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Harvard president-very-nearly-elect Lawrence H. Summers huffed hurriedly down the concourse toward the United terminal, coattails flapping as he went. It was 7:15 a.m., March 11, and the doors to the tarmac were about to snap shut for departure.
Flight 7736, service from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to Newark, New Jersey—a pumpkin ride for what some might have called an unlikely Cinderella. But instead of picking himself up out of the ashes, Larry Summers was just switching castles.
“That was close,” Summers muttered with a nod in my direction.
As the plane taxied down the runway, Larry Summers was an hour and 38 minutes out of Newark, and only a few minutes more from Rockefeller Center, where he would sell a roomful of Harvard Overseers on his plans for castle number two: The World’s Greatest University.
The man with a reputation for one of the World’s Greatest Egos is calm and confident.
He has a brief presentation planned, he says, but he isn’t overly concerned. He quizzes me on my short Harvard experience, providing a glimpse of what’s on his mind—advising, Faculty contact, facilities—even the Progressive Student Labor Movement. He sips his signature drink: a Diet Coke. A Nutri-Grain bar goes uneaten.
When he wanders off the plane, no one is waiting with signs that say Mr. Summers, or Mr. Harvard President. This man could be anyone. He’s 46 years old, the father of three, soon to be separated from his wife. He loves to play tennis, works long hours and is on the brink of a career change.
He’s also already been the Secretary of the United States Treasury, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a vice president of the World Bank, the youngest-ever tenured Harvard economics professor and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And he’s about to slap one final line onto an already colossal resume.
And there are many things he’s not. He’s not obvious. There are others who would have made bigger headlines, and still others who would have been safer choices. There was the woman. There was the beloved insider. There was the charmer from the Midwest. Summers is neither a safe nor sexy choice.
Four hundred to 40 to 4, 3, 2, 1. How did Summers make it through each grueling round? What did the search committee see?
They saw an above-average height, above-average weight, middle-aged man who projects a slightly intimidating aura. They saw a face well suited to caricature, a man who nods as he talks, whose words sputter out in short truncated clauses. They saw a former debater and hotshot professor who has learned to choose his words carefully, to force a warp-speed mind to slow down and consider. They saw a man who is not soft-spoken in the mold of his predecessor, Neil L. Rudenstine, but who seems to strain to appear so. The only hint that he is anything but sedate and passive are his sharp blue eyes, which start mostly focused on his listener, but soon begin to flit around the room, as if looking for a new target.
They saw a battle-hardened Larry who always finds his target, a man who spent the last decade away from the ivory tower, dealing with policymaking, pollution memos and politics—and helping to guide the nation’s longest period of prosperity. They saw a Larry who had made adjustments, who had gained new skills, who had smoothed rough edges. He had survived Washington, and having gone to the top of his field, was ready to come home to something new.
Summers’ acceptance speech later that day and subsequent interviews were peppered with references to undergraduates, and their role as Harvard’s “principal constituency.” At the first deans’ meeting, Summers spoke at length on the need for improvements in the undergraduate advising system. And every visit to Cambridge included a whistle-stop appearance at some College event—lunch at Lowell House, on the stage at Springfest or a closed meeting of the Undergraduate Council. The search committee’s public statements had emphasized that they wanted the World’s Greatest University to have the World’s Greatest College. Their words had clearly stuck.
In recent years, the Yard has been abuzz with the feeling that Harvard College’s undergraduate education was failing to keep pace with its gargantuan reputation. Before you even enter Johnston Gate, you hear the murmur of discontent: too much teaching by graduate students, some teaching fellows who don’t speak English and others who don’t care. Professors teach the occasional graduate seminar or rattle off a lecture in Sanders Theatre, where you are one of 900. Efforts have been made—seminar programs, expansion of top-notch professors’ participation in the Core—but the perception remains.
So why didn’t the search committee pick University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger, a popular figure among his school’s undergrads? Why not Professor Amy Gutmann ’71, former Dean of the Faculty at Princeton, which is mostly undergraduates? Why not Harvard Provost Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, who had the ultimate context in which to evaluate the needs of the College—over 30 years of affiliation with Harvard?
Why Larry Summers, who has been away from students and academics for the last 10 years?
