The Crimson Coup

By Richard Bradley | Boston Magazine |

The inside story of how lies, blundering, and revenge brought down Harvard’s Larry Summers.

Probably the first sign that Larry Summers was in more than his usual trouble was the standing ovation the faculty gave to Bill Kirby, the dean the Harvard president had just forced out.

It was late in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 7, and the Harvard faculty had gathered on the second floor of University Hall in Harvard Yard. Faculty meetings usually attract only a few dozen professors, but on this day the Faculty Room was packed.

Tension had been building on campus ever since the night of Friday, January 27, when the Harvard Crimson had reported that Summers was firing Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean William Kirby, a historian he had appointed to that post less than four years before. The faculty, which had mixed feelings about Kirby but was coming to believe that Summers would accept no dean who possessed even a shred of autonomy, was not pleased.

By tradition, Kirby rose to lead the meeting. As he did, the 200 professors in attendance rose with him, saluting their outgoing colleague. The ovation lasted more than a minute. To Summers, the rebuke was surprising, if not mortifying. “Larry was fairly certain that people were so disgruntled with Bill that [firing him] would not be a big deal,” says a professor familiar with Summers’s thinking. In fact, it created an enemy who would actively seek the president’s downfall.

During the meeting’s traditional question-and-answer period, 15 professors rose one by one to question Summers’s leadership. If Summers disliked the faculty so much, suggested Harvard minister Peter Gomes, “surely there are other jobs to be had.” Summers tried to contain his notorious temper and respond with all the tact a man never known for his diplomacy could muster. Perhaps inevitably, the most damaging blow was inflicted by Summers himself.

Engineering professor Frederick Abernathy wanted to know Summers’s opinion regarding Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer, one of Summers’s closest friends. Shleifer had agreed—without admitting wrongdoing—to pay $2 million to settle charges that he’d conspired to commit fraud while contracted by the U.S. government to give economic advice to Russia. Harvard, which defended Shleifer rather than settle out of court, agreed to pay a $26.5 million fine and an estimated millions more in legal fees. Many professors thought Summers’s friendship with Shleifer had corrupted the university’s actions—indeed, the university itself.

Summers, who had given a lengthy deposition in the case, responded that he had recused himself from Harvard’s handling of the matter.

Abernathy persisted: Didn’t Summers at least have an opinion about it?

No, Summers said. He did not.

Gasps of disbelief echoed through the room. The president had no opinion about a lawsuit brought by the federal government against one of his closest friends? A case that had cost the university some $30 million?

“There were a half-dozen ways in which he could have ducked that question,” says another professor who was present. “But everybody in the room knew that he had just lied to us.”

Summers’s supporters insist the president was merely being legalistic. But either way, a third professor says, “At that moment you could feel Summers’s presidency leave.”

TWO WEEKS LATER, on February 21, Larry Summers quit; his resignation is effective at the end of this month. Within hours, supporters on and off the campus began writing the history of his presidency—or, at least, its end. Law school professor Alan Dershowitz proclaimed that Summers, who is Jewish, fell victim to a “coup” staged by a cabal of left-wing, possibly anti-Semitic professors. New York Times columnist John Tierney insisted that Summers was toppled by a lazy, ingrown, change-resistant faculty. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argued that Summers doomed himself by apologizing for earlier missteps. “He emboldened his enemies,” Pinker says now. “He compromised the principle that made him so attractive, a desire to look at empirical and political problems with an open mind.”

The full story is more complicated. Larry Summers was determined to disenfranchise the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and amass power in his office—in himself. But his often heavy-handed attempts to do so fueled a broad-based protest against his leadership. In the end, the former Treasury secretary sparked a power struggle that brought classic Washington hardball tactics—war room lobbying, offers of quid pro quos, and, of course, press leaks—to the banks of the Charles. During the 14 days ending February 21, Bill Kirby would have his revenge, and Larry Summers’s Harvard presidency—once highly anticipated, now exhausted and untenable—would implode.

