The faculty discord that continues today with a meeting in Lowell Lecture Hall has been echoed in recent controversies at other schools, Baylor University most prominent among them. But never in Harvard’s modern history, nor in the recent history of other elite universities, has a vote of no confidence been threatened by the faculty or a university president forced out after such a vote.
Earlier this month, Baylor president Robert B. Sloan, Jr. resigned after two faculty votes of no confidence. Many of the accusations that accompanied these votes mirror the verbal darts that professors threw at University President Lawrence H. Summers in the faculty meeting last Tuesday.
A faculty resolution calling for Sloan’s resignation accused him of fostering an environment “marked by fear,” while a letter from five of Baylor’s 36 Regents (the university’s governing body, analogous to Harvard’s Corporation) said Sloan had given the University’s reputation a “black eye.”
In an interview yesterday, however, Sloan minimized the importance of faculty senates and confidence votes.
“No confidence votes are held all the time, and it’s typically the effort on the part of a very small number of activists to pursue an agenda of disruption,” Sloan said.
Over the past 15 years, votes of confidence have been held at a number of universities—including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Central Washington University, Eastern Illinois University, Temple University, and the universities of Mississippi, Houston, and Central Michigan. Some, but not all, were followed by the university president’s departure.
“The students need a better role model than votes of confidence and no confidence,” Sloan added. “Universities should not be run like a banana republic.”
CLASHES SINCE 1636
Harvard has not seen a president come under such faculty fire as Summers since the late 1930s, when then-University President James B. Conant ’14 faced heavy criticism over his denial of tenure to two economics tutors as well as his broader policy of making the university more meritocratic.
Some professors appeared prepared to vote to censure Conant at a faculty meeting in November 1939. But “he came and gave a kind of half-hearted apology, and that took all the wind out of it,” said Morton Keller, who co-authored the book Making Harvard Modern with his wife, Phyllis.
Conant went on to serve as president for another 14 years.
Summers’ several apologies to date, however, have not succeeded in dampening faculty criticism. Keller called the current crisis more severe, owing primarily to a “change in the social climate.”
“The whole relationship of the university to the larger society has changed,” Keller said. “Also, the relationship of the president to the university has changed. In both cases it moved from a more hierarchical and privileged position to one that’s more open to larger social currents and one where the faculty is much less deferent to the president.”
Samuel Eliot Morison’s Three Centuries of Harvard, published in 1936, sheds light on the two instances—both centuries ago—in Harvard’s history where a president did cave to pressure from his constituents and resign.
Unlike the recent controversies at Baylor and Harvard, however, the opposition to University Presidents Leonard Hoar and Samuel Langdon was led by the students, not by faculty.
The College student body’s full-scale desertion of the campus in 1675, partly in response to Hoar’s allowance of cruel beatings of disobedient students, left Hoar no choice but to resign. More than 100 yearss later, the students petitioned the Corporation for Langdon’s removal, writing, “as a President, we despise you.” Langdon promptly submitted his resignation.
Langdon’s departure in 1780 marked the last time a Harvard president was forced out of office.
—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.