In a symbolic but stunning rebuke, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a motion Tuesday saying it lacked confidence in President Lawrence Summers (search) — the first such action in the nearly 400-year history of the university.
The arts and sciences faculty is one of 10 that comprise the university. Summers reports to the Harvard Corporation (search), the university's governing board, which has expressed its support for him.
But the 218-185 vote supporting the motion — which even supporters had expected to be defeated — was a significant setback to Summers' efforts to rebuild his standing with Harvard's faculty in the wake of the uproar over his comments about women in science at an academic conference in January.
At the very least, the vote seemed likely to prolong the period of divisiveness among faculty and hinder Summers' efforts to return focus to his agenda for remaking the university.
The measure stated simply: "The Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers."
The faculty also passed, 253-137, a milder rebuke of Summers' comments and "managerial approach."
"As I said to the faculty, I have tried these last couple months to listen to all that has been said, to learn from it, and to move forward, and that's what I am going to do," Summers said afterward.
J. Lorand Matory (search), a professor of anthropology and African and African-American studies, introduced the lack-of-confidence motion. He had expected it to be supported by no more than 30 percent of attendees.
Matory said Summers should quit. "There is no noble alternative to resignation," he said.
Summers, however, has given no indication of stepping down. He has now met three times with the faculty group since his controversial remarks that intrinsic differences in ability partly explain why there are fewer women in the pool of applicants for top science jobs.
He has also reportedly met extensively with smaller groups of faculty and established two faculty task forces to recommend steps for addressing issues concerning women faculty at Harvard, and women in science generally.
The criticism over Summers' comments quickly expanded into a broader attacks on the president's management style and his vision for the university, including major projects to expand Harvard's campus across the Charles River in Boston, and his ideas about what direction scientific research should take.
Ruth Wisse, a literature professor and Summers supporter, emphasized the "lack of confidence" measure was different from a "no-confidence" vote, which in the British parliamentary system causes the fall of a government.
"The president of the United States speaks out on unpopular things and doesn't get shot down, whereas the president of Harvard speaks out and gets pilloried," she said.
Harvard students passed a no-confidence vote in president Nathan Marsh Pusey (search) in 1969, but faculty have never done so, according to Harvard.