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Failure to Court Faculty Dooms Harvard President

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

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: 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.

LAWRENCE SUMMERS: 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 Maguire, a well-known consultant in higher education.

JACK MAGUIRE: The signs were all there. My sense was that the resignation was inevitable.

SANCHEZ: Maguire says Summers and Harvard were simply not a good fit. What makes for a good fit? That was one of the questions Maguire 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?

MAGUIRE: 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: 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.

JOHN DIBIAGGIO: 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: 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.

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: 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.

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

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudio Sanchez