Mundheim Shuffles Careers

From law to diplomacy to academia, Harvard graduate stays fresh

The seven years that Robert H. Mundheim ’54 spent at Harvard College and Harvard Law School between 1950 and 1957 was the longest period of time that he’s spent in any one place since then.

Four years after graduating from HLS, Mundheim briefly joined a law firm before taking a stint with the Air Force in Berlin, serving on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), playing a lead role in negotiating the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran, two decades in various academic institutions and a position on the team that rebuilt Salomon Brothers.

But despite his accomplishments, Mundheim speaks modestly. HLS Professor David Shapiro ’54, who shared a room in Holworthy with Mundheim during their freshman year at Harvard, describes him as one of the most humble people he knows.

“I am amazed at how many things he has done over the course of his career,” Shapiro says. “But he has always been very modest and understated.”

Mundheim says he has been driven to restlessness by a desire to explore.

“I always look at my life as you do a number of different things—that’s really terrific, you have a good time at it, you learn something and then you do something else,” he says.

THE START OF THE ROAD

Mundheim was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany in 1933, just as Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party was rising to power. In January of 1939, Mundheim’s family managed to escape Germany and immigrate to the United States.

Mundheim attended Exeter before matriculating to Harvard in 1950, where he pursued a degree in American History, was active in Philip’s Brooks House Association (PBHA) and played freshman baseball and other sports.

“When I was in college that first year I thought of him primarily as an extraordinary athlete and prep school jock, but then I found out he was making fantastic grades,” Shapiro recalls.

During one summer, Mundheim travelled to Germany with PBHA to teach elementary students.

“It was thought that in educating young people we might still have something to offer,” Mundheim says.

After graduating from Harvard College in 1954, Mundheim fulfilled his childhood dream of attending Harvard Law School (HLS)—“Since I was probably ten or so I wanted to go to law school,” he says—and, as an added bonus, he would continue on with his close friend and former freshman roommate, Shapiro.

After graduating from HLS, Mundheim received one of the University’s ten Frederick Sheldon travelling fellowships. The fellowship paid for his travelling expenses for a year, and Mundheim more than took advantage of the opportunity, working at a bank in Distledorf and a law firm in Athens before turning to Italy for the art museums and Turkey for a challenge.

“I spent some time in Turkey to try and see if I could navigate in a country where I had no language abilities,” he recalls.

A CAREER INTERRUPTED

Following his travels, Mundheim began what he expected to be a long career at the law firm Shearman & Sterling. But after just several months at the firm, he was called into service in Berlin with his Air Force National Gaurd Unit following the construction of the Berlin Wall.

“My job was writing numbers backwards on a glass backboard so the officers on the other side who controlled the aircraft could read them,” he says.

After being discharged in 1962, Mundheim was persuaded by various Harvard contacts in the Kennedy Administration to take on a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), conducting a special study of mutual funds.

But Mundheim would only be at the SEC for a year before receiving a phone call from the Dean of the Duke Law School asking him if he could be persuaded to try his hand at teaching.

To Mundheim’s surprise, the dean showed up at his office in Washington, DC at 9 a.m. the next morning to seal the deal, and the next thing he knew he was a visiting professor at Duke School of Law.

During his year at Duke, Mundheim discovered his passion for teaching, and decided to pursue it as a career. He found the perfect match for his interests at the University of Pennsylvania Law school—a school located in between the financial district of New York and the political center of Washington.

“I thought that would make it easy to be in touch with the government and people in financial practice without being so close that you would begin to get drawn in,” Mundheim says.

He joined the Penn faculty in January of 1965, but he did not stay long before returning to his roots. In 1968 Mundheim came back to HLS as a visiting professor where he was again reunited with Shapiro.

“It was great fun because you were now on a faculty with a substantial number of people who had taught you, and I had a very good friend who was a freshman college roommate who was a professor at Harvard Law School,” Mundheim recalls.

One of the contacts that Mundheim made while visiting Harvard was Fritz Kubler, who would ultimately relocate to the University of Konstanz in Germany. In 1973 Kubler called on Mundheim to aid the law school in it’s efforts to model it’s teaching faculty on those of American law schools. After a year in Germany and several more back at Penn, Mundheim moved to the UCLA School of Law for another visiting stint in 1977.

During his time there, Harold Williams, then the Dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, was appointed to be the chairperson of the SEC, and asked Mundheim to join him as a commissioner. Mundheim says he was denied the job because the SEC was looking for a woman to fill the position.

THE PUBLIC SERVANT

But just as the SEC job was falling through, Mundheim came across an even better opportunity—General Counsel to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The appearance of the second opportunity, he says, was “one of the kind of funny things that shows you that life has its own pattern.”

