On March 11, 2001, Lawrence H. Summers stepped to the Loeb House podium to accept his selection as Harvard’s 27th University president. Hailing from his post as U.S. Secretary of Treasury, Summers was Harvard’s first president to make the jump from Washington D.C. politics to what is arguably the ivory tower’s highest office. In many ways, this preparation proved to be a mixed blessing, engendering a relentless push for change that at once made Summers compelling and sowed the seeds for his downfall.
Election cycles dictate the pace of activity in Washington D.C., and often it seemed as though Summers couldn’t leave that pace behind when he arrived in Cambridge. Initiatives were introduced at breakneck speed, stretching the University’s collective attention to its limits. This type of administrative ambition would normally be unwelcome at a decentralized academic institution, but Summers’ presidency provided two reasons why rapid change might work at the traditionally intractable Harvard.
First, in 2001, rapid change was just what the presidential search committee was looking for and, seemingly, just what Harvard needed. After a decade in which the University was relatively stagnant in most respects other then its endowment figures and clandestine land-purchases in Allston, Harvard had much ground to make-up—the once-per-generation Harvard College Curricular Review and the largest physical expansion of Harvard’s in its history hung in the balance. In 2001, Harvard was rich, but hadn’t yet found a way to buy a new lease on life. Summers showed a way.
Second, and more importantly, the content of Summers’ vision was so compelling that it often seemed that the faster it could come to fruition, the better. Perhaps it was Summers’ experience away from the academy, first at the helm of the Treasury Department and as the World Bank’s chief economist prior to that, that made him uniquely in touch with the most vital issues of our era. Summers frequently suggested that future textbooks would look back on our time as the era of a life sciences revolution and an age of rapid globalization. These ideas resonated with idealistic students set on making their mark on the world and with the public at large, which still had not relinquished its view of Harvard as the Kremlin on the Charles.
To those ends, Summers began to mobilize Harvard’s considerable resources. The University is primed to become the life sciences epicenter of the world with planned facilities in Allston leading the way. Just this week, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, formed under Summers’ leadership, announced its intention to trailblaze human embryo cloning research with the intention of creating disease- and patient-specific stem cell lines. With respect to globalization, Summers has helped effect considerable cultural change at Harvard. After years in which the conventional wisdom was that a semester spent away from Harvard was a lost semester, students have begun studying abroad in record numbers. Summers also helped establish a Chilean office of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and upon his recent visit to India, indicated that a similar initiative will soon be underway in Mumbai.
Summers combined his astute sense for today’s big ideas with an unprecedented dedication to undergraduate education. He suggested in his inaugural address that students at the College were being shortchanged, recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Class of 1861, who asserted that “it is our task to set their minds on fire.” From funding social events and renovations to revamping financial aid to teaching courses himself, Summers has been the president most actively involved in undergraduate life in recent memory. As many of today’s graduates will attest, these changes have noticeably begun to improve undergraduate life. Summers has made Harvard College relevant again.
But for all the goods things Summers brought with him from Washington D.C.—his sense of urgency and his knack for pursing the right ideas—Summers lacked the diplomatic grace of a versed politician, which proved to be fatal to his presidency. While a brusque and bold tact might succeed in an environment where politicians are scurrying for accomplishments before the next election, Summers faced faculty members with lifetime tenures who had little tolerance for his prodding ways. Perhaps one of the great ironies of Summers’ presidency will prove to be the stark contrast between his ability to develop a bold plan for Harvard and his decided failure in getting others to buy into that plan.
Summers brought a penchant for controversy unseen in Mass. Hall ever before, stirring perhaps a half-dozen controversies that each would have been tenure-defining mishaps for his two immediate predecessors—Derek C. Bok, who served four times as long as Summers, and Neil L. Rudenstine, who served twice as long. Indeed, if the Summers presidency is ultimately judged by the headlines he made in national newspapers, the record will not be flattering. For far more ink was spilled on former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74, Israeli divestment, differences in intrinsic aptitude between men and women in the sciences, administrative turnover, and Jones Professor of Economics Andrei Shleifer ’82, than on initiatives in life sciences and globalization or reform of undergraduate education. Summers’ political capital eroded throughout these controversies, which were in many ways peripheral to his core aims, leaving little opportunity for his proposals to take tangible form. Ultimately, far more was said than done. How, then, are we to judge Summers’ tenure? Was it merely a vision unfulfilled?
Summers banked his presidency on the assumption that his vision for Harvard was the right one. He aimed to implement that vision with an urgency befitting what would ultimately be the shortest tenure of any Harvard president since the Civil War. Pushing stubbornly as if each day might be his last on the job, that day arrived sooner than expected. With much work left unfinished—the conclusions of the curricular review hardly at hand, Allston planning still ripe for revision—the true test for the Summers legacy becomes whether his vision outlasts his five years, whether his ideas prevail.
Should Summers’ dismissal mark an about-face for a university in dire need of a new path to march along, as some claim, then Summers’ presidency will be viewed as an aberration, diverting an institution steeped in tradition from its natural course. Summers will have proved to be unready for Harvard. Should, however, this University continue along the trajectory along which Summers catapulted it in his brief time here, then he will be vindicated as a reformer ahead of his time; Harvard was just not ready for him. We certainly hope the latter will prove to be the case.