When the 26th president of Harvard University, Neil L. Rudenstine, announced his resignation five years ago, he sent Harvard on a quest for a new leader.
They found Lawrence H. Summers.
“How did he get to be head of Harvard anyway?” vitriolic columnist Maureen Dowd asked in a recent piece for The New York Times.
Summers wasn’t initially a shoo-in. He first had to beat out dozens of the country’s academic and political elite, including a professor rumored to have a shot at the Supreme Court and a former U.S. President.
He won the prize, but today he’s struggling while his former competitors thrive. One is president of the University of Pennsylvania, leading undergrads whose hearts she quickly won over in her first nine months as president. Another leads the Gates Foundation efforts to fight AIDS in Africa. Another has faced protest, but that comes with the territory when you’re dictating the foreign policy of the most powerful country on the earth.
Fighting AIDS and occupying third-world countries are, of course, outside the scope of the Harvard presidency. But Summers has struggled even with the fundamentals of his post. Over the weekend, 90 of 280 polled faculty members told The Crimson they think he should resign.
With clouds darkening above Mass Hall, it’s easy to dream of sunnier alternatives.
Nine Harvard insiders—with College degrees dating back to the 1940s—set off on an impossible quest in July 2000. Six members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, and three members of the Board of Overseers joined to form the Presidential Search Committee. The group included Harvard graduates, the president emeritus of the University of Chicago, and the former chair of McKinsey and Co.—all heavy-weights looking for an even heavier hitter. They would spend nine months in search of the heaviest.
They had to search at the worst of times: two other Ivies, Princeton and Brown, were also fishing in the same pool. Regardless of competition, the ideal was hard to find: a brilliant, preferably Harvard-degreed visionary with the finesse to carry out grand, sweeping plans.
In August, the Committee sent hundreds of thousands of letters to members of the Harvard community. After flipping through more than 1,000 responses and interviewing more than 200 candidates with students and faculty members, the Committee shortened its list to 400. The roll call included former Vice President Al Gore ’69 and former President Bill Clinton. Whittling down the list was easy, starting with two who were past age 90 and two who died mid-search.
By the end of the year, the list shrunk to less than a tenth of the lucky 400. Clinton and Gore struck out, but dozens of Harvard outsiders were still in consideration. Condoleezza Rice, the former Stanford provost who was then helping George W. Bush to secure his presidency; Richard D. Klausner, then the director of the National Cancer Institute; and Nobel laureate Harold E. Varmus, CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan all made the cut.
Harvard insiders included Dean of Harvard Business School Kim B. Clark ’74 and Amy Gutmann ’71, an up-and-coming professor at Princeton.
The contest for the top spot in the academic world had begun, and there was no clear winner yet.
By 2001, most of the finalists had been crossed off the list. The three leading candidates were Harvey V. Fineberg ’67, then provost of the University and a life-long Harvard man; Lee C. Bollinger, then president of the University of Michigan and an unorthodox administrator who wowed the committee with his intellect; and, of course, Summers.
Fineberg had devoted his life to Harvard, having first attended as an undergrad and then going on to earn a master’s, M.D., and Ph.D. Fineberg then served as dean of the School of Public Health for more than a decade before rising to provost of the University.
Harvard was his home—but that didn’t mean he dominated home court. Not only had Fineberg made enemies among alumni; he also lacked the outside experience to catalyze change in the University.
Bollinger was a breath of fresh air, an administrator who could bring a big-school perspective to a private institution. At the University of Michigan, he had managed to stage coups in both the arts and sciences, bringing in the exclusive Royal Shakespeare Company for a series of performances and creating an unprecedented center for health sciences.
Like Summers, he wasn’t afraid of going against the grain, says Theodore J. St. Antoine, former dean and now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan Law School. Having served on the team that first hired Bollinger, St. Antoine has known him for more than three decades. “It isn’t that he forecloses decision-making,” St. Antoine says. “If he concludes that the minority of advisers are right, he doesn’t hesitate to strike out in that direction.”
But while Summers had a reputation for being outspoken and temperamental—one of Harvard’s most powerful alums called three search committee members to calm worries about his character—Bollinger was “diplomatic” and “soft-spoken,” St. Antoine says. “Everyone has the sense that he has paid attention to them.”
Still, Summers boasted the same impressive intellect and vision as Bollinger, and supporters said that his years dealing with Washington bigwigs had softened his sharper edges. The icing on the cake: He had a Harvard degree. Every one of Harvard’s presidents, starting with the third, had at least one degree from the University.
As the Committee conducted its final interviews of the fortunate few in January 2001, Summers left his post as Secretary of the Treasury, and accepted a position at The Brookings Institute, a prestigious policy think tank. But he kept his options open—a fact even his colleagues at The Brookings Institute recognized—knowing that he was near the top on the list for Harvard’s presidency.
“Larry brought together a set of skills that were timely and right for Harvard for the next few years,” a committee member told The Crimson after Summers’ selection that spring. The rest is history.
The Road Not Taken
Over the next three years, as Summers tested his skill set, those who might have been Harvard University President moved on. Rice was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of State, and Klausner left the National Cancer Institute for a top spot in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Just this month, Sullivan accepted a prestigious one-year stint as counsel to a top California trial law firm, where she will build an appellate practice before returning to Stanford Law. She is rumored to be favored for a Supreme Court appointment.
And there are the finalists, who are succeeding exactly where Summers misstepped.
Fineberg, who made provost but not president, was wooed away by the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. In just over a year, he managed to cut two boards out of eight total at the Institute, while still maintaining internal support. Meanwhile, the School of Public Health he had left behind named a professorship for him—the ultimate scholarly honor.
That kind of success comes from a careful and sometimes cautious nature, says Susanne A. Stoiber, executive director for the Institute. “I would characterize his approach to things as very much like a chess player—he always thinks seven or eight moves ahead,” she says. “He’s willing to take bold steps, but he’s only willing to do so with a carefully planned out strategy.”
Meanwhile, others took on presidencies at other schools. Bollinger, once the favorite at Harvard, left the University of Michigan for Columbia’s top spot.
Gutmann moved up and up, from the directorship of a small center at Princeton to the provost’s office and finally to the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania. Having moved into the president’s office just nine months ago, she is still establishing her power and winning over students. So far, she’s succeeded in winning over more students than Penn’s previous, more reclusive president, and the honeymoon glow hasn’t yet worn away, says Jeff M. Shafer, editorial page editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“She’s very ambitious,” says Shafer, who has more access to Gutmann than most other students because of his position on the campus newspaper. “She’s got a lot of plans, a lot of very big, sort of over-arching kind of things.” Financial aid, interdisciplinary study, and further integration with the immediate community top her to-do list.
To make those plans possible, she’s been making herself visible on campus, high-fiving students at basketball games and keeping her office door open. “People are happy,” Shafer says, and Gutmann is popular.
Meanwhile, Summers—the winner in the first contest for the Harvard presidency—is battling in today’s contest for support from students and faculty.