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.
The class also read “Larry Summers: War on the Earth,” an article which attacks the infamous Toxic Waste Memo which Summers signed off on when he was at the World Bank.
“It was great that he gave us reading that criticized him,” Koh says, “It would have so easy for him to sweep that stuff under the carpet.”
Some students, too, were critical of Summers.
Quigley, called the “anti-Larry” by one of her classmates, says she never hesitated to stand up for her beliefs in class.
“He would often get us to read things he had written, and he was afraid that we wouldn’t criticize him,” she says. “But I’m not afraid to say what I think.”
But other students found that having the president as your professor took some getting used to.
“It’s a little bit more of a pressurized situation,” remembers David H. Stearns ’07, who is also a Crimson editor, “because you are being taught by a really famous person.”
“He has a habit of circling his index finger and thumb around his mouth while he’s listening to you,” one student recalls. “And sometimes he’ll glance away, stare at an empty spot in the room—and it’s just his pose. But it’s fairly disconcerting to a freshman trying desperately to impress him and make a fairly intelligent point to the president of the school and the world’s expert on this topic.”
Though Summers’ quirks remained, conversation became less stilted by the seminar’s second meeting, some students say, pointing to Summers’ open mind.
But Merve G. Emre ’07 says it all boiled down to a box of cookies which “totally broke the ice.”
The cookies—which were Emre’s suggestion—became a staple of the seminar’s Monday-night meetings.
“I thought it was great that he didn’t think he was too cool to eat cookies with us. Everything was down to our level,” Koh says. “He explained things clearly, he let us talk a lot, he ate cookies with us, and then he’d go, ‘Well, when I was chief of the World Bank.’”
Despite his reputation as a fierce debater, students say Summers gave them plenty of chances to air their opinions.
“A lot of people will ask if he’s combative, argumentative,” Stearns says. “Sure, he would come at you and make you defend your point with facts and theories, but if you did, he respected it.”
But sometimes the two-hour seminars wore on students.
“He’s not the most animated speaker,” one student recalls. “You could definitely zone out a bit, especially when we’d do the math, and after two hours sitting in the same chair. But there’s no question in my mind that he is the smartest person I have ever met in my life.”
The Last Supper
Even after a whole semester of writing response papers and going head to head with Summers, students say he still catches them off guard with his occasional name dropping.
As Quigley prepares to turn in her paper today, she admits that she is “a little nervous.”
The pressure was on when the Saskatchewan native—who is writing a paper about her provincial government—met with Summers to discuss her topic.
“When I went in for my meeting, we started talking about our new prime minister, Paul Martin, who is good friends with President Summers,” Quigley recalls. “And he goes, ‘Well, if your paper is good enough, I might send it to Paul.’”
Summers has told the class that he will spend all of Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend at his Elmwood home reading the final papers.
And the pressure is on for the other students in the class as well, many of whom are hoping to get a recommendation from Harvard’s president.
After the final seminar, held over pizza at Elmwood last Monday night, students lingered to discuss their papers—and the possibility of changing Harvard’s exam schedule so that exams would take place before winter break.
Summers was noncommittal, but students rode the shuttle bus back to the Yard with the hope that exams might someday fall in December, and future students in Summers’ seminars might be sending in their papers a few weeks earlier.
“He told us that we’d have to have a strong campus consensus for it to happen, but that it could happen as early as our senior year,” Bi says.
—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.