Houghton Says It’s Time

He stood by Summers’ side in ’05, but by February, he’d lost faith

James R. Houghton ’58
Shinn X. Chen

It was set to be a Valentine’s Day parting.

James R. Houghton ’58—the senior fellow of the University’s most powerful body, the Harvard Corporation—had concluded that it was time for the presidency of Lawrence Henry Summers to come to an end.

In Cambridge, a sense of crisis had engulfed the Yard. Professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) publicly pulverized the president at an early February meeting, and more were prepared to pass a vote of no confidence in his leadership later that month. Even members of the Corporation, whose five fellows had the sole power to fire Summers, had lost faith in a president who seemed unable to govern without controversy.

But Summers was not ready to step down, even in the face of fading support. By various accounts, the president was primed for a head-on confrontation with the Faculty later that month, and he ardently believed that he could overcome yet another challenge to his leadership.

Thousands of miles across the Atlantic, however, the tides were turning. Just a few days after the bruising Faculty meeting, Houghton jetted to Europe for personal business. He had been scheduled to return to the States the weekend before Tuesday, Feb. 14, but due to stormy weather, his arrival was delayed. In the interim, Houghton turned to the phones, placing a number of calls to Cambridge, according to a professor who later spoke with the senior fellow.

“By then, there was a lot of concern,” says the professor, who—like others quoted in this article—spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations with Corporation members.

Houghton’s decision to intervene came reluctantly, according to two people who spoke with him in the days following Summers’ resignation. As the only member of the Corporation to serve on the committee that selected Summers for the presidency in 2001, he believed in Summers’ vision; now, however, his hope for reconciliation had slowly dissipated, according to several accounts. The situation had become too grave, and now he wanted the president to step down immediately, according to an individual close to the Corporation.

In the end, Houghton’s wish for an immediate dismissal would not find support on the Corporation. But Houghton and one other board member planned to meet with Summers that Tuesday to tell him to bow out. They were set to execute a Valentine’s Day breakup.

One week later, shortly after 1 p.m. on Feb. 21, Summers would announce his intention to resign the presidency after just five years at the helm—the shortest tenure of any Harvard president since the sudden death of Cornelius C. Felton in 1862. Calling his conclusion “my decision,” Summers denied speculation that the Corporation had forced him out.

The act of resigning may have ultimately come at Summers’ discretion, but sources who spoke with the Corporation say it would not have happened without intervention from Houghton.

Crimson blood runs through Houghton’s veins. His family’s name is emblazoned on the University’s rare-books library. And after the onetime Lowell House history concentrator and member of the AD final club graduated from the College, he headed across the river to the Business School.

Though he was reportedly forced to withdraw from the MBA program for two years due to poor grades, that experience did not diminish his school spirit. He joined the Corporation in 1995 and is now its most powerful member.

It was the 70-year-old senior fellow’s sudden change of heart, coming as other Corporation members’ affection for Summers was waning, that ultimately severed the bonds between Harvard and its 27th leader.

GOING DOWNHILL

Holding court in the Swiss Alps two and a half weeks earlier, Summers was at the top of his game. As co-chair of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the former U.S. Treasury secretary presided over a group of world leaders who knew Summers for his service in Washington, D.C., not his troubles in Cambridge.

But at a small luncheon for Harvard alumni at the posh ArabellaSheraton Hotel Seehof in Davos, Summers’ respite from University politics came crashing to an end. At 9:35 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, The Crimson reported on its website that FAS Dean William C. Kirby, the historian of China who had led Harvard’s flagship school for just four years, would step down from his post under pressure from Summers. Citing anonymous sources, The Crimson’s report drove Kirby to officially announce his resignation nearly a week before he had planned to do so.

When Summers first heard the news of the leak, he was “upset and angry,” according to David R. Gergen, a Kennedy School professor and former adviser to four U.S. presidents who had informally counseled Summers during his term in Mass. Hall. Prior to the luncheon, Summers had asked Gergen­—who was also in Davos—to help strategize ways to restore dignity to Kirby’s departure “without further poisoning the waters,” according to Gergen.

“He realized instantly that there might be enormous damage not only with his relationship with Kirby but in the governance of the University,” Gergen says.

Chatter about Kirby’s falling out with Summers had been circulating for months, according to several FAS members, but it was the way in which the resignation was made public that angered some professors and irked the Corporation.

For Corporation members Nannerl O. Keohane and Robert D. Reischauer ’63, the Kirby episode intensified a desire to remove Summers from office, according to the individual close to the Corporation. Both had been in frequent contact with Faculty members over the course of the year, and as early as November, they each spoke privately about the possibility of forcing Summers to resign, according to the source.

