The Harvard Showroom Is Open

In Faculty, hybrids are popular, but Subarus take the cake; in VES, there's even a Suburban

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Ming E. Vandenberg

N. Gregory Mankiw, who teaches the introductory economics course, owns a BMW with a fitting vanity plate. He says he’ll pass it on to Ec 10’s next head.

What happens when an academic must descend from the highest reaches of the Ivory Tower and, well, buy a car?

Latin professor Kathleen M. Coleman gets around on a machine she calls the Verginius Volvo Invictus. (Named after the friend of a famous Roman senator, Pliny the Younger.)

Mathematician Benedict H. Gross ’71 drives an early-model hybrid, a 2001 Honda Insight. (“It’s aerodynamic and made of plastic,” the former dean of the College says. “They only made a couple hundred.”)

Political scientist Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 invited a reporter to his house near the Quad to show off his black 10-year-old Lexus ES 300 and its “W ’04” decal. (“I happened to get a medal from Bush,” the well-known conservative says, “and I told him about the sticker.”)

The Crimson surveyed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ wheels this semester and came to a few tentative conclusions: Priuses are common, suspected Porsche owners don’t want to be interviewed, and, as for the most academic of automobiles? It’s the Subaru Forester.

Forester ownership transcends the disciplines, from anthropology to African American studies and from English to history—with at least 15 FAS Forester owners in all. “Half of Cambridge” drives the $22,000-and-up cross between a station wagon and an SUV, anthropologist Theodore C. Bestor muses.

The survey also found some correlation between departments and choice of car. Of 18 respondents in the economics department, eight said they owned luxury cars—one of the highest percentages. And of the 13 East Asian studies faculty who responded to the survey, eight drove Asian-made cars. Overall, Toyota was the most popular make, followed by Subaru, Honda, Saab, and Volvo.

Taken together, the roster of cars—and other modes of transport—employed by Harvard professors sheds a bit of light on the Faculty’s distinctive character: part snooty and part down-to-earth, part self-conscious and part green-conscious. None of those attributes, it turns out, are mutually exclusive.

GREEN ON THE RISE

“I drive a Chevy,” John R. Stilgoe proclaims. “It makes me sound like a common man.” The famously quirky visual and environmental studies professor says his black ’96 Suburban helps him blend into rural America on his annual summer field trips into the heartland.

He’s also quick to note that he doesn’t actually drive his massive SUV (city fuel economy: 11-12 miles per gallon) to campus—just from his house south of Boston to a train station. “If you reduce your carbon footprint at the house, you can drive whatever you want,” Stilgoe says.

Many of Stilgoe’s colleagues express their concern about the environment in a more conspicuous way: they drive Toyota Priuses, the hybrid-engine vehicles that get over 40 miles to the gallon. Computer scientist Margo I. Seltzer ’83, a recent Prius convert, says she started feeling guilty about her ’96 Toyota Corolla when she saw Al Gore ’69’s “An Inconvenient Truth” over the summer.
 
Perhaps the campus’s most venerable Prius owner is former University President Derek C. Bok, the political scientist who served a second stint in Mass. Hall last year on an interim basis. He replaced economist Lawrence H. Summers, whose controversial leadership style was occasionally mentioned in the same breath as his choice of wheels—a black chauffeured Lincoln Town Car. His successor, Drew G. Faust, owns a Honda Accord, though she says she prefers to walk to work.

Other green-conscious professors contacted by The Crimson bragged about their fancy bicycles. Economist Emmanuel Farhi says his bike is “very powerful,” and physicist Gerald Gabrielse notes that his is made of titanium.
 
Still others, such as economist Matthew Nunn, mathematician Bret J. Benesh, English professor Elizabeth D. Lyman, and political scientists Glyn Morgan and Cindy Skach said they used Zipcars when they needed mechanized transport. “Nearly everyone I know uses them,” Morgan says of his Cambridge neighbors. The Zipcar service allows people to rent cars quickly for an hourly rate.


UNDERCOVER LUXURY

As for luxury cars, the 223 professors who responded to the survey seemed a bit hesitant to reveal that they owned them. One of the few who did, historian Sugata Bose, said in an e-mail: “I am not sure I should reveal this information to a Crimson reporter, but I drive a BMW 325xi. I hope very much that Harvard students will approve.”

Other confirmed BMW owners include two star economists: “Race in America” professor Roland G. Fryer Jr. and “Principles of Economics” head N. Gregory Mankiw. The latter’s 330xi bears a vanity plate that says “EC 10.” “I’ll pass it on to whoever teaches the course next,” Mankiw says.

When it comes to intra-faculty vehicular stereotypes, the economics department is known as the one with the flashiest autos. “Look in back of Littauer if you want to see the latest models,” Mansfield says, referring to the building by the Science Center where most Harvard economists work.

“I think the economics department likes fairly expensive cars,” Stilgoe says. “They are interested in things that demonstrate financial value.”

But perhaps not all of them. Jeffrey Miron, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, says he drives a red ’98 Toyota Sienna minivan “well encrusted with chocolate milk spills, French fries, moldy golf shoes, and the like.”

Reporters also spotted at least four Porsches across campus. Various attempts to figure out who owned them were unsuccessful. Chemistry professor Stuart L. Schreiber, the subject of a 1994 Crimson profile that featured his Porsche, would not comment for this article.

And then there are those academics who would rather be driven. As economic historian Niall Ferguson put it in an e-mail: “My personal preference is to sit in the back of a black chauffeur-driven Lincoln, so long as someone else is paying.”

—Jesse Cohen, Cora K. Currier, Bora Fezga, Johnny H. Hu, Benjamin M. Jaffe, Lauren D. Kiel, Kevin C. Leu, Lingbo Li, Nini S. Moorhead, Alexandra Perloff-Giles, Michelle L. Quach, Lindsay P. Tanne, Shan Wang, Heekwon Seo, Chelsea L. Shover, David J. Smolinsky, Vidya B. Viswanathan, Maria Y. Xia, and Esther I. Yi contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at mchild@fas.harvard.edu.

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