GETTING RID OF Bill Kirby was hardly the first thing Summers did during his five-year reign that provoked the faculty’s ire. From an ugly fight with Afro-American studies professor Cornel West to Summers’s claim that some Harvard professors were anti-Semitic, the new president ignited one controversy after another.

The first real threat to Summers’s job, though, did not come until January 2005, when he suggested that women are less genetically gifted than men in science and math. The resulting uproar prompted an unprecedented vote of no confidence in his leadership, which Summers lost, 218-185. But the Harvard Corporation, the university’s seven-member governing body, was solidly behind him: Its senior fellow, Corning chairman James Richardson Houghton, issued a statement of support. And no matter what the faculty did, it was the Corporation that held Summers’s fate in its hands.

Along with the president, the other six members of the group—more powerful and more secretive than the governing board of any other American university—meet once a month in Loeb House, a secluded building at the rear of Harvard Yard. Records of those meetings are kept secret for 50 years. Corporation members almost never speak to the media. Professors who tried to reach them during the women-in-science flap either could not or were politely rebuffed.

“They were trying to convey the message that Larry is the president and we should just suck it up,” says one professor who managed to communicate with a Corporation member. To lose a president after just four years would devastate Harvard, and the Corporation felt that it was better to stick with a wounded Summers than to endure the trauma of a failed presidency.
Summers started doing his best to be a model citizen, forcing himself to engage in the niceties of university leadership. “You could see him in conversations with faculty members thinking, ‘Now, ask about their children,’” a colleague says.

But around Labor Day of 2005, the president abandoned his charm offensive. “Throughout last summer, he was in retreat,” says Richard Thomas, chair of the classics department and a Summers critic. “In the fall, he was back.” Adds another professor who knows Summers well: “He couldn’t contain it anymore, and he consciously decided that he was going to be himself. He started going after people again, and you just knew it was going to be bad.”

One professor tells of a tenure meeting in which four faculty participants, three female and one male, were scheduled to testify one by one for 30 minutes each. Summers spoke with the three women for about 20 minutes each. For an hour and 40 minutes, he engaged in a lively conversation with the male professor—and this was after the women-in-science remarks. The discrepancy did not go unnoticed by the faculty.

But Summers’s change in tone was unheard by the Corporation. “The Corporation was with Summers until the day before the [February 7] meeting,” according to a professor who spoke with two Corporation members. The level of protest, coming from professors not known for their opposition to Summers, stunned the governing body. The next day, it asked for a transcript of the meeting. Almost immediately, the Corporation fellows began to reach out to professors in a new way. In the past, “the right thing for them to do was to appear optimistic, even if they weren’t,” says a source close to the Corporation. “Conversations were not ending on that note any longer. They were not pretending to be cheerful.”

ON FEBRUARY 9, Judith Ryan, a longtime Summers critic, announced that she was putting another vote of no confidence on the docket for the next faculty meeting, on February 28. “I believe that this motion would have passed by a wider margin” than the 2005 vote, Ryan says now, an estimation Summers critics and supporters share. No one wanted the university to endure that embarrassment. “That was the sword of Damocles,” says one professor.

Summers seemed unsure how to respond. No Corporation statement of support was forthcoming. Once-vocal faculty allies, including government professor Harvey Mansfield, Judaic scholar Ruth Wisse, historian Stephan Thernstrom, and Steven Pinker, had fallen silent. “There was less of a movement to rally around him” than in 2005, admits Pinker. Summers still had friends in the economics department, but Harvard economists are an isolated group. Even if they wanted to help Summers—and most of them no longer did—there was little they could do.

Summers didn’t know how to fight for his job—or if he even wanted to. “He was down, then he was up,” says one person who saw him in the days after the faculty meeting. “He was fatalistic, and he was feisty.”

