Alums Stick to Summers' Agenda

In search for next president, top donors advocate staying the course of ex-leader

On Nov. 7, as the rest of the country watched the results of elections determining their next senators and congressmen, around 50 of Harvard’s most influential alumni and most generous donors had their minds focused on the selection of their next president.

And while the nation voted for a change of leadership in Washington, the alumni and donors, who were gathered in a classroom at the Business School, said they wanted Mass. Hall to stay the course.

Leaders of the Committee on University Resources (COUR), the group gathered that morning, say that the majority of alumni and donors were attached to the agenda put forward by former President Lawrence H. Summers—a plan that includes a major expansion into Allston, a focus on undergraduate life and teaching, and an emphasis on research in the life sciences. Members of the COUR’s executive committee who spoke to The Crimson about the meeting say leaders of the group want a president who is committed to Summers’ vision.

“The expression of the alumni were, I think, unanimous that the goals of Larry Summers—or at least articulated by Larry Summers—are definitely what should be done,” says prominent New York real estate investor Peter L. Malkin ’55, whose name adorns the Malkin Athletic Center.

A dozen other major donors who spoke to The Crimson confirmed Malkin’s remarks. They’ve been giving to Harvard because they agree with the Summers agenda. And regardless of who the next president is, they want that agenda to move forward.


In May, the presidential search committee rolled out two panels—one composed of faculty members, a second of students—to advise the hunt for Harvard’s 28th leader. But while those advisory groups were highly publicized, a more influential body is playing a behind-the-scenes role in the direction of the search: the executive committee of the COUR.

The committee, whose powerful membership roster includes Fortune 500 CEOs and several billionaires, holds the ear of the six Harvard Corporation members and three representatives of the alumni Board of Overseers who are steering the search.

But they’re not the only alums who are having a say in the process. Several members of the search committee—including its chairman, James R. Houghton ’58—have hosted small dinners across the country to hear the concerns of major donors, including many who don’t sit on the COUR’s executive panel.

In September, Houghton was present in Zurich at the annual Alumni Association meeting of leaders of the Harvard Clubs from across Europe.

Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) President Paul J. Finnegan ’75, who was also at the Zurich meeting, that he has had “periodic” opportunities “to convey to the search committee members comments and suggestions I am hearing from alumni.”

Other donors agree that their voices are being heard. Former HAA President Charles L. Brock, a prominent New York lawyer, says that outreach to alumni donors “has been really well orchestrated.” And real estate investor Kenneth G. Bartels ’73 says he “was rather impressed” by the search committee’s outreach effort after he attended a dinner in New York organized by Houghton and search committee member Frances D. Fergusson, a member of the Board of Overseers and a former Vassar College president.

That doesn’t mean that the donors know what’s going on in the search committee members’ minds.

“Very little is being said to the general alumni, and even to many of the alumni involved in University activities,” says investment banker Paul J. Zofnass ’69. “On the other hand, that’s no different than it has been over the last 30 years or so when presidents of Harvard have changed.”


At private events with the search committee, attendees say, donors are repeatedly emphasizing the same message: stay the course.

“There was a quite broad consensus that in many ways the agenda that President Summers had set had really become the University’s agenda,” Bartels says.

The Crimson reported this past June that some alumni donors were withholding gifts to protest Summers’ ouster. The following month, The Wall Street Journal estimated that three of these scrapped gifts—from Oracle chief Larry Ellison, banker David Rockefeller ’36, and media magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, totalled $390 million.

But conversations with donors reveal that many Summers backers have maintained their involvement in the University—and they’re using it to exert their influence over the search committee.

“Frankly, I thought that the vision that Larry Summers had was super,” says Albert W. Merck ’43, whose family founded one of the 10 largest pharmaceutical firms in the world. “This one was going to take us into the 21st century.”

“One of the best things that happened was that he put undergraduate teaching on the front burner,” Merck says. The president feuded with some faculty members—most publicly, African-American studies scholar Cornel R. West ’74, over what Summers saw as an insufficient emphasis on teaching students at the College.

“I’ll give that search committee of Mr. Houghton a lot of credit for bringing somebody in that could really shake the place up,” Merck says, alluding to Houghton’s role on the panel that picked Summers. “The big thing is that they shook the cage and things are starting to move.”

Investment manager Ernest E. Monrad ’51, while acknowledging that “interpersonal diplomacy was not [Summers’] strong point,” says that he thought the past president put forth “good ideas.”

“Boy, is he bright,” Monrad says. “Nobody will argue that.”

Malkin urges the search committee not to pick someone who is “politically correct.”

“The vision brought by Summers was the right vision,” he says.

The names on the search committee’s most recent list of candidates—which were presented to Overseers earlier this month and printed in part by The Crimson—have caused some concern among pro-Summers donors.

Investment strategist Byron R. Wien ’54, who has served as a member of the executive committee of the COUR, says that he was concerned by the fact that so many of names on the list were career academics. “One of the great things about Summers was that his experience was broader than just university life,” Wien says.

“Look, the issue with Summers is that Harvard was run from 1636 to 2000 by the faculty—and he was trying to wrest some of that away,” he adds.

While Summers’ own presidency didn’t end in success, his supporters among Harvard’s alumni and benefactors aren’t willing to write the effort off as a failure. Summers’ ouster, in these donors’ eyes, was more of a mid-term result.

—Staff writer Reed B. Rayman can be reached at