Summers’ undergraduate teaching career alone does not answer the question. During his 10 years as a Harvard professor, Summers taught only one undergraduate course, Economics 1410: “Public Sector Economics,” for two semesters just before he departed for the World Bank. As a graduate student, he had also been an Ec10 teaching fellow, and for three years was a Lowell House tutor. Nonetheless, his primary focus as a professor had been on graduate students.
That said, the qualities that Summers displayed in the front of the classroom—any classroom—earned him a reputation as a master teacher.
As a teaching fellow, he was clear, dynamic, and for some students, the best teacher they ever had. David G. Golden ’80 remembers being in Summers’ Ec10 section as a first-year. Despite initial frustration that he was being taught mostly by graduate students, and rarely by professors, Golden quickly realized that Summers was as good as it got.
And as a professor, Summers excelled.
“He was great, incredibly quick on his feet, which was especially important with Harvard undergraduates as his audience,” John Gruber, a teaching fellow for Economics 1410 says. “It was the ‘old Larry’—not organized, animated, but always willing to schmooze forever on the topic of the day.”
Sandra L. Decker, another Economics 1410 teaching fellow, observed Summers both as his assistant and as his graduate student. “His classes were kind of a breath of fresh air. We went through the theory, but very much focused on policy,” she says.
It was apparent to those around him that he was a genius. But true to stereotype, he was an absent-minded genius.
“He was always rumpled—a bit the scatterbrained professor,” says Brian A. Jacob ’92, a student from the class.
Summers would rush into class with a fistful of notes. He liked to launch into lecture immediately, becoming a veritable whirlwind of engaging explanations, examples and hypotheticals. Halfway through class, his shirttails would begin to peek out. By the time he was done, they had usually untucked themselves completely.
The CUE guide, for what it’s worth, confirms a very positive picture of Summers the teacher. On a five-point scale, both Summers and his class scored a 4.2. “Respondents congratulated Professor Lawrence H. Summers on the overall excellence of his lectures. However, one-fourth note that he occasionally speaks too quickly, and a few wish that he would prepare handouts of the most important material... Respondents... overwhelmingly support Economics 1410 as an informative and stimulating course,” the comment reads.
But the quality of the professors lecturing students has never been the primary concern with undergraduate education. Harvard’s constellation of academic stars do a good job teaching bright students. A greater focal point for criticism has been advising and intimate student-faculty contact, or rather, the lack thereof.
But beyond his contributions at the front of a lecture hall, friends say Summers’ biggest strength was the mentor-style relationships he formed with students at every stage of his career. The search committee was looking for someone to force greater student-faculty contact, and who better than the archetypal mentor himself? The puzzle pieces start to fall into place.
On the one hand, Summers understands the mentor relationship from the side of the protegé. Summers has been guided by his own series of teachers, colleagues and bosses—among them a seventh grade history teacher, economics professor Martin S. Feldstein ’61 and Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin ’60.
“He has a deep appreciation for the role faculty members can play in the life of students—he knows how important it’s been in his career,” Summers’ brother John says. “It’s a favor he wants to return.”
Golden remembers that as a tutor, Summers spent hours in the dining hall, discussing students’ lives, debating politics, or helping with economics. “His door was always open,” Golden said (adding that Summers’ room was always a “complete mess” and the floor generally invisible under “laundry, papers and the occasional stale pizza”).
“Even then he was incredibly busy. Everybody wanted him, every student wanted to spend time with him. He’d talk to everybody if it meant staying late, talking on the phone from home, staying on Saturday,” says David M. Cutler ’87.
But more than any advice Summers gave, or kicks in the pants that he administered, his role as a mentor is best seen in terms of the coterie of devotees whose careers he gave tangible jumpstarts. Meeting up with Summers at some point early in their careers, either as thesis advisees or graduate tutees, these students and friends have later scored jobs at the World Bank, Treasury or elsewhere in Washington based on his recommendations. This is not a coattail effect, observers say, but rather an example of how Summers recognized existing talent, and provided the opportunities or it to flourish.