Mundheim received the offer from Robert Carswell, an old Shearman & Sterling friend. Mundheim served as General Counsel from 1977 until 1980, and he describes the experience as one of the most rewarding of his life.

“It was immensely fascinating and challenging. There was enormous breadth to the things that you had to know because it ranged from doing the guarantees of New York City debt, the bailout of Chrysler, opening up formal relations with China, the Banking Act of 1978, and the freeze of Iranian assets,” Mundheim says.

As he approached the end of his term under President Jimmy Carter, Mundheim planned to return to the academic life at Penn. But in January of 1980, he was called on to help secure the release of the 70 American hostages who had already been held for over 400 days.

The U.S. sent a Treasury team to London to negotiate the destination of the frozen Iranian government assets, and Carswell came to Mundheim to head up the team.

After negotiating with the Bank of England to be the stakeholder of the assets, Mundheim travelled to Algeria with the other negotiators to complete the release of the hostages. After 12 intense days in January, the Iranians agreed to release the hostages, and they were sent home on President Reagan’s first day in office—timing which is frequently seen as suspicious.

“The question has always been whether the Iranians planned it that way, whether or not they had a particular animus towards Carter,” Mundheim says.

While Mundheim says the challenge of the negotiations made them worthwhile.

“It was a ten day negotiation, but all the things that you do have problems that you have to surmount and sometimes you are lucky and find a way to do it fairly rapidly, and sometimes you stub your toe pushing,” he says. “But ultimately you accomplish whatever you are going to accomplish.”

BACK TO ACADEMIA

After defusing one of the scariest foreign relations crises in the Cold War, Mundheim returned to Penn to become University Professor of Law and Finance—one of only 19 professors designated as “University” professors, a title which honored accomplishment in more than one field.

But in 1982, fate and fortune struck again, and Mundheim was tapped to head the Law School as Dean.

Mundheim served as the Dean of Penn’s Law School until 1987 before returning to the private sector for the first time in 26 years, taking a job with the law firm Fried, Frank, and Harris.

“One of the things that I have learned is that one of the most important choices you make is when to stop,” he says of leaving academia. “You should always try to have that be a choice you make and not one that somebody else makes.”

Less than five years after Mundheim joined Fried, Frank, and Harris, he received another phone call from a person in power looking to utilize his knowledge and talent. This time, it was billionaire Warren Buffett.

In 1991, the trading house of Salomon Brothers had fallen on hard times after a large-scale t-bill scandal. Buffett, who owned a significant share of the company, stepped in and asked Mundheim to join a team charged with rebuilding the trading house.

“Since I had never done anything from the corporate side, I thought that would be fun and would round me out,” Mundheim says. “Strangely enough, like the academic community where you made it if you were good, it was a true meritocracy.”

Salomon was ultimately sold to Travelers Group at a much better price that it was trading at in 1991, and Mundheim became General Counsel of what became Salomon Smith Barney. The company later merged with Citigroup, and Mundheim stayed on until 1998.

FULL CIRCLE

In 1999, Mundheim finally returned to Shearman & Sterling, the law firm where he started his career.

“I went to Shearman after a 38 year hiatus with the thought that I would practice law and have time to do other things,” he says.

Though no longer running law schools or negotiating release of hostages, Mundheim continues to move in multiple directions. He serves as the president of the Appleseed foundation, an organization that establishes public interest centers around the country to deal with systemic problems in the local community. Two current projects include finding pro bono defenders in Texas and analyzing the potential for using retired professionals in the New York City public school system.

Mundheim has also served since 2000 as president of the American Academy in Berlin, which invites distinguished academics and practitioners in the humanities and public policy to spend a semester there giving lectures. Mundheim describes the organization as an attempt to “keep the German-American dialogue alive and present American ideas and values for people.”

Mundheim also sits on the council of the American Law Institute, and on the board of the New School University in New York.

He says he has no immediate plans to retire, and will continue to work as long as he believes he can still contribute.

“I think as long as you feel that you have the energy and the interest, you do the things that are available for you to do,” Mundheim says.

And Mundheim’s old friend agrees that he still has it in him to continue.

“I think he is one of the most youthful members of our class today with his energy, his stamina, and his interest in the world,” Shapiro says. “I can’t imagine Bob retiring.”

Mundheim attributes his long and illustrious career to his willingness to be open to offers as they were presented and then seizing the chance.

“There are many opportunities in life to be productive and to be satisfied,” Mundheim says. “You just have to be open to them.”

—Staff writer Evan M. Vittor can be reached at evittor@fas.harvard.edu.