Q&A with Larry Summers

Q&A with Larry Summers
Nicole M. Iacopetti

Former Harvard University President and current economics professor Larry H. Summers sat down with The Crimson to discuss Harvard's 375th birthday, the importance of virtual learning, and changes the University might face in the years to come.

Former Harvard University President and current economics professor Lawrence H. Summers sat down with The Crimson to discuss Harvard’s 375th birthday, the importance of virtual learning, and changes the University might face in the years to come.

The Harvard Crimson: I wanted to ask you about your Boston Globe editorial about Harvard’s 375th anniversary from October. You write that Harvard needs to guard against turning inward. What do you mean by turning inward, and to what extent is Harvard doing that now?

Lawrence H. Summers: I think that what is important is that [Harvard] be prepared to think as aggressively as it can be about all the things that are possible to do to maximize its contribution.... But all of those things require measuring the efforts in terms of the magnitude of the problems and the challenges and the opportunities that are out there in the world rather than in terms of what maximizes comfort internally. I was very excited to see the edX initiative, which I think represents the kind of step forward out of traditional categories in a way that I think is going to be very important for the University in the future.

THC: You write that Harvard should risk disruptive change. I had a couple questions about that. First, what kind of disruptive change are we talking about here?

LHS: Nobody seeks to achieve destruction, but inevitably, just as the calculator displaced the slide rule, and the cell phone displaced the payphone, and orthroscopic knee surgery displaced traditional knee surgery, finding better ways of doing things sometimes means that activities that were once right will no longer be seen in the same light. And the most successful institutions are ones that are constantly thinking about what it would look like if they were being invented today rather than taking as a given the full set of inherited priorities and ways of doing things that have been traditional. And so, for example, the divisions of knowledge into departments that were appropriate 50 years ago when the structure of the College was basically set may or may not be fully appropriate today. Boundaries between schools that were appropriate in President Eliot’s time may or may not be appropriate today. The distinctions between what categories of faculty are or the meaning of a library that were appropriate a half-century ago may not be appropriate today.

THC: As of course you know, Harvard celebrated its 375th anniversary in the midst of a worldwide financial crisis and an endowment crash. How does Harvard deal with the economic volatility that we’ve already seen and will continue to see in the future, especially as it makes these changes that you’ve mentioned?

LHS: Harvard needs to be very much aware, as I think it always has been, in its financial planning that markets are anything but certain and that endowments can go up in value in good years and can go down in value in bad years, and therefore needs to make judgments about its spending that recognize the uncertainty of future endowment values and that recognize that we can’t know what volatility will come in the future. I do think it’s important to recognize that preparing for Harvard’s future is not just about preserving the endowment. It is also about putting in place everything from laboratories to modern student social space, from a first-rate faculty to making investments in information technology.

THC: What do you see as your role in producing these sorts of changes and working toward these changes, and is it something you want to pursue further here at Harvard, in the nation, or both?

LHS: I greatly enjoyed my time as Harvard president. I hope in some way that I was able to push things forward on some important issues. That is for others to judge. My main focus at this point has moved back to issues of national economic policy, and I am very careful to extend to the current University administration the same supportive approach that my predecessors extended to me: being available to help out if asked, but other than that, to stay out of University issues.

THC: You’ve talked a lot about the types of changes we need to make regarding technology and some other things. Is there anything else that comprises your vision for what a 21st-century university should be, and what direction do you think higher education as a whole should be moving toward in addition to the things you’ve already mentioned?

LHS: I think you’re likely to see substantial pressure to make much more use of technology. A good rule in life is that things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.... I don’t know just when the moment will come, but I suspect the moment will come when the traditional lecture will come to be just one possible means of conveying a set of material, rather than the dominant one as it is today.... If you think about how much the American population has increased, how much availability has been increased by financial aid, how many more families are prepared to think about sending their child to a school like Harvard, and then you think about the pressure for study in the United States coming from the rest of the world, these pressures are immense. And yet a class at Harvard and most other schools is just about the same size as it was in the 1970s. And so technology is basically, potentially a part of doing things better, a part of doing things cheaper, a part of doing them on a larger scale, and I think all of those are going to be very important in higher education. I suspect whoever leads among the world’s universities in 2050 will lead in a significant part because of what they’ve done with information technology distance learning, and so I think it’s hugely important to be prepared to innovate on those margins.

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

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