Leader: Summers' storm cloud

February 24, 2006

UK academics who normally cast envious eyes on their Ivy League counterparts might have been unusually smug this week as Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, announced his resignation . At least UK universities are not so hamstrung by political correctness that a leading figure is unable to express a controversial opinion without being hounded out of office. There may be some truth in that comforting assumption, but the issues surrounding the resignation were not as simple as they seemed from this side of the Atlantic.

That Mr (soon to be Professor) Summers was forced out of office is not in doubt. But the "rifts between me and segments of the arts and sciences faculty" cited in his resignation letter were as much about management style as his views on women in science. Indeed, it was the departure of William C. Kirby as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences that precipitated demands for a second vote of no confidence in Mr Summers. Seen in that light, the resignation is by no means uniquely American. Instead, it is a reminder that for all their businesslike qualities, universities are quite different organisations from public companies or government departments. Their leadership still requires a degree of consent that might be dispensable elsewhere, and the more prestigious the university the more that maxim applies. It may be frustrating to modernisers, but to others it is one of the attractions of the academic world.

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