In the past, Summers had welcomed advice from non-Harvard outsiders such as Bill Clinton (Summers should apologize for the women-in-science remarks), Bill Belichick (you wouldn’t let your players tell you how to run your team, would you?); and Boston University president emeritus John Silber (keep your boot on the faculty’s neck). In 2005, he’d spent hours calling and meeting with professors to rally their support. This time, Summers knew that he’d already lost the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Summers brainstormed with Gene Sperling, another Clintonite policy wonk and a close friend. And instead of focusing on professors, he called the deans of the professional schools he thought most likely to mobilize support for him—law, business, medicine, government, and design. (Thanks to prior conflicts, he had little support at the schools of education, divinity, and public health.)

Several highly placed sources who heard about the calls believe that Summers was offering financial and other inducements to the schools in exchange for the deans’ support. “He was essentially saying, ‘What can I do for you? What do you need?’” says one person who was told about the conversations. (Several deans contacted declined to confirm or deny this; Summers wouldn’t be interviewed.) Alan Dershowitz and other Summers boosters would later claim that the president enjoyed wide support in the professional schools, but Summers’s unsuccessful efforts to mobilize those faculties suggested otherwise. When some of the deans informally canvassed their faculties to gauge support for Summers, the reports back were not encouraging. “In the end, most of the deans could not support him,” one source says.

One dean did more than decline to support Summers; Bill Kirby actively promoted the president’s ouster. When the outgoing dean heard from professors that they could not reach Corporation members, he distributed a list of the fellows’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses. He vented his dissatisfaction with Summers to members of the Board of Overseers, Harvard’s second (and less powerful) governing board. And when Daniel Fisher, a physicist and Summers critic, decided to ask the faculty to vote on a motion calling on the Corporation to act, Kirby helped strengthen the wording of Fisher’s motion. In private discussions about the presidential crisis, Kirby said, “It’ll be a cold, cold day in Harvard history if this man remains president.”

THAT PROSPECT LOOKED increasingly unlikely. Five of the six members of the Corporation other than Summers had changed since Summers’s appointment; Houghton was the sole holdover from the previous regime. The new members included Robert Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office; James Rothenberg, a financier; and Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary who had been Summers’s mentor and remained a staunch ally. The newest fellow was Nannerl Keohane, the respected former president of Wellesley College and Duke University. (One slot was open; its previous occupant, New York lawyer Conrad Harper, had resigned in protest of Summers’s leadership.)

By Tuesday, February 14, at least three members of the Corporation had decided that Summers could not stay: Rothenberg, Reischauer, and Keohane. Reischauer’s defection was significant. “Reischauer came to the Corporation as an admirer of Larry’s and was only gradually converted to the feeling that Larry had to go,” says one professor who knows him. Once Reischauer made up his mind, however, he did not waver.

The crucial difference between 2005 and 2006 was Keohane. The only academic (other than Summers) on the Corporation, Keohane was widely respected by the Harvard faculty—and, just as important, friends with some of them. Several professors described her as the first Corporation member to realize the finality of the situation. Keohane had strong opinions about university presidencies; in February 2005, she had given a Kennedy School of Government talk on “the moral essence of leadership” in which she outlined five essential qualities in a leader: good judgment, the ability to get and use information, “peripheral vision,” courage, and integrity. Her conversations with faculty focused on these themes.

Senior fellow Jamie Houghton, meanwhile, was said to be distraught, deeply upset that such chaos was happening on his watch. After speaking with several deans, he saw little choice but to force Summers out. Bob Rubin, whose attitude towards the faculty
apparently verged on contempt, was Summers’s sole supporter. “Rubin knew he was outvoted, but he was in there fighting till the end,” says a source close to the Corporation.

Corporation members started to ask questions that implied the inevitability of Summers’s departure. How would you handle this? Won’t the outside world interpret this as anti-Semitism? Will Harvard look ungovernable?

