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Harvard head resigns

February 22, 2006 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Faculty unrest triggers Larry Summers' departure.

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The president of Harvard University, Larry Summers, resigned yesterday in the face of growing faculty discontent over his leadership of one of the world's top academic institutions.

Summers announced his resignation after several weeks of criticism from faculty members, triggered by the departure of William Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university's biggest school. The announcement came a week before members of this faculty were due to hold a vote of no confidence in Summers.

"Everyone is abuzz," says Everett Mendelsohn, a professor of the history of science who has been a critic of Summers.

Summers, an economist who once served as the United States' treasury secretary, had stirred things up at Harvard since he arrived in 2001. His ambitious plans for the university, including overhauling undergraduate education and building a new campus in the Allston neighbourhood of Boston, were criticized by some academic staff. They objected to his forceful leadership style and said that they were not sufficiently consulted about plans for the university.

This disgruntlement became vocal in spring 2005, after Summers made comments suggesting that biological differences between the sexes could explain why so few women become top scientists. In March last year, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a vote of no confidence in Summers, by 218 to 185.

Sorry doesn't cut it

Summers apologized for his comments and pledged to listen to faculty concerns. But tensions flared again this year after Kirby's departure. "This was a situation that just wasn't working," says Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Summers will continue as president until the start of July and the end of the academic year. After that, Derek Bok, Harvard's president from 1971-91, will serve as interim president until a successor is chosen.

Faculty members say that they hope Summers's resignation will not do lasting damage to the prestigious university, founded in 1636, or the projects that he championed, such as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

They also hope that the Harvard Corporation, the governing body that will choose the new president, will select a successor better able to listen to the faculty, while still carving out a strong path for the university.

"I'm very sorry that things got to this point," says physicist Charles Marcus, who says that he liked and supported Summers. "We need someone who has vision, guts and an independent mind. Those parts of Larry were deeply appreciated even by his detractors."

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