Internally, the Corporation’s list of grievances was growing. Several Corporation fellows fretted over Summers’ inability to manage his seemingly never-ending row with the Faculty, the source says. Even after the no-confidence vote, tensions flared hotter last spring amid rumors that Summers had considered granting non-FAS schools the power to award PhD diplomas. At a full Faculty meeting in April of 2005, Summers denied the rumors. But the then-dean of the FAS graduate school, Peter T. Ellison, would later tell a Corporation member that Summers’ denial was a lie.

It wasn’t just FAS that feuded with the president. The dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE), Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, resigned in March 2005. She writes in an e-mail that “Harvard is awash with rumors...One of the hundred you can hear at any time is that I resigned because of tensions with Larry Summers.” But according to GSE professor Howard E. Gardner ’65, who served on the search committee that hired Lagemann, the president and the dean “clashed repeatedly, even before Lagemann accepted the appointment.”

School of Public Health (SPH) faculty members fumed after Summers seized control in 2004 of an SPH professor’s federal grant to fight AIDS in Africa. And Summers’ decision to appoint political scientist Alan A. Altshuler as dean of the Graduate School of Design rankled professors who would have preferred an architect.

According to two sources with knowledge of the situation, the University’s top money manager, Jack R. Meyer, also left Harvard in September partly because of his dissatisfaction with Summers’ leadership. Meyer’s Harvard Management Company (HMC) came under fire in 2003 for its multimillion-dollar payouts to top employees. Meyer, according to the individuals, felt that Summers had not given HMC adequate public support.

The brushfires Summers had ignited across the University deeply disturbed some Corporation members. Keohane, who herself had served as president of Wellesley College and Duke University, was a leader of the push to bring the Summers era to a close, according to the source close to the Corporation.

As early as December of last year, Keohane, Reischauer, and investment manager James F. Rothenberg ’68—all appointed to the Corporation by Summers—were seriously doubting the ability of the president to continue to govern the nation’s oldest university. His presidency had begun to slip away.

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM

Upon returning from Davos several days after the leak, Summers was greeted with a chorus of blame for the public embarrassment of Kirby. He had tried to quell the rising Faculty anger by compromising with professors on the process for appointing Kirby’s successor—a power traditionally exerted solely by the president—but even that did not placate his staunchest critics.

Many professors were convinced that Summers was the source of the Kirby leak, and even more were angered by his purported disparagements of the dean in private conversations with Faculty members over the previous year, according to an FAS professor.

As another Faculty member put it, by February, Summers and Kirby “despised” one another.

Several members of the Corporation and its sister body, the Board of Overseers, were shocked at the president’s supposed mismanagement of Kirby’s dismissal, according to a professor who spoke with members of both boards.

On the morning of Feb. 7, however, Summers was confident that he could endure the scheduled afternoon meeting of FAS, his first public conversation with professors since Kirby’s abrupt resignation, according a professor who spoke with him before the meeting. He spent the first half of the day at a semiannual retreat with the University’s deans—including Kirby—held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Irving Street, several blocks northeast of the Yard.

It was only after he returned later that afternoon to his Mass. Hall office that he realized something might be awry, according to a person who spoke with Summers in the days that followed. Glancing at the list of professors slated to speak at the meeting, Summers suspected the Faculty meeting might be more contentious than he had imagined, according to the individual.

Just one year before, the Faculty had pounded Summers with a vote of no confidence. The vote was devastating for the president. In the weeks that followed, even some of his closest friends would tell him his presidency was lost and that the only option was resignation, according to a person close to Summers.

Under pressure from the Corporation, Summers had made genuine attempts to woo back professors, according to several accounts by FAS members. In the weeks and months following the vote, Summers met privately with his critics and supporters, often holding breakfast and lunch meetings and parties at his Elmwood Avenue mansion to listen to their concerns, according to two professors who attended the meetings.

At those sessions, says one attendee, Summers was noticeably “polite.”

SHOWDOWN IN U-HALL

On the afternoon of Feb. 7, hundreds of FAS members flocked to the lavish second-floor Faculty Room of University Hall, its walls decorated with portraits of past University presidents. Some professors privately hoped that Lawrence H. Summers would fade into Harvard history sooner rather than later.

Summers opened the meeting with words of thanks for Kirby’s service as dean. The room then erupted into an elongated standing ovation for the outgoing dean. But the tone soon turned venomous.

