A Campus Voice
At a time when he is supposed to be meeting, greeting and getting to know the inner workings of the World’s Greatest University, Summers has taken on a more challenging and personal task—attempting to guide members of the Harvard community through a national tragedy.
On the evening of the attacks, Summers stood in front of an overflowing Tercentenary Theatre and addressed a shaken crowd.
“I have no special words of wisdom to offer at a moment like this,” Summers said. “When comprehension fails, we must turn to each other.”
Though the vigil speech and other similar campus appearances were not part of Summers’ initial agenda when he entered Mass. Hall on July 2, they may have a greater impact on Summers’ reputation than student office hours or informal dining hall discussions ever could. His personal skills, once considered his weakness, have become his strength, and a hallmark of how Harvard is handling the tragedy. Summers stood on the steps of Memorial Church alongside Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes and other campus religious leaders—and students noticed. As they departed the vigil and attempted to return to their everyday lives, many students stopped to shake Summers’ hand and thank him for speaking at the event.
According to Gomes, it was Summers’ choice to speak at the vigil.
“He could have written a press release, but he saw this as a priority,” Gomes said. “He came and did his part.”
When Summers was selected as the 27th president of Harvard University last March, many wondered how the former Secretary of the Treasury would adapt to a higher education leadership post.
President Neil L. Rudenstine, Summers’ predecessor, created a council of deans that functioned like a presidential cabinet, and reinstituted the office of the provost. For Summers, the idea of bringing the University together has taken a different, less tangible form in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Like fellow university presidents at Yale, Princeton and the University of Michigan, Summers kept in touch with the community via e-mail, and spoke at ceremonies honoring victims.
The day of the attacks, Summers sent a campus-wide e-mail expressing sympathy and support, and updating the community on Harvard’s response to the “moment of incalculable sorrow and loss.”
Instead of speaking on a national stage, Summers found himself speaking from the hallowed lectern of Harvard’s Memorial Church, leading a morning prayer service the week following the attack.
“I expected, in the first month of the term, to visit many parts of the University,” he said. “This pulpit was not one of them.”
His address may have been unexpected, but his words of strength and determination provided welcome guidance to a community still looking for answers.
He stressed the importance of dialogue in a University community and the unique opportunity to “contribute in the way we think, in the way we teach, in the way we learn.”
When Summers learned of the attack, he was quick to gather information and create a plan of action, said Assistant Provost Sarah E. Wald, who was in a staff meeting with Summers the morning of the attack.
“He recognized that there were certain things that needed to be done immediately,” she said. “He was very engaged and very decisive.”
He is not the first Harvard president to be tested by a crisis larger than higher education. University President James B. Conant ’14 spent much of his time in Washington during World War II, and Derek C. Bok governed a troubled campus during the conflict in Vietnam.
“We will prevail in the struggle in which we are now engaged because we will not succumb to the temptation of nihilism,” Summers said during the morning prayer service. “And despite what has happened, we will cherish the ideals on which this University and our nation were founded all the more.”
Later that day, Summers addressed a regular Friday prayer meeting for Harvard’s Muslim community in Lowell Lecture Hall, emphasizing the University’s commitment to its Islamic students.
“We cannot tolerate any failure to respect individuals as individuals,” he said.
On Sept. 19, Summers posted another letter addressed to members of the Harvard community on the Harvard website.
Tucked amidst his repeated reminders to preserve diversity was an eye-catching proposal—a $1 million contribution toward scholarships for victims’ families—the largest University donation outside of New York.
Though Harvard officials were hesitant to talk about the details at first, they said the decision emerged out of an administrative consensus that Harvard should help relief efforts. Some officials have even suggested that Summers himself spearheaded the donation effort.
“I give him full credit for it,” Gomes said.
A week later, the Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America “Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund”—chaired by former President Bill Clinton and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole—and the American Council for Education announced that they would join Harvard’s efforts and create a September 11 Scholarship Fund, quickly placing Harvard—and Summers—in the national spotlight as leaders of the effort.
But Summers has not sought the public arena. As a former Secretary of the Treasury, Summers could have taken to the airwaves as a commentator. But he has not retreated into a world of CNN interviews and op-ed columns.
Instead, his prominence on campus has grown.
—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com.