From Harvard to D.C. and Back Again

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.


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.