More than a dozen professors rose to lambaste the president, and not a single supporter came to his defense. The most climactic moment came when Frederick H. Abernathy, a 75-year-old mechanical engineering professor who rarely spoke at Faculty meetings, asked the president whether he had an opinion on the controversy surrounding economics professor Andrei Shleifer ’82, a personal friend of Summers who had been implicated in a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging he had defrauded the federal government.

On Jan. 24, Abernathy had written to Houghton asking for comment on the Shleifer matter. Like a customer dissatisfied with a store employee, Abernathy was going straight to the supervisor.

Houghton ultimately wrote back to Abernathy. But Summers stayed mum.

“I am not knowledgeable of the facts and circumstances to be able to express an opinion,” Summers replied, noting that he had recused himself from the handling of the matter.

It was at that moment that dozens of senior Faculty members and Summers supporters turned against their president. Summers’ response to Abernathy seemed inauthentic to some, and it also bothered members of the Corporation, who saw it as a sign of a larger integrity problem, according to the source close to the governing board.

After the meeting, the president was stunned, according to several people who spoke with him. Even his aides had winced at his off-the-cuff reply on Shleifer, one source close to Mass. Hall says.

Two days later, Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith L. Ryan gave the Corporation a deadline. On the afternoon of Feb. 9, she rushed to University Hall just moments before its doors locked to file a motion of no confidence to be heard at the Feb. 28 Faculty meeting. Summers’ time was running out.

SEVEN LONELY DAYS

At the height of the previous year’s crisis, Houghton had issued two statements in support of Summers. Now, however, the president stood alone.

In the weeks leading up to the contentious Faculty meeting, Keohane, Reischauer, and Houghton had been actively soliciting opinions on Summers, according to several FAS professors. In those conversations, Corporation members remained outwardly optimistic about the president’s chances.

“They would end conversations by saying, ‘Well, we really want to make this work,’” says one professor who spoke with a Corporation member.

Behind the scenes, they were less sure.

The Corporation was increasingly coming to the viewpoint that discontent with Summers was not just confined to FAS, according to the source close to the Corporation. Critics of Summers had arisen at the School of Public Health, the Education School, the Design School, and even portions of the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School.

“It became clear it wasn’t just an FAS problem,” says the source close to the Corporation.

Corporation Fellow Robert E. Rubin ’60, Summers’ trusted mentor and predecessor as U.S. Treasury secretary, tried to salvage his protégé’s position. In the days after the Feb. 7 Faculty meeting, he focused his discussion to officials at non-FAS schools, including Law School Dean Elena Kagan.

Rubin did not directly call on Kagan to stand up for Summers, but he did solicit her views and “tacitly” ask for her support, says one person with knowledge of the conversation.

Deans and professors at many graduate schools remained silent after the Faculty meeting, and they declined to speak publicly in defense of Summers.

When it became clear to Corporation members that Summers’ support at other schools wouldn’t outweigh his unpopularity at FAS, the fellows decided to preempt the blow that a vote of no confidence would have dealt, according to the source close to the Corporation.

If Summers’ future had been put to a vote, Keohane and Reischauer certainly would have said he should go, according to sources close to the Corporation. Rubin was sure that he should stay. Rothenberg’s stance is less clear—his post as University treasurer had consumed much of his attention throughout the fall, but he was growing increasingly concerned by December, according to an individual close to the governing body.

In the end, it was Houghton’s view that mattered most. Unlike Keohane and Reischauer, he was a veteran of the Corporation. As the senior fellow, he had the reputation and clout to effect change. He had been in touch with Faculty members since early fall, but one individual who spoke with him says he did not realize the gravity of the situation until the final moments, hoping it would not mar what the sources say is likely his penultimate year on the board.

Shortly after his return from Europe, Houghton put his Valentine’s Day plan into motion.

‘EMOTIONAL ROLLER-COASTER’

On Wednesday, Feb. 15, Summers says he arrived at what he calls the most difficult decision of his life. Over the preceding week, he had withdrawn into a closed circle, including economist Gene B. Sperling—a friend from the Clinton administration—and Elisa New, the FAS English professor whom he married in December. He remained in close touch with Corporation members.

“He felt it important that he not speak to a wide circle,” says Gergen, who adds that he was not consulted before the resignation.

Gergen says he believes Summers first began to entertain the possibility of resignation in the days following the Feb. 7 Faculty meeting.

“I think he hoped that it would work out,” he says. “It was an emotional roller-coaster for him.”

A day after he formally notified the Corporation and other senior staffers of his resignation, Summers boarded a plane for a long-planned ski trip to Park City, Utah, despite a vigorous debate over canceling the trip among his senior staff members, according to a source close to Mass. Hall. He was smiling on his way out the door.

