Harvard report supports Summers' reforms

August 4, 2006

A group of professors defended centralisation plans that led a president to resign. Jon Marcus reports

A group of Harvard University professors has concluded that President Lawrence Summers was right to restructure the university's various fiefdoms into a more centralised system.

Its endorsement came a few days after Dr Summers formally left office. He was forced out by faculty angered at his attempts to regulate the university's fiercely independent undergraduate college and graduate schools.

In a lengthy memo, the group says that bureaucracy and political infighting is hurting the university's ability to conduct effective scientific research.

Dr Summers and his predecessor, Neil Rudenstine, both tried unsuccessfully to centralise the undergraduate college and graduate schools, each of which is largely self-governing and has a separate budget and endowment - a so-called each-tub-on-its-own-bottom approach that has created huge political problems for Harvard presidents.

Dr Summers's attempt to tackle this problem is considered one of the reasons for the faculty rebellion that resulted in his resignation.

The system also gets in the way of interdisciplinary research, the 20-member University Planning Committee for Science and Engineering concludes.

"The each-tub-on-its-own-bottom philosophy of resource management has precluded a co-ordinated approach to managing science and engineering across the Harvard complex, leading to parallel (and occasionally competing) efforts in different parts of the university," the committee says.

Harvard has no central source of information about research and scholarship. Yet there is great resistance to changing this system, especially among the wealthiest of Harvard's graduate divisions.

The faculty report urges that a powerful co-ordinating committee be established without delay to encourage and raise money to pay for interdisciplinary research in science and engineering. At least 75 more science staff would be hired and new laboratories would be set up specifically for interdisciplinary research as part of an ongoing expansion of the campus.

The committee's final report is not scheduled to be delivered to interim president Derek Bok until December.

* The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun an investigation into charges that a Nobel prizewinning neuroscientist used his clout to resist the appointment of a woman whom critics say he saw as a rival.

Eleven female MIT professors wrote to institute president Susan Hockfield claiming that Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, head of MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, resisted the appointment of Alla Karpova.

They claim that Dr Tonegawa threatened not to mentor or collaborate with Dr Karpova if she were appointed, and not to let the members of his research team work with her.

Dr Tonegawa denied interfering with Dr Karpova's candidacy, but said he declined her request to collaborate. Several colleagues also defended Dr Tonegawa.

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