The final blow came on Thursday, February 16, when the Globe published a story about Harvard anthropologist Peter Ellison. Appointed dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by Summers, Ellison had resigned, and now he volunteered to tell why. Summers, he said, had broken a promise to him on a matter of importance to the graduate school. But when Richard Thomas asked at a faculty meeting if this issue had come up, Summers replied flatly that it had not. That appeared “less than fully truthful,” Ellison told the Globe. “This does not seem to me any longer to be a matter of style or personality, but of character.”

Like most of the professors who’d spoken on February 7, Ellison was not considered a political player, or someone likely to go public. “He’s a Harvard man, not outspoken,” says one of his colleagues. In the minds of the faculty, the evidence suggested that their president had repeatedly lied to them. In Nan Keohane’s framework, Summers was failing the integrity test.

Summers would later tell the Crimson that he had decided to resign on Wednesday, February 15. If that’s true, no one else knew it at the time. What people did see was that Summers had gone from trying to save his job to searching for an exit strategy, some powerful, high-profile post that would ease the sting of his departure. Summers also worried about his wife, Harvard English professor Elisa New, who, with her three children from a previous marriage, had moved into the president’s mansion. How would his decision affect them? But Summers could not line up that phoenix-like departure. From Treasury secretary to Harvard president to … what? Appropriately prestigious job offers were not quickly forthcoming.

By several accounts, it was also on that Wednesday, eight days after the faculty meeting, that Jamie Houghton finally told Larry Summers it was time to go.

ON THURSDAY, Summers left for a ski weekend in Park City, Utah, with his children. He didn’t see a lot of the slopes. Summers, who had hired a lawyer, spent much of the weekend on the phone hammering out his severance package. Jamie Houghton and Nan Keohane, meanwhile, flew to Sarasota, Florida, where they met with former Harvard president Derek Bok and finalized a plan by which Bok would serve as interim president for a year.

Summers returned from Utah on Monday. His resignation was supposed to take place early Tuesday morning—Monday was Presidents’ Day—but at the appointed hour he was still negotiating with the Corporation. Summers’s severance pay is “in the seven figures,” according to one high-placed source. Another calls the amount “breathtaking.” But because he did not have another job lined up, Summers wanted—and got—the Corporation to name him a University Professor, the most prestigious professorship at Harvard. After a yearlong paid sabbatical, Summers could return to campus, assuming that no better opportunity has arisen.

Also heavily negotiated was when Summers would officially step down. “There was a significant fraction of the Corporation that wanted him to leave immediately” because of concern over leaving an embittered president in office, says a source familiar with the negotiations. This source believes that Bob Rubin refused to accede to that timetable, and so, in order to present a unified face to the world, the other fellows agreed to let Summers finish the academic year.

Shortly after 1 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, Summers released his resignation letter. “I have reluctantly concluded that the rifts between me and segments of the Arts and Sciences faculty make it infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future,” Summers wrote. That language was a major victory for Summers, a way of spinning his departure as a rebellion by segments of the faculty, when, in fact, Summers’s support was tepid universitywide. Subsequent media accounts did indeed promote this thesis, a fact that is an ongoing source of concern to the Corporation; many alumni, after all, are unenthusiastic about contributing to a university at which faculty radicals can topple a president. But Summers insisted upon that specific language, and—perhaps, again, because of Rubin’s support—he got it. “In any negotiation, you win some, and you lose some,” one Corporation member ruefully told a member of the faculty.

Since that day, Summers has been a low-key presence on campus, largely confining himself to his offices in Massachusetts Hall. People who have visited him describe him as “very angry,” “hurt,” and “bitter.” Others say he has good days and bad days. All believe that Summers has struggled deeply trying to figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, Derek Bok, who first assumed the presidency in 1971, a time of immense turmoil at Harvard, is back to play much the same role he played then—that of healer. It took years for Harvard to recover from the 1960s. It will take years for Harvard to recover from the failed presidency of Larry Summers.