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An amicable faculty meeting

The Harvard's FAS (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) faculty meeting today - a continuation of the meeting from last Tuesday - may be characterized as a mostly civil exchange of opinions between president Lawrence Summers and the faculty. In other words, the last meeting (that took place between 4 PM and 6 PM) was on the edge of becoming just another boring faculty meeting. Among the 30 speakers or so, there has been essentially one speaker only who called for Summers's resignation. It was our condensed matter colleague DF. The only point of his talk that most participants understood was the bitterness, and DF had to witness possibly the most diluted applause in the history of the FAS faculty meetings.

Another speaker, a woman at the very end of the session, discussed the issue of innate differences - something that many people incorrectly expected to be the main focus of the discussions. The risk that Summers could be pressured to resign because of the opinion at the FAS has mostly disappeared.

Except for the two talks I mentioned, most other talks were dedicated to the questions about Summers's powerful leadership, its advantages, its disadvantages, the balance between the style and the factual content (a music professor at the very beginning asserted that everything was about the style, much like in music - an opinion that most participants did not share), the amount of mutual trust between the president and the faculty, and the separation of power between the president and his fellow professors.

Many of the speeches have been pretty nice pieces of literature - well, let me admit that Summers's speech at the beginning would probably remain #1 in my list - and many speakers recalled kind of entertaining stories about the first moments when they joined Harvard University decades ago. For example, one professor remembered that he joined Harvard in 1978 when the Red Sox used to be losers and the faculty meetings used to be boring. Another speaker (or perhaps the same one?) asked whether we wanted a president who was unmemorable or Mr. Platitude - the kind of people who are found in abundance among the university leaders. ;-)

Other speakers were comparing Summers and this whole story to various episodes from the history textbooks, or they were comparing the aptitudes required from a CEO vs. a university president. Nevertheless, most of the physicists who attended the meeting - including Nima, Lisa, and others - think that the concentration of the non-trivial content in the speeches was rather low. Nima argues that these faculty meetings should be run by scientists in order to increase their efficiency - which may sound as a good idea except for the fact that the physics faculty meetings are usually incredibly boring. ;-)

Although there have been roughly two more radical speeches only (and maybe one is a better word), one can still say in most of the cases whether the speakers supported the president or not - and the ratio was about 50:50, I would say. This ratio - one that reflects the opinions at Harvard according to a poll organized by The Crimson - is no accident. Dean Kirby, who was leading the discussion, has composed the initial list of speakers in such a way that it was balanced.

One of the speakers has been known to the participants of the last week's faculty meeting - Mrs. Theda Skočpol (which means "Jumpfield" in Czech, and it is a shortened version of one of the funniest Czech surnames "Skočdopole" - "JumpToTheField"). Although she has already been elected (the word "elected" is probably not the right one) to one of the new pro-women committees, she retained her critical attitude toward President Summers. I did not learn much from her talk, and I remain skeptical about such "ad hoc" committees.

After 5 PM, someone proposed another committee that would mediate communication between president Summers and the faculty - including Profs. Knowless, Skočpol, and Verba. This proposal has almost been approved, but because Philip J. Fisher from the English department suddenly complained that such a result of the meeting seemed pre-determined and henceforth undemocratic (and the speaker also complained that there was one scientist, two social scientists, and no representatives of the humanities in the committee), the proposal was eventually cancelled by its proponent himself. I personally have no idea how would we use such a committee to comunicate with the president.

David Laibson, professor of economics, originally planned to read the text of the letter he composed with Claudia Goldin - a letter that was endorsed by 186 full professors at Harvard - but the atmosphere was already so peaceful that David Laibson said a couple of rather neutral statements that I've already forgotten.

The meeting was held in the Lowell Lecture Hall and it was attended by 400-500 professors. Note that the capacity of the lecture hall is just 352 people, and therefore many of us had to stand most of the time. The usual attendance at the faculty meeting is about 100 people. The lecture hall was surrounded by journalists with hundreds of microphones and cameras and they were trying to provoke the participants and get some sharp statements from them.

Before the meeting, a group of radical students was screaming slogans such as "We vote NO!", "Summers: racist sexist anti-gay" and they were drumming. I appreciate their happiness and fresh, independent, and original ideas and emotions - but this respect can't stop me from encouraging their parents to spank these young colleagues of ours a little bit more often. Every five-year old kid knows that it's wrong to scream that the president is either a gay or anti-gay (the difference being a matter of convention by the CPT theorem). ;-) As soon as I replied to these kids "We vote YES!", roughly 10 camcorders started to shoot me. At that moment I decided to turn as silent as possible; on the other hand, Cumrun Vafa has made an interview after the faculty meeting.

Some professors have included the confidence vote for the next, March 15th faculty meeting. And yes, I am confident that it is more accurate to call it a "confidence vote" rather than "no-confidence vote".

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reader Zelah said...

Hi Lubos,

I have been searching the net regarding hurdles against women progress in society.

My first thought is that a diverse society would have variances, and certain sectors for historical reasons would chose to do different thing.

However, I believe that a certain percentage, would be put off by perceived discrimination. In particular, if they felt that in the past discrimination had occured against their self identified group, it may make them feel defensive if about that group.

Now on to my main theme. Just recently, (2005) the Crafoord Prize was announced and it was for investigations into Dark Matter. Now, it is my impression that the first verifiable discovery of Dark Matter was by Vera Rubin with Joseph Ford. She also by the way argued that the galaxies were arranged into large groups which orbited around galatic holes.
Moreover she was singlehandly arguing for this in the 1950's way way before the 1970's when the Martin Rees, Pebble and Gunn came on the scene! Now if I was a woman, I would definately think that discrimination had occured.I do not know if this is true or not, it is possible that there is a reason. However, at the moment it sure as hell looks bad.

An Amateur Mathematician.