15 Questions: Larry Summers

larry summers interview fm
Judy Park

After serving for nearly two years as President Obama’s chief economic advisor, President Emeritus and University Professor Lawrence H. Summers returned to campus this semester to resume his teaching responsibilities. Summers sat down with FM to talk about his presidential relationships, the state of the global economy, and his decision to return to Harvard.

1. Fifteen Minutes: What’s it like being back on campus?

Lawrence H. Summers: I’ve been happy at Harvard before, and I’m happy now. I’m enjoying spending time with students. I’m enjoying having time to think and reflect, both on what we did in the Obama administration and on economic issues going forward. I’m enjoying seeing how some of the things I worked on as President have come to fruition.

2. FM: In the final days of your Harvard presidency you told The Crimson that you were looking forward to time “to reflect, to write, and to speak freely, unencumbered by any institutional responsibility.” What happened?

LHS: I had a couple of very happy years before I went into government. I was mostly involved in thinking about what was the gathering financial crisis and appropriate policy responses to it. I really enjoyed teaching an undergraduate course on globalization. I may go back to that at some point before too long.

3. FM: What brought you back to Harvard?

LHS: I have liked University life as a professor. I’ve never been primarily motivated by income, though as many professors do, I’m sure I will do some consulting going forward. There is no greater collection of thinkers and nothing more important than new thinking. I want to be part of that at this point.  Ultimately, policy and politics are shaped by ideas and how they are understood.

4. FM: You left here amidst quite the controversy. Have there been any awkward encounters?

LHS: I’m a person who believes in looking forward, not backwards. I’m sure there are people who are still angry about controversies that occurred during my time as president, but I’ve certainly tried to move on.

5. FM: Rumor has it that you left the White House to keep your tenure. Is that true?

LHS: I left the White House for a whole combination of reasons. My wife had been living in Boston all this time. I felt that my main purpose in going back into government was to work with the president on ensuring a strong response to the crisis that loomed at the end of 2008. We had provided such a response. Certainly I was committed to my Harvard position. All of those factors were part of my decision to return.

6. FM: Earlier this semester, FM took a look at University President Drew G. Faust’s office. What do you think of the redecorations?

LHS:  I’m sure everyone who holds an office like that personalizes it. I’m sure Drew has done a great job with that. I haven’t had a chance to visit her in her office since I’ve returned.

7. FM: Would you have welcomed back ROTC if you were president?

LHS:  I was glad to see ROTC come back. I felt from the time I became president that Harvard benefited enormously from being a citizen, an institutional citizen, of the United States and therefore had an obligation to cooperate with our national defense. That didn’t require us to agree with every policy. And I strongly opposed some of the discriminatory policies of the military.