Commuting Professors: Elisa New

For the past two years, Professor Elisa New would turn off the lights and close the door to Barker 148 around five o’clock on Wednesdays, then take the T to Logan Airport to board a six o’clock flight, getting back to her Washington D.C. apartment in time for dinner at eight.

The daily journeys of Harvard professors to and from campus differ as widely as the subjects they teach, but even within the same department, mileage varies. In contrast to New’s 450-mile weekly commute, English Department colleague Professor Leland de la Durantaye enjoys a 10-minute bike ride to campus from his home in nearby Huron Village.

So why for two years would New subject herself to such travel—twice-weekly, thrice-monthly flights—up and down the East Coast? According to her, she did it for family and for country. At the time, her husband, former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers ’82, was serving in the White House as the Director of the National Economic Council.

“I wanted him to be able to serve our country, but we also wanted to see each other,” said New.

She acknowledges the consideration of the English Department, which permitted her to condense her teaching schedule into a three-day block from Monday through Wednesday, allowing her to live in Washington from Wednesday nights through Sunday evenings to see her husband and 14-year-old daughter while balancing full-time teaching duties.

“It turned out to be highly productive. Having an artificial division between different kinds of work—I’d leave teaching on Wednesday so Thursday and Friday would be writing days—as well as fewer commitments at the Washington apartment created a fertile writing environment,” said New.

And yet, the best part of the entire experience was not that she became more productive but that she enjoyed living a more stable domestic life.

“Larry has always traveled a lot, and this was a feature of our life already. However, when you work at the White House, you really stay there all the time. We were living a calmer, more domestic life, and that meant more dinners together at home and more quality time with my family,” said New.

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