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Former University President Lawrence H. Summers was working fifteen-hour days, responsible for advising President Obama on his most pressing economic questions, and consuming an ungodly amount of Diet Coke—a habit that had followed him from Cambridge to Washington D.C.
Still, he had developed the unfortunate habit of falling asleep in important meetings.
In a photo that flashed across the Associated Press’ wires, Summers could be seen at the head of a table, fist balled, slowly nodding asleep—much like the undergraduates he had left behind in Cambridge. Obama could be seen in the photo’s foreground, directing a meeting about economic policy.
But in press reports, Summers’ emerged during his tenure as head of the National Economic Council from 2009 to the end of 2010 as one of Obama’s most trusted advisers and an architect of the economic policy that the president’s boosters say brought the country back from the brink of economic collapse.
While Summers is the paradigmatic Washington insider among the Harvard professorial corps, he is not the only University professor to have decamped Cambridge for the White House.
Those who migrated south with the swearing in of a Democratic president say that the transition from academia to government represented a drastic change of pace from Harvard, one that imposed a level of rigidity rarely seen in the life of a free-wheeling professor and one that placed a deal of pressure on their families.
So more than two years after Obama’s inauguration, professors have begun to return to the University.
THE REAL WORLD
Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence H. Tribe ’62 once called President Obama “the best student I ever had,” and in 2010 he went to work in the young president’s Department of Justice heading up a new initiative.
One of the biggest changes?
“I had to put on a suit everyday,” says Tribe, who spent nine months working for the Department of Justice to implement the Access to Justice Initiative. Tribe notes how difficult it was to be a part of the bureaucratic process and founding a new office.
Besides the suit and tie, the lifestyle of a professor and the lifestyle of a bureaucrat in the federal government are extremely different.
“There are very few emergencies in the life of a professor,” Summers says. “There are nearly daily emergencies in the life of a White House staffer.”
Professors who worked in the Obama administration all note that the administration exerted more control over their day-to-day activities than Harvard did.
Harvard Kennedy School professor Jeffrey B. Liebman, who worked as the Executive Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget for a year and a half, says that at the OMB, unlike in academia, his schedule was determined by others.
“Maybe the most striking feature of being a professor is how much control one has over one’s schedule,” he says. “When one goes to government, others set the schedule and the pace.”
Also predetermined in government is one’s area of focus. “When you’re in academia, you focus on a small number of things of your choosing that not a lot of people care about, at your pace,” says Harvard Law School professor Daniel J. Meltzer, ‘72, who was Principal Deputy Counsel to the President from 2009-2010. “None of that is true for working at the White House.”
Both Summers and Tribe note the challenge of not being able to speak freely in public or to the press without clearing remarks with the administration.
“Every time I made a speech, it had to get vetted,” Tribe says.
Although there are dramatic differences in the two atmospheres, Liebman acknowledges that both Harvard and Washington share some similarities.
“In both places, you get to work on very challenging issues with very smart people,” he says.
Tribe says that working as a professor and working in government offer different avenues to affect change. Working as a professor is “very rewarding over a very long term,” because professors make a difference by writing and teaching. As a public servant, however, Tribe says it was apparent in the short-term that he was “helping people with desperate problems.”
While in Washington, Tribe helped implement the Access to Justice Initiative, which seeks to help people with low or middle incomes find legal aid.
Summers, who in his time at the White House helped devise the $787 billion stimulus package, says he felt the impact of his work was more immediate when working in government.
“When you work in the White House on a project, it can come to fruition in a matter of hours,” Summers says.
In academia, he says, projects can take “far, far longer” to implement.
SHIPPING BACK TO BOSTON
There’s a great Harvardism about professors’ attempts to get an extension on leaves of absence: If they wouldn’t do it for Henry Kissinger, they probably won’t do it for you.
When Summers left the White House, his profile departure was surrounded about questions why he had chosen to leave. Some of it probably chalked up to wanting to keep his tenure given that the University revokes the status after an absence longer than two years.
Still, each professor had his own reasons for leaving Washington to return to Cambridge.
Summers says he was excited to return to Harvard, and that although being a part of making consequential decisions was exciting, he “missed students, young people, and freedom.” Summers says that watching students learn something he’s studied for decades “keeps you fresh.”
Meltzer and Liebman missed more than their students; they say that their positions in Washington made life difficult for their loved ones.
Metlzer—who is married to the Assistant City Manager of Human Services for the City of Cambridge—commuted from Washington to Cambridge during his stint in government. He says he’s excited and relieved to be living under the same roof with his wife.
Like Meltzer, Liebman commuted to Washington for a total of eight months, at one point moving his family to Washington for a year. Liebman says that the position was “very hard on the family,” since his children—of which the oldest is in elementary school and the youngest in the last year of pre-school—had to switch schools.
Liebman says this was “definitely a hard transition.”
“If it was not for family cost, I would still be in Washington,” Liebman adds.
Unlike Meltzer and Liebman, Tribe left his post due to medical concerns. Tribe was diagnosed in 2008 with a benign brain tumor that caused him to suffer facial seizures, among other symptoms. Tribe says that he left Washington to be closer to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he receives treatment. Despite this, Tribe says he would have left the DOJ in the coming months anyway in order to retain tenure.
As Summers, Tribe, Meltzer, and Liebman settle back into life in Cambridge, they say they believe that their experiences in Washington will enrich and improve their teaching.
Liebman says he believes that his first-hand experience with health care and energy policy will make him a more effective policy teacher. “I became an expert on broad set of issues,” he says.
Tribe says that what he “saw on the ground” illustrated to him the discrepancies in the letter of the law and how it is actually implemented.
—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Benjamin M. Scuderi can be reached at email@example.com.
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