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"I can no longer support the president"

Conrad K. Harper resigned from Harvard’s senior governing board on July 14. In an interview following the official announcement two weeks later (“Harper concludes service on Harvard Corporation”), he said, “I have reached the judgment that I can no longer support the president, and therefore I have resigned from the Corporation.”

Harper, J.D. ’65, then a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and a past president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, was named to the seven-member Corporation in February 2000, the first African American to be chosen, and began his service that July. He thus was a participant in the search for a successor to Neil L. Rudenstine that culminated in the selection of Lawrence H. Summers as the University’s twenty-seventh president (and fellow Corporation member) in March 2001.

Conrad K. Harper
Brooks / Glogau

The timing of the announcement, on a summer Thursday afternoon, roughly followed the Corporation’s business schedule. Harper’s decision preceded by one week the board’s July 21-22 retreat, which he said he did not attend because he was no longer a member.

More important, the news reawakened substantive discussion about Summers’s presidency, which peaked last March when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) voted that it “lacks confidence” in his administration. Twice during the spring term, the Corporation’s Senior Fellow, James R. Houghton, chairman and former chief executive officer of Corning Inc., issued statements, signed only by him, expressing the board’s support of Summers (see “At Odds,” May-June, page 55). He and University of Chicago president emerita Hanna H. Gray, a fellow Corporation member and a leader of the search that chose Summers, met twice with FAS members to air issues and to reiterate their confidence in Summers. (Gray, whose board service ended June 30, attended the July retreat.)

Harvard’s July 28 announcement, posted on its website and selectively called to the attention of a few newspapers, quoted Houghton as saying about Harper, “I regret that he has chosen, in reflecting on recent matters at the University, to bring his service to a close.” Summers expressed gratitude for Harper’s “candid and insightful counsel.” Requests for further comment were declined. Harper said his reasoning was spelled out in a letter to Summers, release of which was up to Harvard; the University’s spokesman, characterizing the letter as a “Corporation communication,” said it would remain confidential.

But the following Monday, August 1, Harvard released Harper’s letter with a response from Summers and a statement by Houghton (see www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/07/28-harper.html).

Citing incidents dating from Summers’s early, acrimonious meeting with then-Fletcher University Professor Cornel West through his January remarks on the role of women in science, Harper wrote, “I saw a pattern. Your statements demeaned those who are underrepresented at the top levels of major research universities.” Harper noted that on March 17, following the FAS vote, he had urged Summers to resign. Of recent Corporation discussion of the president’s salary for 2005-2006, he wrote, “In my judgment, your 2004-2005 conduct, implicating, as it does, profound issues of temperament and judgment, merits no increase whatever.” Absent benchmarks for Summers’s future performance, and given a decision he attributed to Houghton to increase Summers’s salary before full discussion at the retreat, Harper added, “I cannot in good conscience remain a member of the Corporation when the procedures that should guide our deliberations are not followed.” He concluded by reiterating, “I believe that Harvard’s best interests require your resignation.”

In his response, dated August 1, Summers expressed deep regret at Harper’s resignation and underscored “my commitment to the important issues you and I have discussed,” including “[e]xpanding opportunities for outstanding individuals from groups that are traditionally underrepresented” within the University. Summers also noted his hope that “in time and with attention to the concerns raised this past semester,” relations between FAS and the administration would improve, in furtherance of academic goals.

Houghton’s statement defended the board’s adherence to its procedures. He noted that “my Corporation colleagues and I” recognize and support “Summers’s strong commitment to working with the faculty and others in the Harvard community.” The remaining Corporation members have “recognized and respected” Harper’s perspective, “while taking different views” and are “very much saddened by his departure.” Looking ahead, “[W]e will do our utmost to serve the best interests of the University to whose welfare we are fully devoted.”

To that end, the Corporation’s next—and confidential—business will be electing Harper’s successor. Houghton is now the board’s only pre-Summers member. The election, as always, is subject to the “counsel and consent” of the Board of Overseers, whose new president, U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris ’73, J.D. ’76, was one of the alumni panelists introduced by Summers to brief University alumni affairs and development staff at their annual workshop on July 27.