The stories are like that of Sheryl K. Sandberg ’91, whose thesis was advised by Summers. After attending Harvard Business School, she went to work with Summers at the World Bank and was tapped once more at the Treasury, where she rose to be his Chief of Staff. There is Gruber, the Economics 1410 teaching fellow who was asked by Summers to be a deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury. Or Brad DeLong, whose teacher-student relationship with Summers also eventually became one between Treasury Department colleagues.
All of his finds are incredibly loyal, and grateful for the opportunities Summers provided. All say Summers would find a way to continue to interact with students, and is uniquely qualified to tackle the problem of student-faculty interaction.
While Summers might have the perspective, it is never an easy proposition to implement change. Officials said that not everyone present at the first meeting with Summers took well to his aggressive stance on the problem of undergraduate advising—after all, had they been sitting on their hands all this time? Summers agrees that he might not have all the solutions immediately. “Many of these issues are long-term,” Summers said. “It’s not appropriate for me to say I’m arriving with silver bullets. I do hope that over time we can effect change.”
Nor is it easy to maintain contact with students on any wide-scale level. Rudenstine, for example, is seen as distant at best. Nonetheless, Summers will try his hand at it. “I hope that I will not become a remote figure,” he says, adding that spending time with students was “one of the great attractions to coming back.”
Harvard presidents have not always been brilliant. Sometimes they haven’t even been smart. Early illustrious leaders included John Rogers, a quack who practiced medicine without training and preached without ordination. But lately, above average intelligence has been the benchmark, and most presidents have indeed been the “best” or the “brightest” in some sense of those words. James B. Conant ’14 was a top-notch chemist, Rudenstine a respected humanist. Summers follows in their path, boosting brilliance to prodigy.
It’s the classic case of nature versus nurture. Was Summers’ brilliance a product of his pedigree and inheritance or of his upbringing?
Summers was born in New Haven in 1954 to Robert and Anita Summers, and was the eldest of three sons. He was, in many ways, the typical 1960s kid growing up in the typical 1960s family. Friends and relatives describe little Summers as talkative, affable, and extremely bright—never the most popular, but always with friends, and as he matured, increasingly self-assured.
“I was a curious kid, not especially outgoing, I guess,” he says. Brother John explains: “He was always energetic, directed, and highly social. He didn’t really come into his own until he was in college, where he was around a lot of other very bright people.”
Larry (his mother insisted on Lawrence only when it came time for him to sign the dollar bill), Richard ’79, and the youngest, John, were still young when the family moved to Merion, an upper-middle class Philadelphia suburb.
As young kids the Summers boys occupied themselves in fairly typical fashion—friends say that young Larry was no Treasury Secretary (or president of Harvard, for that matter) in the making. Childhood games, as John sheepishly admits, consisted of “Balloon-Balloon,” a basketball tipoff-like war around the perimeter of the dining room, and “Carpet-Sweeper Derby,” a time-trial style race around the living room.
The son of New Deal Democrats, Summers could recite the Kennedy cabinet from memory and spent a weekend glued to the television set when the president was assassinated.
But, for all that Summers and family emphasize the ordinary aspects of his childhood in Merion, there are details, that—while far from being the clue to understanding Summers’ speedy rise through the ranks—at least give it a more sensible context.
Nature. Summers was born to two economists. Both taught at the University of Pennsylvania. His father specialized in statistical modeling and the heavy-duty mathematical work, while his mother was interested in practical issues, like urban economics.
His uncles were the dons of modern economics, and won Nobel Prizes only two years apart. Kenneth Arrow, a long-time Harvard economist, is his mother’s brother, and Paul Samuleson of MIT, was his father’s brother (Summers’ father and another uncle had changed their surnames).
Given the heavyweight pedigree, when Larry decided to go into economics, friends were quick with the jokes. The Summers family had gotten what all parents dream of: A son who becomes a doctor (Richard), a son who goes into law (John), and of course, the son who goes into the family business.
And Nurture. More than genetics caused the Summers family windfall. Best friend Richard Neff remembers the intellectual climate of the Summers household as “a hotbed of intellectual activity. Every day they solved a different world problem,” he says.
Neff spent hours at the Summers residence, and enjoyed the charged atmosphere—to a point. “I liked going over there. I also liked leaving,” he says.
