Larry Summers is, by most accounts, a pretty hard guy to please.
Students in his courses on globalization and American economic policy quickly see that they’re not in for a dose of Harvard’s famous grade inflation. If they ask about their mark, Summers might well tell them they would’ve earned a higher one if he graded like most of his colleagues.
Soon after Summers was picked as Harvard’s next president in 2001, faculty members realized they were in for a similar wake-up call. In his inaugural address, the new president declared that Harvard needed to reexamine its undergraduate curriculum and that professors needed to interact more with students, putting the Faculty on notice in the most public of ways.
Summers’s allies say he has high standards, is fiercely loyal, and is always laser-focused on solving the problem at hand. His opponents say he has a limited understanding of empathy, holds his friends to a lower bar, and does not know how to admit mistakes.
What few deny is that Summers is a master teacher: Socratic, probing, intellectually hungry. For all of this, his students swear by him. Summers brought these same traits to the Harvard presidency, challenging professors about their research and teaching and sparring with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At a university built on tradition, it was a change of pace.
Reactions were mixed, to say the least: Summers lasted just five years, leaving the presidency in 2006 after being rejected, in no uncertain terms, by many in the Faculty. And yet today, after a year on sabbatical, two years at the White House, and months of speculation in 2013 that he would move to the top post at the Federal Reserve, he’s settled back into teaching, a role that has shaped his Harvard career more than any other.
Larry Summers, who turns 60 next month, has had a lot of careers. Today, he calls himself a teacher.
It’s an interesting label for someone who is Harvard’s president emeritus, who has worked as a managing director at a top New York City hedge fund, served as U.S. Treasury Secretary, and most recently spent two years as one of President Barack Obama’s top economic and domestic policy advisers. But Summers, in one-on-one interviews as well as public lectures, sticks to it.
It’s a label, and a way of thinking and working, that’s informed much of his life, from Economics 10 office hours in the late 1970s to the meetings of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences he chaired as president and the tremendous chasm in between. It’s a label that’s guided him, again and again, back to Harvard.
Nowadays, Summers holds court at the Kennedy School of Government in a second floor area that lacks the grandeur of his old corner office in Massachusetts Hall. The office is also entirely more accessible than his old digs, situated as it is just above the HKS dining hall and just off a major student walkway. Students who look should have no problem finding Summers, and that’s how he likes it.
Summers’s area—it’s actually two offices and a waiting room—is everything you might expect. The former Harvard president and U.S. Treasury Secretary—now he’s “Professor Summers”or, more often, just “Larry”—has a staff of three who cue up phone calls, keep his packed schedule, and usher students in and out, often at least 15 minutes behind schedule.
The most spacious room in the mini-compound is Summers’s office, decorated head-to-toe with Harvard paraphernalia and a touch of U.S. financial and political history. Not five feet away is a space for Summers’s budding protégés, a collection of desks in an adjacent room where these students set up shop. Whether he’s on the phone or in a meeting, the system allows Summers to keep many of his best friends, as his former students often become, close.
Natasha R. Sarin, a third-year Harvard graduate student pursuing a law degree and a Ph.D. in Economics, is one protégé who makes the trek to Summers’s office frequently. Last year, as a second-year graduate student, Sarin worked out of the office five days a week. This year she’s busier, but she still stops by at least twice a week.
“There are days when we spend like three hours together,” Sarin told me one day this September, her notebooks spread out on one of the office’s spare desks. “Larry’s a really busy guy, he’s meeting a lot of important people...but he makes time.”
On this particular Tuesday an economics midterm is atop the agenda. Sarin’s a top student: On a year off from Yale in 2011, she worked at the National Economic Council, where she met Summers, at the time the NEC’s director. Sarin soon came to Harvard and quickly began working with Summers again, both on research and as a teaching fellow in his globalization courses.
But today, Sarin isn’t sure she’s got a handle on this exam.
“I’m having some trouble with verbal problems,” she says, thumbing through a wrinkled packet of midterm review questions.
Summers—legs crossed, torso angled towards Sarin in a favorite pose—doesn’t miss a beat. “Give me a verbal problem,” he says, motioning for the review questions. “Let’s do a verbal problem.”
As Summers reads the first question on the page, his speech slows just a bit. By the time he’s finished the prompt he’s got the answer in his head, but instead of blurting it out—instead of signaling his renowned quickness—he pauses. It’s not long before he’s launched into his slow, deliberate way of teaching by asking. As the questions build—“what happens to the meat prices here, if carrot prices go up?”—Sarin starts to nod.
“Yeah,” she says after a few minutes of the asking drill. “Yeah, I’ve got it.”
