear dunce caps in public for a certain amount of time every day."