Summers possessed a college-level vocabulary in elementary school. He was also remarkably well aware of what was going on in the world around him. At age 10 he was on a sports radio game show, and the show ran out of questions before its airtime was up. Neff recalls that the host asked Larry what was on his mind. “I think I expressed the view that Red China should be in the UN and that the U.S. shouldn’t be in Vietnam,” Summers says. While Summers speculates that the argument wasn’t very well thought out or articulated, Neff cites the moment as “classic Larry.”
In high school Summers was a very smart kid at a very smart school. The school was well funded (“practically a country club,” Neff says), had high academic standards and small class sizes. And Summers breezed through it, leaving for MIT after his junior year.
Brilliance is a good thing for a Harvard president—playing the part of the eccentric genius comes with the territory. And by high school, Summers had mastered the part—disorganization being the key.
The only thing that kept Summers from straight A’s was disorganization. Neff was his lab partner in a high school physics class. “I’d get us to B,” Neff said. “Larry was supposed to get us to A, which he would do—as long as he didn’t lose the lab, which happened about 40 percent of the time.”
Despite having many interests and little organization, Summers was eventually able to channel his energy.
Summers tended toward the quantitative and was particularly interested in economics. He and his father did a statistical project predicting the results of a baseball season. “He was not one of those kids who was focused on being a scientist, or a mathematician, or social scientist,” John Summers said.
Summers excelled at the weekly system that determined time slot ownership of the Summers family’s lone TV. Each member was allotted chips and asked to bid on certain shows at certain hours, as a way to maximize everyone’s happiness (or utility). Eventually, Summers had organized the three children into a solid bidding bloc, able to outvote the parents, and the parents had to call the system off.
The initial set of 400 names submitted to the search committee was a hodgepodge of figures in higher education, business, and even government. National buzz promoted first Bill Clinton and then Al Gore ’69 as potentials. But when the list was narrowed down to 40, neither were included. The most prominent Washington figure remaining was Summers.
The logic that winnowed out Clinton and Gore could have worked in a variety of ways, but one possible and likely concern was that political figures could be polarizing and as a result not the best choice for a university presidency. Summers, of course, was a Clinton appointee, and at the Treasury sometimes had to defend the administration’s interests. But he was also, for a year, a member of the Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, the research engine that drove many more conservative policies.
The explanation that friends offer, and a partial explanation of what Summers’ Washington experience means to Harvard, is that somehow, Summers has never been rendered a partisan, and has never considered himself an overly political figure.
Today, Summers is seen as a New Democrat, a combination of traditional social liberalism tempered with fiscal moderation. The story of how Summers evolved from the mold of his parents—with their New Deal-inspired faith in governments’ ameliorative power—can be explained in several ways.
The first is to stress, as Summers does, the general development of the progressive movement over the last 30 years. “I think there has been a tendency for progressive thinking to move toward more market-oriented thinking,” Summers says. Summers might have been on the front-edge of these movements—supporting a reduction in the deficit long before it became fashionable for Democrats to do so—but it’s his contention that the general trends underlay his thinking.
A more personal approach highlights a set of experiences that influenced and complicated Summers’ outlook.
Neff remembers his father, a small businessman, as an early influence. “He was able to talk to Larry about the immense transactional costs of government, the impediments to small business,” Neff said. “It was one of the reasons that Larry was less accepting of the traditional, New Deal liberal formulation that government can solve all ills.” It was a subtle counter-argument to Summers’ upbringing to that point.
College and graduate school were crucial points in Summers’ political and philosophical development. Summers’ ingrained convictions and beliefs were challenged. “I think it’s one of the ironies of life that people who actually know more and are wise are less certain in their knowledge,” Summers says. “The set of experiences I had in college—in debate, in class, and working—led me to see the world in somewhat more complicated terms than I had previously.”
A big step, those who know him closely say, came when he began to work for Harvard economist Feldstein the summer after his sophomore year—the beginning of a partnership that would bring Summers to Harvard, and eventually give him his first brief taste of policymaking.
Feldstein remembers Summers’ father, with whom he had worked, saying that he had a bright son he thought needed exposure to research. “I decided I’d take a chance,” Feldstein says. “It worked out.”
