Faculty Mulls ‘Radical’ Dean Search Plan

Summers could face new no-confidence motion at Feb. 28 Faculty meeting

The Faculty’s elected governing body asked professors yesterday to consider completely excluding University President Lawrence H. Summers from the search for a new dean—in what might be an even more direct challenge to Summers’ authority than last year’s no-confidence vote.

The proposal was one of three plans outlined by the Faculty Council to ensure that professors exert substantial power in the appointment of outgoing Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s successor.

And a day after professors blasted Summers at a heated Faculty meeting, at least one council member said yesterday that she is “quite seriously considering” placing a vote of no confidence on the agenda for the next meeting of the full Faculty on Feb. 28.

“It does appear to be something of an emergency situation,” said Weary Professor of German and of Comparative Literature Judith L. Ryan, who said she may decide to place the motion on the agenda as early as today.

The Faculty already expressed their lack of confidence in Summers with a 218-185 vote last March, and a second successful vote would seriously undermine an already-troubled presidency.

“I’m sure it would pass,” Ryan said, adding that this new motion could receive even broader support than last year’s vote.

And Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn said yesterday that even in the absence of a no-confidence vote, the Harvard Corporation­—the University’s highest governing body, which has sole power to remove Summers­—may take action against the president.

“There is some probability that the Corporation will push the president out,” Mendelsohn said.

Mendelsohn and Ryan are both members of the Faculty Council, the elected 19-member governing board of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

A subcommittee of that body asked the Faculty yesterday to consider three possible plans that, by the council’s own assessment, “go beyond standard practice” to influence the search for Kirby’s successor.

It was Kirby’s resignation two weeks ago, amid reports that Summers forced him out of office, that catalyzed the current Faculty uprising.

At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, the subcommittee, which consists of seven members including Mendelsohn and Ryan, proposed creating a list of senior Faculty members from which Summers would agree to draw a dean search committee.

But in an e-mail sent to the entire Faculty last night, the council balked on committing to that plan, and proposed two other options that would demonstrate even greater independence from the president.

One option was the appointment of an interim dean.

An alternative option was the appointment of a long-term dean in “a process independent of the Central Administration”—or without any involvement from Summers.

That option is, in Ryan’s own words, “an extremely radical suggestion.”

“In light of the strong concerns expressed by members of the Faculty at the meeting yesterday, we feel it is essential for us to consult further with our colleagues before endorsing a final process,” the council wrote in its e-mail last night.

Both proposals are significant because the president traditionally has the sole power to nominate the FAS dean, who must then be approved by the Harvard Corporation. Professors normally serve only a limited advisory role in the appointment process.

And interim deans usually hold office only when a previous dean resigns on short notice, or if there is an upcoming change in the presidency.

The idea of the Faculty conducting a dean search independent of the president was first suggested by Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations Peter K. Bol at Tuesday’s meeting, but Summers rejected it, saying that the plan then proposed by the Faculty Council was “for the best.”

But with the council moving away from its original plan, a fight could be brewing between the Faculty and the president for control of the dean search.

“This option might not be met by approval with President Summers, because that would cut him out of the process,” Ryan said.

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University professor and the coordinator of the council subcommittee, said that while the faculties of some other universities choose their own deans, it remains to be seen if that practice can be instituted at Harvard.

And Mendelsohn, who has been a member of the Faculty since 1960, and who was a doctoral candidate here in the 1950s, said, “In the years that I can remember, this is the first time that the Faculty is this involved in a dean search.”

The ability of the Faculty to completely exclude the president from the process “depends in a sense on how vulnerable [Summers] is at this point,” Mendelsohn added.

Ryan and Mendelsohn said last night that only hours after the council e-mailed the Faculty, dozens of professors had already begun to respond with their own feedback.

Mendelsohn said that the council will meet again next week, and that it hopes to be able to present a final plan to professors by the Feb. 28 Faculty meeting.

Ryan however said yesterday that she will step down from the dean search subcommittee because her strong criticism of Summers at Tuesday’s meeting presents a “conflict of interest.”

For all of the Faculty’s complaints about Summers’ leadership, his future rests in the hands not of the Faculty, but of the seven-member Corporation.

“The Corporation has been spending a lot of time talking to faculty,” Bol said yesterday, adding that “it is certainly a possibility” that the Corporation will force Summers to depart.

Faculty Council members most recently met with members of the Corporation this past Monday.

A spokesman for Summers, John D. Longbrake, would not comment last night on speculation among professors that Summers would be forced out by the Corporation.

But in response to the Faculty Council’s recommendations regarding the dean search, Summers said in a statement: “I look forward to working with the Faculty on a critically important search.”

—Javier C. Hernandez contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Allison A. Frost can be reached at

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