The Crimson Whips the Big Boys

Harvard's student newspaper gets the real story about the resignation of the school's Dean of the Faculty - and beats the AP and Boston Globe.

Harvard Dean of the Faculty William Kirby officially resigned over the weekend, the latest development during the tumultuous administration of President Larry Summers at one of America’s most visible universities.

Reported the Associated Press in a by-the-books filing late Friday night: “Harvard University’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences said Friday he will step down at the end of the academic year to return to teaching and oversee the university’s initiatives on China.”

In its lede Saturday the Boston Globe hinted there was a juicier story afoot, reporting that Kirby’s resignation was “an indication that the university’s leadership remains in turmoil a year after President Lawrence H. Summers’ comments on women’s aptitude for science.” Kirby’s tenure of four years at the helm of “the university’s largest school [is] a short posting compared with his predecessor’s 11 years in office. The central item on his agenda, a top-to-bottom review of Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum, remains unfinished,” added the Globe, whose story ran with the subhead, “Relations with Summers said to have been strained.”

But it was the student-run Harvard Crimson that got the real story: Dean Kirby, long out of favor with Summers, was fired.

“Forced Out by President, Kirby Resigns as Dean of the Faculty” read the headline of a story published in the dead of night Saturday morning, noting the resignation marks “the end of four turbulent years in which [Kirby] quickly lost favor with many faculty members and, ultimately, his boss.” “Strained” was the least of it: “The dean was fired by University President Lawrence H. Summers, according to four people close to the central administration. Kirby’s announcement, between semesters at the college, leaves the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in limbo as the school contends with a growing budget deficit and a curricular review beset by criticism and delays.”

Making use of its home-court advantage and sources near the heart of the university’s administration, the Crimson reported that “Summers planned to fire Kirby last year, but the plan was put on hold amid the faculty uproar over the president’s own leadership, according to two individuals who discussed Kirby’s status this month with a member of the Harvard Corporation, the university’s top governing board.” The budget deficit and curricular review delays have frustrated Summers, those two sources told the newspaper, and “Those concerns, along with their tenuous working relationship, led Summers to lose confidence in Kirby as long as two years ago.” (Disclosure: I was an editor of the Crimson once upon a time.)

And in an indication that the Crimson itself drove developments forward, the paper said the dean originally intended to resign around the beginning of February, “[b]ut the announcement was abruptly moved forward after the Crimson informed Kirby and other University officials on Friday that the newspaper was poised to report news of Kirby’s resignation.” (The Crimson first reported the resignation at 9:35 p.m. Friday night, shortly after Kirby began sending his departure letter to faculty members.)

Meantime, the Globe’s Marcella Bombardieri, who provided excellent coverage of the Summers leadership crisis last year, seems to have been forced to play catch-up this time around, quoting in her piece the Crimson’s material on Kirby’s removal by Summers.

If the Crimson is right about all of the above, this is exemplary work — with Evan H. Jacobs and Zachary M. Seward’s reporting all the more impressive considering they were nominally on vacation with the rest of the university when the news broke. Their work is a reminder, in our fast-paced media environment, that nothing can beat relationships with trusted (and trusting) sources diligently cultivated over time.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.