Summers worked with Feldstein throughout college, and then moved down Mass. Ave to attend Harvard graduate school. Focusing on public finance, and issues like tax policy, social security and health care, Summers worked closely with Feldstein. It was then that Summers and Feldstein published the earliest of the several papers they wrote together. When Summers finished his thesis, he returned to MIT to teach as a junior professor. After briefly thinking about accepting tenure in California, he was lured back to Harvard to become the University’s youngest tenured professor at that point. “He was writing quite a good deal at that time,” Feldstein says. “We were quite eager to get him back.”
At the same time as Summers was, under Feldstein’s tutelage, rapidly climbing the ranks of academia, he was assimilating Feldstein’s more conservative economic philosophy, Summers observers say. During college, graduate school, and as a young professor, “Summers shifted toward the right,” Neff said. “He was probably furthest to the right during the early eighties, when he was working closest with Marty.”
When Feldstein became head of President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, Summers went with him, staying for a year. Friends say Summers’ main motivation was the desire to discuss pertinent policy issues on another level. This move, though, Richard says, associated Summers with some of the Reagan administrations’ more conservative fiscal policies, and advocacy of supply-side economics.
By 1988, the pendulum seemed to have swung back the other way. Paradoxically, Summers’ time in the administration pushed Summers’ politics against it. “I think he was horrified by some of the supply-side economics of the Reagan administration,” Neff said. “It was like looking into the abyss—and he pulled back.”
As a symbol of this shift, when Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis was looking for an economic adviser for his ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid, Summers was fair game. “Fortunately, he and Feldstein had parted company philosophically,” Dukakis says of Summers. “He was making a strong, reasoned argument for something other than what we were getting—the stupidity of supply-side economics....Prior associations are less important than getting someone who is making sense.”
But, Dukakis says, Summers was never really “in anyone’s ideological groove.” He approaches every question analytically, irrespective of ideological bent. Cutler, an advisee and colleague of Summers, explains, “His conclusions would usually put him in the more moderate Democratic camp, but he could approach very complex problems from an analytic and substantive standpoint.”
“I was very influenced by Marty’s emphasis on using economic data to test theories that have direct policy implications,” Summers says, avoiding the question of politics altogether.
His emergence into the inherently political world of Washington was, then, somewhat of a surprise. “He never saw himself as a politician,” Neff says. “God, what a waste of a mind that would have been.”
And there have been initial skeptics at every stage, a function of the fact that, as many friends say, you have to see Larry to believe him. “In the administration, he was initially seen on the conservative side. Gore saw him first as not green enough,” Neff says.
But, administration colleagues say, over time Gore grew to trust and value Summers as a free and objective thinker. They say that had Gore been elected, Summers would have been offered the chance to continue as Secretary of the Treasury—and they say he would have accepted.
The modern university president is a peculiar animal. A tour of the Ivies uncovers two economists, two literature scholars, a classics professor, a medical doctor and a former Divinity School dean. Presidents are expected to be able fundraisers, visionary thinkers, human resource gurus and managerial wonks. Summers has the connections to breeze through the fundraising aspect—close friends include Rubin and regular tennis partner Alan Greenspan, and his network of contacts expands across the country and the world. Summers and friends say he has vision—as to what end he won’t tip his hand. But where the search committee’s case for Summers hangs in the balance is on Summers’ skills as a people picker, manager and leader.
When he left Cambridge, Summers hadn’t proved that he possessed any of these: he had never had the opportunity. Friends all phrase it the same way—“he didn’t suffer fools gladly.” He was as aggressive as he was brilliant. Those who didn’t know Summers well could easily mistake his desire to get to the bottom of an issue for arrogance.
While at Harvard, the situations in which Summers collaborated and worked with others were well suited to this style. As a team leader and senior researcher, Summers pushed those under him hard—but that was the expectation.
The chronology of Summers’ time in Washington shows a steady upward trajectory. In 1991, Summers becomes vice president of development economics at the World Bank, and its chief economist. His work there earns him a post in the Clinton administration, when in 1993 he becomes undersecretary for international affairs. In 1995 Summers becomes Robert Rubin’s deputy secretary. Finally in July of 1999, Summers is appointed Secretary of the Treasury. There he is at the head of a 100,000-person-plus bureaucracy that includes the IRS, the Secret Service, Customs, and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Summers played a role similar to that of a university president, balancing the various constituencies—professional economists, former Wall Street experts, politicos—while setting policy and vision for the institution as a whole.
