Staff Sought To Shroud Summers

A new press strategy: "If you can't say anything nice..."

Two tape recorders were humming on the table in front of Lawrence H. Summers as he ruminated on the intrinsic aptitude of women in science just over a year ago. Arranged in a v-shape, they pointed directly at the University president and took down his every word. But for nearly a month after the speech, the tapes remained tucked away in a drawer in Massachusetts Hall, outside the earshot of the public.

Soon after news of Summers’ remarks first broke in a front-page Boston Globe article on Jan. 17, 2005, staffers in the president’s office quietly secured both tapes, according to three people familiar with the events in Mass. Hall last year. The recordings were not to be played to anyone, save for a select group of the president’s senior staff and an assistant assigned to secretly prepare a transcript.

Summers’ advisers feared that the tapes, or even the text, would escalate the already burgeoning controversy surrounding the president, two of the sources said. If Summers’ critics and the media could quote direct passages from the speech, his advisers figured, then the uproar might never subside.

The fear was so strong that Mass. Hall initially refused even to acknowledge that a tape of the remarks existed, let alone two of them. When those denials proved futile—the tape recorders were plainly visible to the more than 40 academics who heard Summers’ speech—Mass. Hall then argued that a transcript could not be made public because the conference had been off-the-record.

That was generally true, although the PowerPoint presentations of all but one other speaker were available on the website of the National of Bureau of Economic Research, which hosted the two-day conference and had made one of the two recordings of Summers’ speech. But in any event, the president’s office controlled the tapes, and releasing them was Mass. Hall’s prerogative.

“Everyone was supposed to operate as though the transcript didn’t exist and would never exist,” said an individual close to Mass. Hall at the time. “People thought it could be the end for Larry.”

Summers and his staff managed to avoid the issue, for the most part, in the first days of the controversy, focusing instead on the president’s public statements and whether he should apologize. But in the weeks to come, calls for the transcript among professors and the media would reach a fevered pitch and test the limits of Mass. Hall’s defiance.

And as Summers approached a confrontation with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, his senior staff plotted a strategy to keep the president—and the president’s remarks on women in science—as far from the limelight as possible, according to three people familiar with the strategy. It would only partially succeed.

GESTURES TO THE FACULTY

After weathering the initial week of trouble, Mass. Hall set its sights on the next obvious hurdle: the previously scheduled monthly meeting of the Faculty on Feb. 15, 2005. Summers had three weeks to counter the growing and potentially devastating discontent among the school’s professors before they would meet.

The first major effort toward that end came on Feb. 3, when Summers announced the creation of two Faculty task forces to address the dearth of women in science at Harvard. Politically, the announcement was most significant because of the help he had enlisted to facilitate the task forces: Professors Drew Gilpin Faust, Evelynn M. Hammonds, and Barbara J. Grosz, all members of the Faculty and strong critics of Summers’ original remarks. Inside Mass. Hall, staffers hoped that the trio would dispel notions of Summers’ estrangement from his Faculty, according to two people close to the president’s office.

The unnamed sources in this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because they wished to maintain ties with Summers and the University. Their accounts were corroborated by multiple sources with knowledge of Mass. Hall’s strategy last year.

A spokesman for the president, John Longbrake, said he would not comment on what he called “anonymous subjective accounts of internal discussions.”

The task forces were well received by professors who had lashed out against Summers’ remarks, and the president held out hope that they would create the impression that he was moving on from the maelstrom and making good on his promise to support women in science, two people familiar with Mass. Hall’s strategy said.

As the Faculty meeting approached, Summers and his staff expected to take a brutal but manageable licking from professors, according to the two sources. But at the end of what amounted to a 90-minute onslaught by the Faculty, Summers appeared more imperiled than ever.

“This has been a searing afternoon for me,” Summers said at the conclusion of the meeting. Back in Mass. Hall, it was suddenly clear that the task forces would not be enough to assuage the Faculty. With little else to offer, Summers’ senior staff suggested releasing the nearly 7,000-word transcript of his remarks, a move that several professors had called for at the meeting.

Staffers in Mass. Hall and the Harvard News Office continued to fear that the transcript might reignite the controversy and focus undue attention back on the president, according to the same two sources. And though Summers had told the Faculty that he would “consider very strongly” releasing the transcript, he still claimed that the remarks were not intended for public consumption.

