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Happy New Year

By James Y. Stern, Crimson Staff Writer

I ran into Neil Leon Rudenstine a week or so ago. He is a dude from less-than-scenic Danbury, Connecticut whose dad was a prison guard and whose mom, to the best of my knowledge, worked as a waitress her whole life. He, Neil, is also the President of Harvard University, the head of the most prestigious educational institution in the world, and, if the pursuit of knowledge is the most noble of human aspirations (as many sages have suggested) then he has the most significant position on the face of the earth.

I happen to know “Neil,” which is what all the bigshots call him, even to a sapling like me. I used to think it was disrespectful and impertinent to do so, but this is Neil who, according to Crimson reportage, has “no ego” to speak of. I know Neil because, when Crimson comp posters encouraged prospects with the possibility of interviewing the president, I took them at their word. Every two weeks, more or less, my reporting partner and I were ushered into the president’s chamber in the back of Mass. Hall for an hour with Neil L. Rudenstine and the University press secretary who made sure Dr. Rudenstine didn’t say anything stupid. I started interviewing him freshman year and I retired in my junior.

I ran into Neil at the Law School, where we were both set to participate in the same ceremony, me as a Glee Club singer and him as the Presider. After three years, he learned my face if not my name, and we bumped into each other on the steps heading up to the hall where several dozen Harvard veterans—workers from all departments, geology to grounds—were assembled to be honored for their 25 years of service to Harvard. Neil and I made eye contact and he greeted me with the warmth of a January sun, bright but distant.

“Happy New Year.”

That’s what he said to me. He paused after the first word, as if searching for the perfect object for his modifier. New Year is what he came up with. It is not the academic New Year. It is not the Christian New Year or the Y2K New Year. It is not the Chinese New Year. It is not the fiscal New Year. I, bewildered, replied in kind and my friends and I went our way, up to the balcony to sing, where we offered our official greeting to the President, a 20-second Latin chorus in his praise that the Glee Club is supposed to sing whenever the president comes into view. Tradition.

At the ceremony, the once-professor Rudenstine talked about commitment to the University, the kind of commitment that keeps a librarian behind the same reference desk for a quarter century, the kind of commitment that is pretty hard to come by these days. I’m no fan of the Progressive Student Labor Movement, but I couldn’t suppress the percolating wellspring of ironic indignation within my chest when the president spoke of the rarity of such service. Security guards and custodians, young Turks who age into sparkling-eyed old men after a lifetime helping fancy Harvard kids, are an endangered species around here—not because it’s so hard to find such people, but because the University now “outsources,” viewing labor as an inorganic commodity rather than a human enterprise and an endeavor of communities. This is in order to keep costs down, which is an admirable and even a necessary priority at this sprawlingly expensive place.

But Dr. Rudenstine’s peculiar position, dishing out charming platitudes to a crowd whose interests he undercuts—while at the same time empathizing with their position better than the overwhelming majority around here—epitomizes the weirdness of his job and his performance, that bizarre quality that has him no doubt parading around his mansion with a New Year’s buzzer in his hand...

He is down to earth. He is aloof. He is an icy contradiction. In one interview with him last year, I was astounded by the revelation that he stays up-to-date on the latest developments in nearly every academic field. In other words, he reads not only the latest in Shakespeare scholarship but also genetics. He reads in some eclectic discipline for at least an hour every day, he says. He was a professor of English, with a deep affinity for the poet Sir Philip Sydney, and after Harvard, he plans to work on a project cataloguing art, another area in which he is a connoisseur. He is famous for his handwritten thank-you notes. And his speeches are utterly charming, as he every year dubs himself an honorary member of “your classy class” at the Commencement Baccalaureate.

But it all adds up to nothing. He was not charming in our interviews. He wasn’t helpful, though he was cordial and occasionally asked the obligatory questions about what we were up to for the summer. I can’t think of a student event that has been held in his Harvard mansion in my four years. He gave up teaching, real scholarship of his own and interaction with young minds, in order to administer, to dean and to talk about how great universities are. I wonder if any member of our class has ever been invited there. I wonder how many students’ names he knows. I wonder what sort of friend he is even to his aged peers, not just “kids” like us. Is he affectionate? Or is he interesting for conversation and hollow for humanity? Did he toss a football with his kids? He doesn’t give one the feeling that he could just relax and be a person, an ability we fancy few are fast losing.

I don’t really want to criticize the man though. I just want to set down the texture I have felt as one of the students who actually has known him. A new president is coming in and he pledges to do things differently, but Larry Summers, who seems incapable of eating a meal without decorating his tie with some bit of colorful cuisine, may not be suave enough or mild enough to accomplish the kinds of things Neil did, raising billions (billions!) of dollars and showing Radcliffe who her daddy is.