Summers smiles, and it’s a real smile, not one of the contrived grins that the oft-photographed—Summers included—are occasionally guilty of. He’s made it apparent time and again that he likes being right, but he also clearly enjoys this mentorship role, showing somebody the answer rather than telling them.
It’s a Socratic skill that Summers has been honing for years, ever since his first time at the blackboard as an Ec. 10 teaching fellow in 1976. Way back then, with his characteristic untucked shirt and collection of crumpled notes, Summers earned a reputation as a bit “scatterbrained,” but also as utterly brilliant and especially dedicated. After class, you could always find him in Lowell House, either in his tutor suite—a mess of papers and pizza boxes—or in the dining hall, where he sat for hours working with students.
Today, while Summers’s office is far cleaner, his teaching philosophy is much the same. Proudly included on a curriculum vitae that runs 4,500 words is a flashback: “Outstanding Teaching Fellow in Introductory Economics, Harvard University, 1977.”
“Obviously I don’t hang out in dining halls the same way that I did when I was a tutor in my early 20s,” Summers told me this fall. “But to this day I get a lot of satisfaction out of, at any moment, being able to mentor a certain number of students.”
That 1976 Ec. 10 section has never strayed very far from Larry Summers’s mind. Even when he left Harvard in 1991—first for the World Bank and eventually for escalating posts at the Treasury Department—he tried to keep debates and conversations no more formal than they were in section, back when he didn’t wear a suit and was barely older than the students he taught.
“It was very much a Socratic process of people working with each other,” remembered Robert E. Rubin ’60, a close Summers friend and his predecessor as U.S. Treasury Secretary.
“It didn't matter whether you were the most senior person in the room or the most junior person in the room, what you said mattered,” Rubin added, largely crediting Summers with encouraging an atmosphere where prerogative took a back seat.
If the atmosphere was collegial, it certainly wasn’t perfect. Missteps during Summers’s Washington tenure—most notably a poor-taste memo from his World Bank days—would eventually become fodder for his opponents at Harvard and elsewhere.
Still, Harvard came calling in 2001, looking for its next president and asking Summers to interview for the job.
“There was interest in talking to me, and I thought, ‘This would be a hugely exciting opportunity.’ That it would be something to pursue,” Summers told me last month, sparing both of us the “I never thought I would be selected” cliché that we both know isn’t quite true.
This isn’t to say, of course, that Summers was always the frontrunner. He wasn’t, at least in the ever-speculating eyes of the media, which coalesced in declaring then-University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger—now the president of Columbia University—as the obvious pick. But as the field narrowed from 400 to 40 to three, Summers made the cut each time. At a final interview, Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Robert G. Stone '45-'47 pulled Summers aside and draped his arm around him for one last chat.
Summers left the meeting feeling good about his chances, and a few days later he was told he had the job if he wanted it. Accepting the Harvard presidency meant moving from Maryland to the ceremonial Elmwood residence—a Harvard-owned house that sacrifices privacy for ceremony and can be revoked on short notice—and making a long-term commitment to Harvard.
Summers said yes. At a triumphant press conference in March of 2001, he let his excitement, and his expectations, shine through.
“It’s good to be home. I accept,” he told the gaggle gathered in Loeb House, with another real smile. “I expect to be here quite a while.”
Back in his days as a graduate teaching fellow and then as a young associate professor, Larry Summers had a reputation for rushing into class—maybe a few minutes late—and rather abruptly starting his lecture.
The tardiness followed him to Mass. Hall, but so did the urgency. When he took office in the fall of 2001, Summers got started quickly, jumping in headfirst with a pointed inauguration speech. His primary focus was the undergraduate experience.
“First, we will need in the years ahead to ensure that teaching and learning are everything they can be here, especially at the very heart of the University—Harvard College,” the new president said. “What is most crucial is this: Whether in the classroom or the common room, the library or the laboratory, we will assure more of what lies at the heart of the educational experience—direct contact between teacher and student.”
The statements made sense. But from a new president on one of the University’s most historic days, they were also a very public challenge to the hundreds of faculty in attendance, particularly as they suggested a new central authority—Summers—at an institution which had for centuries thrived on decentralization. Nevertheless, many Harvard faculty—even those who would eventually clash with Summers—remember being inspired themselves by the speech.
The underlying premise, though, was that Harvard’s faculty members needed to change the way they were doing their jobs. This central Summers thesis—reduced in at least one subsequent speech to “The College in the center of the University. It is excellent. It can be better”—soon became a flashpoint between the new president and the University’s oldest de facto governing body: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Summers’s style only accentuated this point of tension. Faculty members soon found out that Larry Summers didn’t run meetings the same way his predecessor Neil L. Rudenstine did. While Rudenstine was soft-spoken and respected decorum, Summers was loud, asked a lot of questions, and wasn’t afraid to call you or your idea “stupid.”
