Students Discuss Experiences in Summers’ Seminar

When Daniel A. Koh ’07 arrived at Harvard this fall, he didn’t expect that the University president would be scheduling flights to England and meetings with British Prime Minister Tony Blair around him.

And he never thought that a few weeks after moving into his room in Thayer Hall, he would be writing his first response paper—for Lawrence H. Summers.

Now, four months, 12 meetings and 10 boxes of cookies later, Koh is turning in his final paper for Summers’ freshman seminar, “Globalization: Opportunities and Challenges.”

Koh was one of 16 first-years who had a chance to debate justice and free trade with the former secretary of the Treasury.

Nabbing a seat in Summers’ classroom was no easy task. More than 250 students applied for 16 spots, amounting to a roughly six percent chance of getting in—a task harder than getting into the College, which accepted 9.8 percent of applicants last year.

And the students who made the cut say they are as tight-lipped about the seminar with their peers in Annenberg as they are reluctant to wear Harvard sweatshirts in their hometowns.

“People give you a double-take when you tell them you’re taking it,” says Casey Bi ’07, who is also a Crimson editor. “It’s sort of tough, because the big questions freshmen ask each other is ‘Where are you from’ and ‘what classes are you taking’ so I usually just say a freshman seminar.”

According to Summers, from “a very large group of very strong students,” he made choices “at random, just assuring that there’s a range of perspectives” in the class.

Summers says he used essays submitted by the students to narrow down the group, but decided not to interview students because he didn’t want students to come in for an interview and then “feel that the president didn’t choose them.”

But at least one student didn’t even know who was reading her application when she submitted it.

“I think I only realized when I walked into the information meeting for the seminar, and I saw about 300 people there, and thought ‘oh dear,’” says Ellen C. Quigley ’07.

Of course, being in class with the president of the university is not easy.

“In the first couple of lessons that we were all nervous to be taught by the president of Harvard,” Siddharth Suchde ’07 says. “Before you open your mouth, you better be damn sure that you know what you are saying.”

But students in the class say they were soon surprised at Summers’ willingness to share personal anecdotes about his family and his experience in Washington. And the world-renowned economist never shied away from getting back to the basics—including simple supply-and-demand diagrams.

“There was something so humorous about sitting there watching Larry Summers drawing this diagram that any retarded monkey could draw, but it was Larry Summers doing it,” Emre says.

In addition to readings by renowned economists Joseph Stieglitz, William Easterly and Amartya Sen, Summers also assigned some of his own published work. Readings that discussed Summers’ tenure as secretary of the Treasury and chief economist of the World Bank were also on the syllabus, like a recent memoir by Robert E. Rubin ’60, Summers’ former colleague.