“The difference was being a part of an organization rather than being a free spirit,” Summers said. “I had to fit in with the imperatives of the organization, but I could do things at the World Bank that as a professor you could only talk about.” (It also worked the opposite way: Summers signed off on a memo that looked at the pure economic benefit of dumping toxic waste in underdeveloped nations. When it was leaked, he made enemies—and apologized promptly.)
Academics who go to Washington have a tough time. Many crash and burn—come off as too self-assured, fail to develop political skills, never realize that there is more to every issue than the pure facts. But Summers survived for 10 years in Washington, and some have called him the city’s most successful academic ever. “Henry Kissinger would dispute that, but I’d agree,” Gruber says.
And when the search committee was looking for someone who could synthesize the perspective of the traditional academic with modern CEO-type managerial skill, Summers topped their list.
With his integration into these organizations, Summers needed to learn to sometimes bite his tongue. His audience was wider, and his words were taken more seriously. Incidents stood out in which Summers said too much, too bluntly. At one point, Summers was quoted as calling those who supported the repeal of the estate tax “greedy.”
“You learned very quickly that the right way to handle things was to speak with restraint,” Summers says. “Being provocative and interesting wasn’t always good.”
The type of mistake typified by the estate tax comment was something Summers tried to eliminate. “The new Larry would never make that mistake,” one observer says. “The new Larry would talk about revenue loss, and policy flaw,” in effect making the same point, but in couched terms.
The adjustment also meant learning to see external imperatives as important. “The problem with most academics is that they refuse to think bureaucratically. They say, ‘Why would we ever worry about that?’ It’s beneath their dignity,” Pritchett says.
Summers, though, developed a willingness to think bureaucratically. “He understood his role and carried through with it, for all the right reasons,” Pritchett says. He realized that since each vice president at the World Bank had their own external factors to consider, it was neither effective nor fair to try to blow them away on the basis of pure fact.
The other element of this adjustment has to do with the consultative process.
“You’re in a situation in which being right is only part of it—you also have to work to show people that what you think is right from their perspective as well,” Summers explains.
“A key part of Washington is being inclusive and knowing how to check with those involved,” Gruber says. “That’s not what academics do—we want to write an article, we go and write it.”
But the adjustment was not necessarily automatic. One Treasury official explains, “At the beginning he was pretty bad. He didn’t pay attention to what other people in government were thinking.”
Over time though, Summers got better. Summers learned to slow down, “to check with x, y, and z, first,” Gruber says.
Summers’ penetrating intellect combined with these political skills would have made him a good Washington economist and a decent manager. Yet these adjustments alone would never have been enough to make Summers either cabinet secretary or Harvard president material. Rubin provided the final molding necessary to hoist Summers into the big leagues.
From the beginning, Rubin’s influence manifested itself in the trust he placed in Summers and the responsibilities he delegated to him. Rubin, the former Wall Street insider, valued Summers for his experience as an economist. “People, myself included, realized that he brought two things to the table,” Rubin says. “First there was the quality of his mind and his understanding of policy.”
Second, though, was the recognition that Summers had the tools and instincts to think politically—his capacity to see, as Rubin explains, “who would care about something, how others may react, realizing how to present an issue in a persuasive way.”
Rubin made Summers a particularly active and powerful deputy. Summers attended principal’s meetings, with the cabinet-level heads of other organizations, in Rubin’s place. He was given nearly final authority on a variety of issues, chief among them social security reform. Summers describes working very closely with Rubin, and developing similar views on most subjects. As a result, Summers said, “People found they could get one-stop shopping.”
But Rubin’s greatest contributions to Summers’ professional advancement was on a personal level. Summers looked at Rubin, friends say, and decided that he was a model to emulate.
In contrast to Summers’ sometimes brash and impatient style, Rubin was mellow, calm and careful, someone who could really foster personal connections. The partnership with Rubin allowed Summers to see how to further refine his consultative skills, how to court and placate members of Congress, and others who might present obstacles.