In several meetings and conference calls with his senior staff, informal advisers, and members of the Harvard Corporation that Tuesday night, Summers said he would not relent to the Faculty’s calls for the transcript, according to two people who were briefed on the conversations.

But on Wednesday, something changed. Summers said he was willing to release the transcript, along with a carefully-worded letter of explanation. Three people close to Mass. Hall at the time say that even now, almost a year later, they are unclear as to what changed the president’s mind, though all three speculated that he had been directed to do so by James R. Houghton ’56, senior fellow of the Corporation—the only group with the power to fire the president.

“There was a sense that someone had come in from above and said, ‘Larry, you don’t have a choice,’” recalled one of the sources. “But, really, nobody knew—or nobody who I talked to knew—what prompted the reversal.”

Summers and his staff spent Wednesday and early Thursday laboring over the letter he would release with the transcript, those familiar with Mass. Hall’s strategy said. It would be perhaps the most difficult statement that Summers wrote during the controversy, according to the sources, because it not only apologized again for his remarks on women in science, but also explicitly repudiated the hypotheses in his speech.

“My January remarks substantially understated the impact of socialization and discrimination, including implicit attitudes—patterns of thought to which all of us are unconsciously subject,” Summers wrote in the letter that was released on Thursday along with the transcript. “The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments, and my remarks about variability went beyond what the research has established.”

The transcript itself generally reflected accounts of the speech that Summers and others who heard the speech had already given to the media. Still, the president’s senior staff had no idea how the transcript would be received or whether faculty would be appeased by it, two people familiar with Mass. Hall’s strategy said.

So as the public pored over Summers’ remarks on Thursday and Friday of that week, Mass. Hall began planning to divert attention from the president’s remarks and the criticisms of his leadership.

AWAY FROM THE LIMELIGHT

Over Presidents’ Day Weekend, which began on Friday, Feb. 18, 2005, Summers held a series of conference calls with key members of his staff, the Corporation, and the Faculty, according to two people who were briefed on the calls.

Two professors on the call were Jeremy R. Knowles, the former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Sidney Verba ’53, the Pforzheimer University professor and director of the University library system. The Corporation was represented by Robert E. Rubin ’60, Summers’ closest friend on the board.

They discussed how Summers would handle the next meeting of the Faculty on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005, those briefed on the calls said. A key question was whether Summers should apologize yet again.

Rubin, according to the two sources, did not speak much during the conference calls, but when he did, it was to say that Summers had apologized enough for his remarks and should begin to “move on.” That suggestion was supported by Professor of Public Service David R. Gergen, who was not on the call but consulted with the president on a regular basis during the controversy, according to two people who were informed of his advice.

In private meetings with the president, the two sources said, Gergen told Summers that he needed to act “presidential” and wage a campaign to shift the media’s focus away from the conflict with the Faculty.

Through an assistant, Gergen declined to be interviewed for this article. Rubin did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment over the past several months.

Most of Summers’ senior staff disagreed with Gergen and Rubin’s advice, according to two people familiar with Mass. Hall’s strategy, and the conflict played out over the remaining months of the school year.

At Gergen’s suggestion, Summers booked an appearance on “The Charlie Rose Show” in February, but then abruptly cancelled after the president’s staff expressed concern that a television interview might aggravate the Faculty. “Everything was already too much about Larry,” said one individual familiar with Mass. Hall’s strategy.

In a compromise between the conflicting advice of Gergen and Summers’ staff, the president sat down for a reflective interview with The New York Times that ran on the newspaper’s front page on Feb. 26, 2005.

Thereafter, however, the president’s senior staff and communications office instituted an unofficial “media blackout,” three people familiar with the strategy said, cutting back on Summers’ public appearances and denying virtually every request for an interview through the end of May. Inside Mass. Hall, but not in front of Summers, the new media policy was jokingly called, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Meanwhile, Summers faced continually harsh criticism from the Faculty and a stunning no-confidence vote in March.

“But the strategy was to sit tight, get Larry away from the spotlight, and just make it through the end of the year,” said one the sources. And Summers did just that, surviving calls for his resignation and emerging this school year with the controversy, or at least the worst of it, behind him.

Standing outside Mass. Hall on June 6, Summers acknowledged his newfound reticence in an interview with reporters for The Crimson.

“I’m sorry I’ve been laying low,” he said. “But I’ll be back in the fall.”

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.

Read the first installment of this two-part series: Summers Balked at Early Apology