“He would take positions that he knew were wrong, just to have a debate,” remembered Benedict H. Gross ’71, who served as the dean of Harvard College under Summers. “Some people just didn’t go for that stuff.”
Summers’s inclination to be provocative was an extension of his work as a teacher and a researcher, a manifestation of the sort of mind that had won top economics prizes by challenging common assumptions and had pushed eager students to new heights. But this approach, some suggest, led Summers to treat his presidency more like an intellectual debate—where feelings ought to be checked at the door—than was appropriate.
Some appreciated the debate.
“He was always pushing hard for whatever it was he wanted to have happen,” University President Drew G. Faust, who served as dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study under Summers, said in an interview this month. “And he had a drive and impatience that was motivating and grabbed your attention and mobilized people.”
Stephen J. Greenblatt, a University Professor—Harvard’s top teaching appointment, which comes with license to teach any course in any department—found Summers’s style jarring at first, but also appreciated the intellectual spirit of the challenges.
“He is not someone who is reluctant to question people,” Greenblatt said this fall. “He expressed questions and doubts that I found sort of bracing, [but] it wasn’t annoying, it felt...exciting...I found it actually attractive.”
Others, like Cornel R. West ’74, were not as receptive. West, also a University Professor and the chair of Harvard’s growing African and African American Studies Department, was summoned to Summers’s Mass. Hall office in Oct. 2001.
The meeting was a debacle. West afterward claimed that Summers gestured to West’s spoken word album, referred to it as a rap CD and an “embarassment” to Harvard, and challenged West about his teaching. University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a close colleague of Westin the African and African American Studies department—a unit with which Summers clashed early on—remembers the meeting as a “disaster, with two people who were both very smart, equally smart, with humongous egos, talking past each other.”
Summers has declined to comment in detail on what he insists was a private conversation.
“In retrospect, I wish that I had insisted on being present at that meeting to mediate between them,” Gates said this month. “Cornel is a very brilliant and refined thinker and was most certainly not used to being spoken to in the way in which Larry spoke to him.”
Coming as early as it did in Summers’s tenure, the affair signaled that a new leadership strategy generated divided reactions: while some found it refreshing, some thought it downright disrespectful and accused Summers of inappropriately meddling with the work of tenured faculty. West was in the latter camp. Less than 24 hours after the meeting, according to Gates, West had accepted an offer from Princeton. He was gone by the fall of 2002.
Gates, who said he enjoyed “verbal jousting” with Summers and didn’t mind the challenges, nevertheless recalled a paradigm shift.
“The styles embodied by Neil Rudenstine and Larry Summers couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. It was night and day,” Gates said. “Most people want the president to remember their name...and say ‘I like that book you just published.’ And if you don’t get that kind of positive reinforcement, it’s quite disconcerting to most people, even professors at Harvard.”
Today, Summers likes to be perfectly, 100 percent clear about ground rules. Reporters, even familiar faces, are greeted at the start of every interview with a firm discussion about how the conversation will be treated. Summers, it turns out, knows the ethics better than many journalists; he knows he can’t go off the record unless the reporter agrees, and he certainly knows to be explicit that off the record really means off the record and that his statements won’t become newsroom gossip.
The diligence, to anyone who knows Summers’s story, makes a lot of sense.
In early 2005, Summers’s presidency was moving full steam ahead. Since the Cornel West affair he had largely continued his practice of challenging everyone from undergraduates in his freshman seminars to potential new hires to University professors on their thinking, teaching, and research. At the same time, Summers raised funds for the University at record levels, markedly increased financial aid across the University, and worked on a master plan for a new Allston campus.
He had also made progress on perhaps his biggest project: the Harvard College Curricular Review. Though he stepped back from leading the review before it concluded, the process eventually generated the Program in General Education and pushed back the concentration declaration deadline, among other changes.
Summers had sought to effect culture change at Harvard, and particularly at the College, to make life revolve more around teaching and learning. And in a 2005 speech to the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C., he proudly declared that progress had been made.
“You know, when I was recruited to be a professor at Harvard in 1983, no one to my knowledge asked me for a single bit of evidence on whether I had or had not been an effective teacher at MIT, where I was then,” Summers told the crowd. “Today, no one becomes a member of the senior faculty at Harvard without a careful review of their record as a teacher and as a mentor of students.”
