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.
8. FM: What’s your relationship like with President Faust?
LHS: Drew and I speak from time to time. I’ve tried to respect President Faust in a way that Presidents Rudenstine and Bok respected me. I am responsive if there’s something I can do, but I never interfere in any aspect of University decision-making, since I had my time.
9. FM: There’s a movement on campus calling for the Harvard Management Company to adopt more socially responsible investment criteria. What are your thoughts on that?
LHS: In general, I think the right purpose for the University’s endowment is to maximize the University’s ability to do the socially beneficial things it does, like provide financial aid to students, like carry on research in developing countries, rather than to be a vehicle for political statements.
10. FM: Do you miss being in a decision-making role?
LHS: I think the most fulfilling kind of career a person can have is one where you have an opportunity to contribute in a number of different ways. I’m looking forward to a phase of teaching and writing and speaking.
11. FM: After spending most of your time in the last few years interacting with members of the political and business elite, what’s it like teaching students again?
LHS: One of the things I really like about working with undergraduates is that it gives you a chance to see issues that you’ve been thinking about for a long time through fresh eyes, because they haven’t been through the issues many times in the way that politicians and business people are likely to have been through the issues.
12. FM: Are you satisfied with the job you did as director of the National Economic Council?
LHS: No one can be satisfied with the way the economy is. But if I compare where we are with where it looked like we might be when President Obama took office, I think that the deep risk of another depression has been countered. Of course one would wish that it was possible to solve these problems faster. The core task, which was to counter the violent downdraft in the economy, has I believe been achieved.
13. FM: Where has the economic plan failed?
LHS: The economic logic of a simultaneous substantial excess of physical capital which inhibits investment and a major overleveraging of balance sheets which leads to large-scale savings creates an imbalance that inherently takes a long time to work through. And that’s an important source of frustration. But I believe the approach, based on substantial fiscal expansion, based on private capital infusions into troubled financial institutions, based on responding to the problems of major industries that were in trouble, based on buttressing the global economy, was the right approach.
14. FM: You used to brief President Obama daily. What’s your relationship like with him now?
LHS: I speak with the president, the vice president and people in the administration on a fairly frequent basis. Beyond that the conversations are confidential.
15. FM: You were born in New Haven, and your parents taught at Yale. Which team are you really rooting for at The Game?
LHS: I am proud to have been the only Harvard president who never as president saw Harvard lose to Yale. Five years, five Harvard victories.