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03 Apr 2006 00:00
The words Harvard and knee-jerk are not often seen in the same sentence, but when a rumoured shortlist of candidates to succeed outgoing president Larry Summers pops up and the majority of the names on it are women, there is good cause.
Summers resigned in February after less than five years at the helm of the United States’s flagship university, essentially because his irresistible force met an immovable object called the faculty of arts and sciences. He ebulliently tried to take charge, the two combusted and Summers got fried.
But what the world remembers most about Summers is that he claimed there were so few women at the very top of science and maths because they innately have a lesser aptitude for those fields than men.
Since he fell on his sword to escape yet another censure vote by his opponents, the most exciting names bandied around in the US press as most likely to succeed him are all women.
“This could be the decade of the woman president,” said Nancy Hopkins, biology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on women’s role in the arts and sciences. Does she mean at Harvard, or the White House in 2008? “I think the White House is going to take a little longer,” she said. “But they made a woman president of Princeton; after that, anything was possible.”
Princeton’s president since 2001, Shirley Tilghman, has been enthusiastically put forward for the Harvard shortlist by a fellow Princeton professor, Cornel West - who defected there from Harvard after an ugly clash when Summers accused him of neglecting scholarly rigours after he recorded a hip-hop CD.
Proponents of a female president are aware they risk controversy. “You want the best person,” said Hopkins. “But if it was a 50/50 choice, I cannot tell a lie that I would want them to appoint a woman.”
Summers’s crisis stemmed from his mission to exert his authority and exact rapid and radical modernisation, pressuring star professors to, as he saw it, swan less and teach more.
This is what he was appointed for, but coming from a government set-up to the highly decentralised Harvard, he shook up faculties and fiefdoms with an abrasive and autocratic style that spawned enemies.
When Summers ultimately engaged in a death-wrestle with the dean of the core faculty of arts and sciences, William Kirby, it sparked one no-confidence vote at the university and was leading imminently to a second when he resigned.
“We need a good leader who is acquainted with the broad range of disciplines taught in the liberal arts college at Harvard,” said Judith Ryan, Harvard professor of German and comparative literature. “Summers tended to translate every issue into economics, his speciality.”
Many believe his successor should not abandon Summers’s vision, but should execute something similarly ambitious more diplomatically. “We need someone with a proven record in academic leadership, said Hopkins. - Guardian Newspapers 2006
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