Summers was on a roll, confidently ticking off many of his top priorities. But this momentum hit a roadblock in January, 2005, when he removed his presidential cap for a seminar at the National Bureau of Economic Research—an old haunt for Summers and many Harvard economists. The seminar was titled “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce.”
Summers made it clear that he was attending the event as an economist and not as Harvard’s president or to discuss University efforts to promote diversity. The seminar was to be off the record, and the event organizer said that he had invited Summers “to come and be provocative.”
Provocative Summers was. Between statements like “I’ve given you my guesses...they may be all wrong” Summers posited that women may be underrepresented in the sciences due to family constraints—not a new hypothesis—but also because of “issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude.”
Within 48 hours, an interpretation of the remarks had hit the national media.
Summers had walked in to what he thought would be a collegial, off-the-record, classroom-type atmosphere. It was supposed to be exactly the type of arena in which he thrived, bouncing ideas off the participants with his trademark dose of provocation. Instead, two days later, he saw himself branded a sexist by some.
The remarks awoke a sleeping giant in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As discontent brewed and boiled, the February meeting of the FAS came and went. Multiple pockets of opposition existed, according to faculty members, but none was yet organized enough to mount a formal challenge to the president.
The lapse was temporary. In preparation for the March FAS meeting, J. Lorand Matory ’82, a professor of African and African American Studies and a leader of the Summers opposition, docketed a vote on the following motion: “the Faculty lacks confidence in the leadership of Lawrence H. Summers.”
Matory saw the vote as a public voice of opposition more than anything else. He did not expect it to pass.
“I was certainly hoping [it would pass], but I did not assume that it would be so,” he said last week. “If 20 percent of the FAS approved the measure, as I hoped, I would see no reason for that to be a cause for his leaving office...I wanted things to be clear, and I wanted that opinion to be here.”
Once docketed, however, the motion inspired an upheaval of anti-Summers sentiment. At least 550 faculty members—roughly five times the usual turnout for meetings of the FAS—attended the March meeting. The event had to be moved from University Hall to the Loeb Drama Center, where Summers and other top administrators sat among scenery for a production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage.”
The atmosphere was unprecedented. Summers, who as president usually ran the FAS meetings, asked FAS Dean William F. Kirby to take over.
Gross, then the dean of the College and now a close friend of Summers, remembered a chaotic evening.
“Dean Kirby was trying to run the meeting very civilly, and he was saying, ‘Now, before we vote, let’s make time to discuss this,’ and people were standing up and yelling, ‘I object! We have to vote now!’” he said.
The tempers were an ominous sign. The vote, conducted by secret ballot, went against Summers in a development that shocked many: 218 in favor of the motion, 185 against, 18 in abstention.
The vote stung.
Summers, at first, took the news coolly. But then his hand covered his mouth and, as he realized the magnitude of the announcement, his expression dropped off.
Those who were in attendance remember a certain cruelty of the affair. There he was, the president of Harvard—a graduate of Harvard—being told in front of many of his friends, with the national media just outside, that he had gone about things all wrong.
As he left, Summers didn’t duck the media. He said he hoped to heal the wounds. He said he would learn from his mistakes. He tried to smile, but photos caught him looking low, dead straight ahead, clutching prepared remarks in one hand and making his way, under police escort, away from the Loeb.
Gross remembered a lack of civility.
“It was really high tempers,” he said. “I’ve never seen faculty meetings like that.”
Summers, his friends say, felt attacked by a Faculty that by the end was looking for any opportunity to express its discontent. Shortly after the no-confidence vote he stepped back from the review of the undergraduate curriculum under heavy pressure from the Faculty. The review had been one of his his closest pet projects.
After a summer and fall full of peacemaking efforts, Summers hit another roadblock in Feb. 2006, when he tried to distance himself from his close friend Andrei Shleifer ’82, the disgraced economist whose criminal activities led to Harvard’s paying a $26.5 million settlement in 2005. When asked to comment on the Shleifer Affair in a Feb. 2006 faculty meeting, Summers—who had recused himself from Harvard’s handling of the matter—said he didn’t know enough of the facts to give an informed response.
The answer didn’t satisfy many in the Faculty. Matory, making the case against Summers, called the response “nothing short of disgusting.”
For many, the Shleifer affair was the final straw. After the Harvard Corporation lost confidence in him, Summers resigned in Feb. 2006.
“Difficult marriages sometimes end and so it is with ours,” he told the Faculty at his last FAS meeting.
Summers doesn’t enjoy speaking about the end of his presidency. He’d much rather tackle a student’s problem set or break down three top trends in the American economy. But in an interview this fall, he looked back to his tenure.
