Forced Out by President, Kirby Resigns as Dean of the Faculty

Dean will step down on June 30; search for replacement to begin immediately

Crimson file photo

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announced his resignation of Friday night. He will step down on June 30 after four years in the administrative post.

Forced to resign his post, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said on Friday night that he will step down on June 30 at the end of four turbulent years in which he quickly lost favor with many Faculty members and, ultimately, his boss.

The dean was fired by University President Lawrence H. Summers, according to four people close to the central administration. Kirby’s announcement, between semesters at the College, leaves the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in limbo as the school contends with a growing budget deficit and a curricular review beset by criticism and delays.

The firing also underscores the ongoing tension between Summers and members of the Faculty, who approved an unprecedented no-confidence motion in the president last spring.

“The events of the past year have posed serious challenges,” Kirby wrote in a letter to the Faculty. “Yet we have continued to focus on the essential business before us. As we look to the future, it will be important for the President and the Dean to work closely together, in collaboration with the Faculty, toward our common objectives.”

Summers planned to fire Kirby last year, but the plan was put on hold amid the Faculty uproar over the president’s own leadership, according to two individuals who discussed Kirby’s status this month with a member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s top governing board. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the University’s employment decisions are considered private.

In a letter to the Harvard community on Friday night, Summers praised Kirby for guiding the Faculty “through what has been a not-uncomplicated time in the life of the University.”

The president wrote that Kirby, a scholar of Chinese history and culture, will become director of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research this summer. The search for Kirby’s replacement as dean will begin immediately, Summers wrote.

Kirby, according to one individual who was informed by a member of the Corporation, originally intended to resign in his annual letter to the Faculty, which is typically released at the beginning of February. But the announcement was abruptly moved forward after The Crimson informed Kirby and other University officials on Friday that the newspaper was poised to report news of Kirby’s resignation.


Kirby’s tenure, which began in July 2002, has been dominated largely by the Harvard College Curricular Review. The review has been plagued by criticism that it lacks ground-breaking ideas and a strong guiding philosophy, and progress on the review stalled last year while the Faculty’s attention was occupied by debate over Summers.

But just one week ago, Kirby announced that the review was finally moving “to a term of formal discussion and decision” that will include Faculty votes on major changes to Harvard’s general-education and concentration requirements. Kirby said those votes were likely to occur this spring.

Another major focus of Kirby’s tenure has been the Faculty budget, which dipped into the red this fiscal year and is projected to post an annual deficit above $100 million by 2010.

Kirby has said the deficit is a result of investing heavily in the growth of the Faculty and new facilities, such as the recently opened Center for Government and International Studies. The Faculty is instituting a multi-faceted plan that includes decapitalizing the school’s endowment in order to pay for the deficit.

But the budget deficit and delays in the curricular review have frustrated Summers, according to the two individuals who have spoken to a member of the Corporation about Kirby. Those concerns, along with their tenuous working relationship, led Summers to lose confidence in Kirby as long as two years ago, the sources said.

Summers initially served as an ex officio member of the curricular review’s Committee on General Education, which Kirby chaired, but the president ended his participation in the review after professors complained that Summers was exerting too much influence on their deliberations.

The Caucus of Chairs, a group of Faculty department chairs, have also criticized the relationship between Kirby and Summers, arguing that the dean and University Hall are not sufficiently independent from the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall, according to informal minutes of the group’s fall meetings.


Kirby, who is also the Geisinger professor of history, wrote in his letter on Friday night that he was eager to return to teaching.

“For myself, the allure and the increasingly dynamic nature of my field of study—modern and contemporary China—have made my decision a timely and compelling one,” he wrote.

In searching for Kirby’s replacement, Summers wrote that he would “invite a broad-based faculty advisory group to work with me on the search, in line with customary Harvard practice.”

He added, “As the search proceeds, I also intend to consult more widely with members of the faculty, including the FAS Faculty Council and the department chairs, and to seek the perspectives and counsel of students, staff, and alumni.”

In a sign of the haste with which Kirby’s resignation was announced, an e-mail address,, established to solicit advice and nominations, was not operational early Saturday morning. Summers noted in his letter that the e-mail address would begin working on Jan. 30.

The president is in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Kirby was in New York on Friday for a meeting, his spokesman, Bob Mitchell, said.

The dean began sending his letter of resignation to Faculty members after nine o’clock on Friday night. Summers’ letter and an official University press release were posted on Harvard’s website after ten o’clock.

Kirby’s resignation after four years as dean makes his tenure the shortest of anyone to hold the position in recent decades. Both Jeremy R. Knowles and Henry Rosovsky, two of Kirby’s predecessors, served for just over 10 years each. Rosovsky was dean from 1973 to 1984, and Knowles was dean from 1991 to 2002.

They both announced their resignations early enough for replacements to be found before they stepped down. Rosovsky made his announcement more than a year in advance, and Knowles announced his decision on Feb. 11, 2002.

Another former dean of the Faculty, A. Michael Spence, surprised the campus in late March 1990, when he announced he would resign in June of that year to become dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He had been dean of the Faculty for six years.

When Spence resigned, the short notice required administrators to bring Rosovsky back as interim dean for one year.

—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at
—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at