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
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
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.
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
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
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
by the Faculty, Summers appeared more imperiled
“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
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
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
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
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the first installment of this two-part series: Summers Balked at Early Apology