“I was in a hurry because I saw much that was urgent,” he said. “I didn’t think a 30-year-old curriculum or the lack of personal contact between faculty and students at Harvard College or the quality of student experiences was acceptable for the world’s leading university. I saw incredible potential for Harvard to respond to the growing equality of opportunity challenge in the United States, to lead the world in the life sciences and their applications, and to contribute to solving so many global challenges. I am proud of the progress the University made in all these areas during my presidency.”
Summers continued, addressing the contention surrounding his exit and his rift with many in the Faculty.
“Would I prefer that it had happened in a way where people were more comfortable and there was less controversy? Of course. We’re all works in progress and I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he said with a pause. “I have always believed that complacency is the greatest danger for great institutions, so I don’t regret my core decision to challenge prerogatives and push for change even at the expense of comfort and tradition.”
When Summers left the presidency in June 2006, he could have gone just about anywhere.
He could have gone back to Washington, to a think tank or the like to lay in wait for what was likely to be an incoming Democratic administration. He could have gone to almost any university in the world.
And he did leave, if only for a time, packing up with his wife, English professor Elisa New, and spending the better part of a year with their children from previous marriages.
“We had a lot of kids, and we were actually very concerned at that point with beginning to blend these families and so it was kind of exciting, and when Larry decided to resign, I thought, ‘Okay good, we can live in Brookline,’” New remembered earlier this month during an interview at the couple’s Brookline home.
“There were a ton of positives,” Summers added. He was firm all along that the year off was a sabbatical, not an exit strategy. He even bragged to graduating seniors in 2006 that he, unlike them, would keep his library privileges.
And, soon enough, New and Summers came straight back to Harvard. New settled back into the English Department, where she had once been the director of undergraduate studies, and Summers picked an office at the Kennedy School as the newly minted Charles Eliot University Professor.
“We’re both teachers,” New said this month. “There wasn’t much question [about returning to Harvard.]”
For Summers, it was in many ways a return to the scene of many of his hardest moments. As he unpacked in his new office at HKS, incoming president Faust moved into his old one in Mass. Hall.
Faust kept much of the furniture in the office where it was, and though she didn’t mention her predecessor much by name, in her early remarks she highlighted many of his hardest-fought accomplishments.
“We are on the verge of a new College curriculum that has already deeply engaged the Faculty and that promises more coherence, more choice, and more excitement in undergraduate education,” she said shortly after she was selected, ticking off primary tenets of Summers’s curricular crusade. “We have just received a faculty report calling for renewed and enhanced dedication to teaching. A new advising system has been launched.”
And, at today’s Harvard, Summers has found a niche—a large one given that he, as a University Professor, can teach in any department and at any school.
“I like to be based in a university, and Harvard’s the university because of its breadth that has always seemed most appealing to me,” he said last week.
But it’s clear that the connection goes deeper. Though he graduated from MIT— “a small technical institute located down Massachusetts Avenue,” as he often called it—Summers blossomed while teaching Ec. 10, Ec. 1410 (public sector economics), and working with graduate students. In 1983, when he had a chance for tenure at MIT, he returned to Harvard instead. In 2011, when he had a choice of retaining an ongoing appointment as an adviser to President Obama or holding on to his tenure—a distinction which expires after two years of inactivity—Summers chose Harvard once again.
To be sure, it’s not as if Larry Summers has lost his national and international focus: Last year, he was nearly tapped by Obama to lead the Federal Reserve, a position he clearly intended to accept, before senators strongly cautioned against his nomination. Now, he writes a monthly column for the Financial Times where he explores everything from hardcore economic theory to the political movements he’s had to master as a domestic policy adviser. It is not atypical for him to visit, in the course of one week, airports Logan, LaGuardia, and Reagan.
The trips are frequent and the weeks are long—“I’m outta here,” Summers said, slightly exasperated, around 2:30 p.m. on a Friday this fall after a rare short day. Campus days are packed with writing, student visits, and course plans, which Summers saturates with tidbits from his travels and, always, a story or two from his Treasury and World Bank days.
“I like to think that my activities outside the University are helpful for students because it enables me to provide them with connections and advice for the vast majority who are looking to pursue non-academic careers,” Summers told me this month. He added that the lectures and office hours are often highlights on his schedule.
“The aspect of my job that I love most is that I feel that I am able to be very close both to world of public policy and to the world of thought,” he told me. “I have a chance each year to touch, in at least a small way, tens if not hundreds of young people, many of whom will someday have positions of major responsibility.”
By the looks of it, Larry Summers is here to stay. He’s home.
Crimson Editor Madeline R. Lear contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.