William Kirby: His ouster spelled Larry Summers's fall

Historians in the News

Probably the first sign that Larry Summers was in more than his usual trouble was the standing ovation the faculty gave to Bill Kirby, the dean the Harvard president had just forced out.

It was late in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 7, and the Harvard faculty had gathered on the second floor of University Hall in Harvard Yard. Faculty meetings usually attract only a few dozen professors, but on this day the Faculty Room was packed.

Tension had been building on campus ever since the night of Friday, January 27, when the Harvard Crimson had reported that Summers was firing Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean William Kirby, a historian he had appointed to that post less than four years before. The faculty, which had mixed feelings about Kirby but was coming to believe that Summers would accept no dean who possessed even a shred of autonomy, was not pleased.

By tradition, Kirby rose to lead the meeting. As he did, the 200 professors in attendance rose with him, saluting their outgoing colleague. The ovation lasted more than a minute. To Summers, the rebuke was surprising, if not mortifying. “Larry was fairly certain that people were so disgruntled with Bill that [firing him] would not be a big deal,” says a professor familiar with Summers’s thinking. In fact, it created an enemy who would actively seek the president’s downfall.

During the meeting’s traditional question-and-answer period, 15 professors rose one by one to question Summers’s leadership. If Summers disliked the faculty so much, suggested Harvard minister Peter Gomes, “surely there are other jobs to be had.” Summers tried to contain his notorious temper and respond with all the tact a man never known for his diplomacy could muster. Perhaps inevitably, the most damaging blow was inflicted by Summers himself.

Read entire article at Boston Magazine(June Issue)

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