Summers Welcomes First-Years to Harvard

Jessica E. Schumer

University President LAWRENCE H. SUMMERS addressed the Class of 2008 yesterday at opening ceremonies, marking the start of the school year. He encouraged first-years to “make a difference.”

First-years gathered in Tercentenary Theater yesterday afternoon to hear the man who signed the dollar bills in their piggybanks deliver the keynote address at this year’s opening exercises.

And although University President Lawrence H. Summers stood unrecognized pacing in the shadows of University Hall before his speech, he was mobbed with requests for signatures afterwards. “The moment he got up there, we checked our dollar bills to see if he had signed them,” said first-year Daniella Sassoon. “And he had! It was so cool.”

But that wasn’t the only thing first-years had heard about Summers before arriving on campus this Saturday.

Though much of campus for first-years is terra incognita, many had already become acquainted with Summers through the recent proliferation of magazine covers, stints on National Public Radio and profiles in major newspapers about Harvard’s outspoken president.

“I’ve been following his career since he was treasurer of the United States,” Cantabrigian Silas Howland ’08 said, “and I even used to collect his dollar bills. He has magical eyes.”

Alex Blankfein ’08, a New Yorker who read the New York Times magazine cover story on Summers last August, said that he had heard the president was “doing good things for Harvard” but was “known to be a little arrogant.”

Some first-years had heard about Summers’ rocky start as president, when a flare-up with former Harvard Professor Cornel R. West ’74 made headlines.

“I heard he’s more infamous than famous,” said Evan Hanlon ’08, from Long Island. “And that he struck some people as kind of blunt and rude when he first became president.”

“Some upperclassmen warned me that he takes weird pauses when he speaks and that he’s a genius,” said Greg Balliro ’08, who is from Tallahassee, FL.

But first-years said that Summers came off as funny and level-headed in his speech yesterday afternoon.

Summers opened his speech on a whimsical note: “I want to thank Dean Kirby for arranging this weather.” He continued in a jaunty manner, making quips about “browsing through thefacebook.com” to get to know the freshman class instead of reading their application essays. He added that he even tried to register his profile at thefacebook.com, but “my teenage daughters threatened to disown me if I did,” he said.

“I first read about him as a super-serious economist, but he came across as very down to earth in his speech, the way he made a mistake and also joked about thefacebook and everything,” said Anna K. Swenson ’08.

Jakub Scholtz ’08, who is from the Czech Republic, said that he was surprised that Summers seemed so casual and charismatic in his speech.

“Yes, if I saw him in the Yard one day, I think I could ask him where the toilet was or something,” he said.

Summers also spoke more seriously in his speech, and noted that Harvard University, “a remarkable and paradoxical institution,” comes with a long history. As he does every year, Summers offered the first-years comfort by relating his own experiences navigating his first semester as president at Harvard in 2001. He told an anecdote about a clerk refusing him a Harvard Coop number because he lacked a Harvard ID, and quoted Harry Truman’s salient remarks about his time in the United States Senate: “The first six months I couldn’t figure out why I was there. For the rest of the time, I wondered why the others were there.”

But Summers also touched on more serious issues outside of Harvard Yard, such as the AIDS crisis in Africa, Sept. 11 and nuclear warfare. He discussed how Harvard professors and researchers were contributing to solve these problems.

He urged first-years to “make the most of this experience” and to involve themselves in their world and their community. “Figure out how you want to make a difference in this world” he said, adding that he hoped students in the Class of 2008 would also “find themselves and form lasting friendships and relationships.”

The hour-long gathering marked the official start of Harvard’s 369th year, with speeches from Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, in addition to Summers.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, Radcliffe Choral Society and Harvard Glee Club also performed during the exercises.

—Staff writer Lauren A. E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.