The tragedy of University President Lawrence H. Summers’ tenure at Harvard is that Summers put forward a superb vision for Harvard’s future, but he could do no more than begin the implementation of that vision. In the months ahead, the Harvard Corporation will have the opportunity to choose a successor and to set the future of the University. If the Corporation commits itself to the best parts of Summers’ legacy, then these past five years will be remembered, not as tragedy, but as the first part of a great renewal of this great university. If instead, the Corporation’s response is to retreat and leave the vision behind with the man, then the past year will be a watershed marking the onset of Harvard’s decline.
Summers’ legacy rests on a renewed focus on undergraduate education, leadership in the life sciences, and bold planning for an educational community in Allston. Rhetoric about the importance of undergraduates is common; most Harvard faculty members and all past presidents have talked about the importance of the College to Harvard as a whole. Despite this rhetoric, Harvard has rarely enjoyed a reputation for putting undergraduates first. Summers recognized the enormous privilege of teaching our extraordinary students. Through words and deeds, he hammered home to every faculty member the obligations that come with that privilege. He showed his passion for undergraduate education by teaching freshman seminars and co-teaching one of the most popular courses in the College. His ill-fated attempt to guide curricular reform reflected his sincere desire to improve the College by fixing the Core Curriculum. Policies like abolishing tuition for those students from less privileged backgrounds furthered his ambitions for a stronger College. As we saw this week, many undergraduates saw his commitment to them and loved him for it.
Summers’ second legacy is the expansion of Harvard’s presence in the life sciences. In the late 1990s, Stanford and MIT, not Harvard, were the leading technology incubators of the computer era. The strength of these universities, relative to our own, rose steadily over the past 50 years as they dominated the last technological revolution while Harvard stood by. Summers saw that for Harvard to keep its preeminence the University must play a more central role in the current biology-centered technological revolution. To that end, he championed initiatives like the Broad Institute and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, endeavors which placed Harvard in the center of the life sciences. Inevitably, allocating resources to the life sciences meant conflict as other areas got less—or at least smaller increases in their budgets—but the only way to avoid conflict of this type is to have leaders whose choices and budgets are guided by more than mere incrementalism. That is a sure path towards mediocrity.
Finally, many of the most important decisions that are currently being made at the University concern the planning of our vast new campus in Allston. By the 1990s, community opposition had essentially shut down any new construction in Cambridge. If the University is to grow, that growth must occur across the river. The inevitable consequence of Summers’ belief in undergraduates and the life sciences is that much of the new campus will be devoted to expanding life sciences and improving undergraduate life. Summers coupled that vision with an increasing understanding of community-building. He championed new housing for graduate students so that Allston would thrive as a mixed-use scholarly environment. He endorsed environmental sustainability. He built a strong relationship with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to avoid the meltdown of town-gown relations that stopped us in Cambridge. Summers encouraged those involved in discussing Allston to push their creativity to its limit. He was a superb leader of the Allston planning process.
Behind these three centerpieces of the Summers presidency lied a coherent philosophy of higher education based on learning through scientific method. The goal of his policies was to ensure that Harvard would be guided by enlightenment values, seeking truth in rigorous theory and empirics, not in fads and certainly not in popularity contests. Summers is flawed, but even his flaws are often by-products of his greatest strength: his ceaseless desire to learn and promulgate the truth.
As the Corporation faces the future, it should choose a President with greater skill as a leader of academics and with Summers’ vision for Harvard’s future. The easy road towards retrenchment and consensus-based leadership will not make Harvard stronger. The next president must not only calm the waters, but also make hard decisions that will sadly, but inevitably, cause some resentment. But Harvard is not just a worker’s cooperative run for the faculty of one particular school. The Corporation must support decisions that put the needs of all of the University’s stakeholders before the needs of any one group. It may even be time, perhaps, for the President to end the favoritism of chairing meetings for just one of Harvard’s many faculties.
While there were dark moments during the past five years, Summers put forward a great vision for a 21st-century Harvard that embraces its undergraduates, leads the next technological revolution, and builds a stunning new campus. It is up to all of the members of the Harvard community to turn this vision into reality.
Edward L. Glaeser is Glimp Professor of Economics.