HELP WANTED

With Summers now set to resign at the end of the academic year, the Corporation scrambled to find somebody who could temporarily fill the University’s top spot. The top three contenders for the position were Keohane, an experienced University administrator, Provost Steven E. Hyman, Summers’ deputy, and Derek C. Bok, a former Harvard president who led the University from 1971 to 1991. Keohane promptly removed herself from consideration, according to the source close to the Corporation, and the fellows thought Hyman was too closely associated with Summers to be a viable replacement.

Hyman, who often clashed with Summers in private but supported him in public, did not return requests for comment on the matter. But two sources who have spoken with the provost say that he had—and still has—presidential ambitions. And in conversations with Corporation members prior to the resignation, Hyman was forthright about his sometimes-rocky relationship with the president, according to one of the sources.

With Hyman and Keohane out of the running, the Corporation turned to its fail-safe backup: Bok. For Houghton, who himself had reprised his role as chairman and chief executive of the glassworks and fiber-optics maker Corning in 2002 after a six-year hiatus, Bok seemed reliable, according to a source who spoke with Houghton. The only thing left to do was to convince a 75-year-old man to leave the beaches of Florida for a bitterly divided university in Massachusetts.

It was a proposition that could only be made in person. Just one day after Summers had submitted his formal resignation to the Corporation, Houghton called Bok to notify him that he and Keohane would travel to Florida to discuss the situation further. On Saturday, Feb. 18, Keohane and Houghton met Bok for a secret rendezvous in Sarasota, Fla. They explained the circumstances to the former president, outlined their expectations, and told Bok that he would only have to serve for, at most, one academic year.

“It didn’t take long for me to make up my mind,” Bok writes in an e-mail. “I knew that Harvard was in a difficult position and that, as someone who had spent his entire career at Harvard, I had an obligation to help out if I could.”

With Bok on board, the transition could move ahead.

It wasn’t the first time Houghton had been tied to a corporate coup.

He served as chairman and CEO of Corning from 1983 until 1996. And even after his retirement, he maintained a substantial stake in the company that his family had founded in 1851.

In 2002, an outside director of Corning led a bid to oust the incumbent CEO and bring Houghton back, BusinessWeek reported.

Between the time that Houghton retook the helm at Corning and this past Apr. 28, when he stepped down as chief executive for the second time, the company’s stock price jumped from $7 to $28.

As Harvard’s directors turned back to Bok, they hoped the University’s former CEO would have as much success in Mass. Hall as Houghton had at Corning.

THE LONG GOODBYE

When Summers returned to Cambridge on Presidents’ Day, he was still negotiating the details of his severance package and the wording of his resignation statement, according to two individuals familiar with the matter.

In Utah, he had devoted considerable time to phone conversations with his lawyer since 2001, Washington attorney Robert B. Barnett, who was negotiating on his behalf.

His resignation announcement was set for 9 a.m. that Tuesday, but the statement was delayed until shortly after 1 p.m. due to last-minute negotiations, according to two professors close to Mass. Hall. One of the professors says that Corporation members were attempting to dilute the acerbity of Summers’ letter, while the other says it was the severance-package negotiations that caused the delay. In the end, Summers’ letter stated that “rifts” with “segments” of the FAS faculty had made his ability to govern “infeasible.” He announced his intention to resign at the end of the academic year.

After releasing the letter, Summers held an afternoon press conference and clasped hands with students and supporters who had gathered outside of his Mass. Hall office for a photo shoot. He capped off the afternoon with a round of drinks with his staff in a room adjacent to his office.

BAD BLOOD

In private, two people close to Summers say, the president has criticized the Corporation for lacking “backbone,” and he feels that the fellows prematurely yielded to Faculty pressure.

According to one source close to Mass. Hall, Summers has been particularly critical of Keohane. Summers did not return a request for comment.

The Corporation members likewise did not return requests for comment. But privately, several of them—and particularly Reischauer—remain resentful of the financial and reputational cost Harvard paid in allowing Summers a graceful exit, according to two sources who have spoken with members of the Corporation since the resignation. Summers’ severance package is said to be “huge,” according to two other individuals.

Even if it was expensive, Houghton had achieved what he wanted—an end to the Summers presidency.

Without the senior fellow’s nudging, some are convinced Summers’ presidency might have limped forward.

On that fateful day in February, however, Houghton’s romance with Summers had ended. Nothing could save the president from the black rose of a disenchanted Corporation.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.