The Presidency of Harvard is relatively weak because the deans of Harvard’s various schools retain a great deal of control over their dominions. Harvard has had visionary presidents: In the late 19th century Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, made some controversial innovations that established the paradigm for the modern university and ensured that this particular school would not just be the oldest in America. It would be the best. Even President Rudenstine’s predecessor, Derek Bok, managed to reshape some important parts of Harvard—he founded the Kennedy School, for example—in a significant fashion. But perhaps this place is now so large that it requires a corporate manager of sorts at its top. Jeremy Knowles, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and therefore the most powerful man with direct control over the things we care about such as the College, got along well with Neil. Neil’s first job pick was Knowles, at the time the Nobel-quality scientist chairing the chemistry department. They would get together, Jeremy the Brit, all Burberry suit and vociferating hands, and Neil the Danburian, quirky humanitarian, and talk art over fancy wines with their wives. Over time, well, things got tense.

Freshman year, a whole slew of other colleges offered significant financial aid reforms. Harvard didn’t, at least not until more than a year had passed. Bleeding-heart Neil wanted to follow suit, but Jeremy who is prudent forbade it. Neil Rudenstine could do nothing. What’s a president supposed to do in that kind of situation? And so once again, Neil was torn between corporate necessities and his native impulses. He understood his position and that event, like so many others, must have acted like a wedge between the human being behind that gaunt physique and the dull academic manager. But at least it helps to explain how Neil got to be the way he is: remote, inaccessible, and uninterested in the mortar that holds the ancient institutional bricks of this place together.

This place is Byzantine. It was my job as ambassador to the Nation of Neil to understand how power is brokered around here, and I can’t say I ever got a grip on it. The president is an enigma and the best we seem to be able to do is identify when he’s doing his job wrong, failing to make a splash, to catch our eyes, take stands and learn our names. I have a friend who collects the signatures of Harvard Presidents. His archive includes James B. Conant ’14 (also a Crimson editor) and it includes Increase Mather. That’s impressive. But those characters could assert themselves as educational pioneers, and they lived nearly four centuries apart.

The president’s mansion on Elmwood Avenue is far away from campus, in order to shield him from the roguish mobery of student vigilantes, a danger that admittedly did not go away when the Vietnam War did. The president’s house is on a small sidestreet off of Upper Brattle Street, appropriately nicknamed Tory Row since the palaces there were the homes of those sympathetic to the crown in the battle for American Independence two centuries ago. Those were not brave spirits. Those were cool considerate men of moderation and caution. Sellouts of their day. The president used to live in Loeb House, the building across from the entrance to Lamont Library. But that location is too central for the presidency as it has evolved today, the president I have known. The president’s home is well landscaped. Its clapboards are yellow and the garage to the side is bigger than many of the houses in other parts of Cambridge. I imagine it’s nice on the inside. I can only imagine.

The president is driven by a man named O’Riordan who is a bonafide Irishman. He is a silver-haired, ruddy-cheeked character whose brogue is unmistakable. The scene is like something from a black-and-white movie in the 1930s, with Carey Grant being chauffeured here and there by some effervescent central-casting type. But Neil isn’t Carey, and his job is hardly romantic. I have seen the president’s Oldsmobuick in Harvard Yard waiting for its cargo to finish up in his computer-less office. It is as if the president is too frail to walk to Mass Ave. without a gasoline-powered sedan chair. The president’s sedan has vanity plates that read 1636.

Neil is fragile, remember. He had a breakdown from what was termed exhaustion not long before we arrived on campus and had to recuperate for several months walking tropical beaches. Maybe he was totally different before that. Either way, it shows how the job as it’s conceived of now could wear down a man, especially the kind of career administrator the school is likely to pick now. Neil has taken some stands in defense of affirmative action. He is not, however, a leading figure in that debate although his commitment to it is vigorous. Besides that, the New Republic observed two years ago, he is an example of a phenomenon today that the magazine calls “The Incredible Shrinking College President.” Nice work, Harvard.

A whole mess of intrigue and thinking swirls around the office of the president. We look up to that office. When we want to make a point, we take over that office. But that office is empty and enigmatic. I have known Neil and he is truly strange. His speaking voice makes him sound inebriated or maybe stroke-ridden. He fidgets with his socks constantly. And as I have said, he is at once overwhelmingly genuine and stridently superficial and distant.

This is the president I know and this is the presidency I know. Freshman year, in the Glee Club as usual, I attended my first, and last, Phi Beta Kappa ceremony and afterwards I introduced myself to Neil because I had just gotten the nod to interview him full time. I walked back with him to Mass Hall after the ceremony and we chatted about, of course, my summer plans. I was so excited. I wonder if he wanted to know about my undergraduate life in anything more than the details that are really abstractions that fill his mind when he talks about the school, the kinds of details that make college viewbooks so captivating to eager matriculants, fantasizing about their new lives.

That event, though, was a wash for Dr. Rudenstine. Four years of college life are for me made up of little moments, some around seminar tables and others with friends over beer, and still others like that one on the paths in front of Harvard Hall when I introduced myself to one of the leading men in America. I never forgot it and in time I came to understand it better. This is what the president is, a cloud drifting through meetings and appearances in order to fight for this place that has been my home. A new installment is on the way, and to him I wish a happy new year.

—James Y. Stern ’01 is the former editor of Fifteen Minutes, the weekly magazine of The Harvard Crimson.

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