Fifteen Questions with Lawrence H. Summers

Larry's Last Stand

Fifteen Minutes sits down with President Summers in his last days as president.

Fifteen Minutes: What do you think of Hank Paulson’s nomination to be Treasury secretary?
University President Lawrence H. Summers: He’s an alum of our business school. He’s a first rate guy with very broad experience who may well need it, given the large challenges our economy and financial system face.

FM: Do you have interest in returning to Washington professionally?
LHS: Right now, I’m looking forward to doing what I haven’t really had a chance to do in 15 years, between jobs in Washington and here at Harvard—to reflect, to write, and to speak freely, unencumbered by any institutional responsibility.

FM: How much power does a Harvard president have? No one would call you a figurehead, but I wonder, what with the Corporation and Overseers looking over your shoulder and quietly or not so quietly steering the University’s agenda, to what extent do you as president have the power to guide and implement initiatives completely of your own choosing?
LHS: Certainly whatever the president of Harvard says or does is noticed pretty widely. I think we’ve been able to do some very important things these last years by eliminating family contributions by any family with income under $80,000, by getting underway 20 football fields’ worth of laboratory space for our new sciences complex, by launching Harvard’s efforts in Allston, by breaking down some of the barriers, financial and intellectual, between Harvard’s schools. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do. I’m proud of what’s happened during my time in the presidency.

FM: How much of that would have been different under a different president, or how much would have happened anyway given the momentum of the University?
LHS: All accomplishments in any organization, certainly in a university, are collective and are the product of many, many people’s hard work. I do think the president of Harvard is in a position to exert leadership. At the same time, I think Harvard and particularly its Faculty of Arts and Sciences face profound issues of governance, particularly with regard to bringing the University together, if we’re to move forward as strongly as we possibly can on priorities like financial aid, like addressing major social concerns like global warming and education, priorities like taking advantage of the life sciences revolution, and opportunities like Allston.

FM: You married Professor of English Elisa New in December. Did you two experience much scrutiny dating inside the University?
LHS: I suspect that Elisa and I were probably objects of interest at some point, but we found that people in the University community respected our boundaries and those of our children.

FM: Can you describe your ideal date, your perfect night out?
LHS: I think everyone has respected our boundaries, to date. To this point. I think I’m going to keep it that way. I know whom it would be with. It would be with Elisa.

FM: If you were a rising sophomore, into which House would you want to be lotteried?
LHS: I’ve spent more time in the common rooms and dining rooms of the Houses than I have in the bedrooms. I’d want to be lotteried into whatever House had the largest number of my friends.

FM: I searched for Lawrence Summers on, but the only profile I found was of a junior at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Dean Gross is on Facebook. Have you considered creating a profile?
LHS: Briefly. But not ultimately affirmatively. I think I’ll leave the Facebook to my children and to your generation. I’m not hard for my friends to find.

FM: What role have your children played in your presidency?
LHS: My kids, like everybody’s kids, are the future. They’ve been great in the best times, and in the less good times. I think they’ve gotten a great kick out of being on the sidelines at Harvard football games, at being thrown into the River by the women’s crew, and sitting in on a class or two.

FM: You told the Globe shortly after your resignation that you resigned “very reluctantly.” What was the moment or event that overpowered that strong reluctance?
LHS: It was a combination of many things. Now I’m looking forwards, not backwards.

FM: I hate to give him the satisfaction of getting mentioned in this interview, but Richard Bradley has made a small career doing what he might call watching out for Harvard, but what in effect amounts to preying on you for controversy to sell books. He says you’ve met three times, but have never actually spoken. Do you recall ever meeting him? Can you divine the source of his vendetta against you?
LHS: Met-without-speaking is an odd concept. I’m told there are a variety of odd statements in his writings, but frankly I don’t follow them. I try not to speculate on the motives of others.

FM: Fast-forward one year. You pass [outspoken critic and Weary Professor of Germanic Language and Literature] Judith Ryan in the halls of the Barker Center. What happens?
LHS: I hope and trust we’re all looking forwards, not backwards. History judges us all not on what we were against, but on what we were for. I hope all of us in the University will find a way to provide a much better experience than we have in the past for the undergraduates who are both the lost children and the lifeblood of great research universities.

FM: Can you describe your tenure in three words?
LHS: I’ll leave the description and assessment to others. I always thought Harvard’s traditions—the Harvard of common rooms and paintings on walls and House masters—could take care of itself. My job was to be with the Harvard of the future: the undergraduates, the post-docs with their lights on at two in the morning, the assistant professors sending e-mails with 3 a.m. timestamps. It was the future that I tried to be with.

FM: Yesterday when you spoke to the graduating seniors, many of them reported that you were very funny. Are you usually funny?
LHS: I have some stories. I like to tell stories. Sometimes they’re humorous. Sometimes they make a point. But I’ve got no single favorite.

FM: What one thing will you miss most about your job?
LHS: The breadth scope and scale of the interactions that I’ve had with such a wide variety of students doing such a wide variety of things. I’ll also miss the chance to be educated in so wide a range of fields. But I’m really excited to get much more deeply immersed in my fields of economics and policy.

FM: How did it feel to be greeted by a throng of supportive, cheering students as you walked out of your office on the day of your resignation? Were you surprised?
LHS: It was not an easy day and that was a bright and warm moment. It gave me a feeling of satisfaction that some of the things that I had tried very hard to push for and do and to project had been noticed and appreciated by Harvard students. I’m grateful to the students who were there for me that day. I always tried to be there for Harvard students.

FM: You fall on the left of the political spectrum, yet some of your most vocal campus supporters were members of campus conservative groups. Likewise, many of your harshest student critics were members of the campus left. How does it feel to be cast as a bad-guy conservative?
LHS: I think I’m the same person with more or less the same views that I’ve had for a long time. I would call them moderate, progressive views on a national spectrum. I think sometimes those same views may place one at a different point on our local spectrum.

FM: Why, when the attacks started after your “women in science” speech, did you not strongly defend yourself and your argument from the outset? You’re certainly capable of engaging in a debate. It felt a little like John Kerry’s reluctance to confront the Swift Boat veterans, who eventually got the best of him. What was holding you back?
LHS: Every group has had, can have, and will have great scientists, and I never wanted to do anything that suggested that I or Harvard thought anything else or wanted to send any different signal. Correcting that misimpression was much more important to me than “nuancing” or winning any kind of debate. I do hope that the University will be a place where any hypothesis can be put forward and vigorously debated on its merits.

FM: Would you say that your speaking style has changed since you resigned? Are you more comfortable speaking off the cuff?
LHS: For better or for worse, I’ve always been pretty comfortable speaking off the cuff. I supposed I’ve been a little less inhibited these last several months.

FM: Do you ever read Fifteen Minutes?
LHS: I have read Fifteen Minutes. I enjoy the edge. I get some but not all of the references.

FM: Do you have a favorite color?
LHS: Crimson.