But other aspects of this style were not so easily mimicked. Summers took to what Gruber describes as the “Rubin-esque, down home approach,” a mixture of phrases such as “in my opinion” and interjections of “gee.” The approach, said Gruber, “never really fit.” But eventually, Summers was able to effect this general smoothening, Gruber says, “without losing his edge.”
When Rubin announced he was going to be stepping down, the market dropped sharply. The drop lasted only half an hour, until it was announced that Summers was to be nominated as Rubin’s successor. After this point the market rallied, closing higher than it had opened—a sign of confidence in Rubin’s well-trained deputy.
For the year and a half Summers served as secretary—from July 1999 until the end of the administration—Summers proved that he had learned much from his mentor. He managed the bureaucracy well, remaining a close adviser to the president and maintaining the political capital the Treasury had built up during the Rubin years. He kept relations with the other branches of the government civil and productive. He demonstrated his skills as a people picker, finding a wealth of talent to fill openings beneath him and coordinating the restructuring of the IRS that culminated with the search to pick a new director. And probably not entirely unrelated to Harvard’s interests, he oversaw the last year and a half of the longest economic expansion in American history, during which Harvard’s endowment swelled to an unprecedented $19 billion.
“You are not going to get a sleepy, white-haired old man who says forgettable things” in Summers, Neff says. For all of Summers’ civilizing at Rubin’s elbows, he hasn’t completely left behind his former self. “New Larry”—the managerial, governmental, political Summers—has its merits, but the search committee made its decision with full knowledge that many of the aspects that characterized “Old Larry” are still kicking around.
In some cases these “Old Larry” qualities were desirable. Summers was and still is brilliant. In other cases it was neutral—like the disorganized lab partner that Neff remembers from high school, the Summers of today requires a rule that says you are “never to give Larry the only version of anything” lest it “disappear into the pile.”
And, as even admirers admit, there are still aspects of “Old Larry” that will require further adjustment.
Summers has a reputation for arrogance that has persisted despite efforts to assume Rubin’s humility. The perception, his defenders explain, comes from his penetrating and incisive intellect. He can see to the core of an issue so accurately and quickly that those who don’t know him sometimes see ego instead of efficiency. That said, Summers has at times brought the criticism on himself—one colleague remembers him holding up a briefing book and asking the room if there was anything in it he didn’t already know.
Flashes of the “Old Summers” would appear when Summers held meetings, and in 10 minutes discuss and dissect memos that underlings had spent six months constructing. “If you wasted one moment, he’d cut you off,” a friend says. The quality of his analysis was always impeccable, but his style ruffled feathers.
“In government, people are more willing to sacrifice egos to do something right from the efficiency standpoint,” one friend says. In the world of academic administration, where egos play a greater role, Summers will have to watch himself. “Someone will give a longwinded response, he’ll cut them off. That will hurt him.”
And though friends practically say they will take a bullet for Summers, they say he’s not always the most relaxing person to talk to—his mind always active, his debater’s instincts always there. “When you’re in a conversation, this could get very exhausting and sometimes frustrating,” another friend says.
The comparison with Rubin is revealing: “Rubin was just a mellow guy, you’d feel relaxed talking to him. Very few people truly felt relaxed talking with Larry.”
Rubin argues that these perceptions are flawed and that neither impatience nor arrogance are likely to pose a problem. “He’s very good at sitting down and discussing the ins and outs of an issue for hours when the issue warrants long discussion,” Rubin says. Equally importantly, Rubin says, “He got to be able to sit there—sometimes on Capitol Hill—even when the merits [of the discussion] would not warrant prolonged engagement. He was very diplomatic.”
And on the flip side, some think that a leader needs to be impatient to be effective.
“I have a reputation for being brash, but you do want someone who is impatient,” Dukakis says. “Keynes said that in the long term everybody will be dead—you don’t want to sit around and do nothing.”
Doing things—conventional wisdom would suggest that this is what a university president is hired to do. In a quickly changing world, you want a leader who acts, a leader who changes too.
Lawrence H. Summers steps off the plane. Welcome to the beginning of doing something.
—Staff writer David H. Gellis can be reached at email@example.com.
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