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Larry Summers’ Undisclosed Corporate Ties Threaten Harvard’s Credibility

Former University President Lawrence H. Summers speaks in a Science Center lecture hall in October 2014.
Former University President Lawrence H. Summers speaks in a Science Center lecture hall in October 2014. By Madeline R. Lear
By Jeff M.A. Hauser, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jeff M.A. Hauser ’95 is the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a government ethics watchdog group.

Americans of all political persuasions hate the revolving door between government and corporate America. And with good reason: Conflicts of interest threaten to privatize governance, undermining confidence that government is by and for the broader public.

But revolving door issues aren’t limited to the government. They can plague universities too, with much the same corrosive effects.

Thanks to current University Professor and former University President Lawrence H. Summers, they exist right here at Harvard.

Summers is not a stranger to the government’s revolving door, having moved from high-ranking positions in the Clinton administration to Wall Street and then to the Obama White House. However, since leaving the Obama Administration, Summers has truly made a name for himself in corporate America, all while he remained in his primary role as a Harvard professor.

As the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a public interest watchdog group, I have followed Summers’ conflicts of interest — and his continued failure to adequately disclose them — for years.

Summers’ Kennedy School CV is incomplete, leaving out many of his extensive corporate ties, which include positions with cryptocurrency firms, fintech firms, banks, real estate companies, a pharmaceutical retailer, and, as of recently, OpenAI.

This unparalleled body of corporate work alone should concern administrators. Such a large number of business relationships inevitably risks conflicts of interests, and Summers’ lack of full disclosure, coupled with his frequent media appearances, worsens the issue.

It is Summers’ role as a frequent pundit that makes these conflicts of interests imperil the wellbeing of the University.

There are few, if any, Harvard professors who can rival Summers’ ubiquitous presence in the media. In many of his appearances, the esteemed Charles W. Eliot University Professor’s Harvard pedigree features prominently, trumpeted by hosts as evidence of his experience and expertise.

While these analyst appearances may benefit Summers, who is quite open about his desire to shape policy, his frequently undisclosed conflicts with the businesses he’s discussing present a real risk to both Harvard’s credibility — its commitment to Veritas — and the interests of the general public.

Last year, amid Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse — the second largest bank failure in U.S. history — Summers appeared across media outlets and liberally posted on X to discuss what was happening to SVB.

What viewers didn’t know? Summers had serious conflicts of interest with SVB.

Two firms with significant early investments in Circle Internet Financial, SVB’s single largest depositor, have had close ties to Summers. Digital Currency Group, a firm specializing in cryptocurrency investment, employed Summers as a board advisor well into 2022, while Atlas Merchant Capital, an investment fund, still employs him as a senior advisor.

Even as Summers loudly advocated for the government to guarantee funds deposited at Silicon Valley Bank — posting on X that “failure to act strongly enough would be a Lehman-like error” and that “this is not the time for moral hazard lectures” — he neglected to mention his history with some of SVB’s largest customers.

What’s more, these firms had much to lose. Circle, amazingly, had over $3.3 billion in deposits at the bank, of which it potentially stood to lose all but $250,000 if Summers’ backstop idea wasn’t implemented. After Summers’ full-throated media campaign, depositors were eventually covered, averting a crippling blow to Circle and protecting DCG’s and Atlas’ investments.

These connections are concerning, to say the least.

Regardless of whether Summers’ opinion on the course of action federal regulators should take was the right one, this was a violation of Harvard’s policies on disclosing conflicts of interest when speaking with the media and, worse, a violation of public trust.

While the SVB case was particularly egregious, Summers’ diverse corporate ties, frequent media appearances and wide online following make conflicts of interest inevitable. This inevitability makes disclosure — not just to Harvard internally, but to the public — all the more important.

He has consistently failed to do so.

When the Revolving Door Project published a letter in July 2022 calling on Summers to disclose publicly any sources of corporate funding he had received, Summers, while not publicly disclosing, told The Crimson that his “personal policy is to go beyond Harvard’s requirements by not engaging in paid public advocacy or advocacy to public officials on behalf [of] any commercial entity.” Without public disclosure, this claim is not verifiable.

Since then, the need for transparency has only become more evident. The SVB example could easily be taken as advocating via the media to government officials on behalf of the interests of a commercial entity in which Summers had substantial corporate ties.

At a time when Harvard is undergoing a crisis of credibility, with confidence in higher education seriously diminished among the American public, the University and its scholars must be more committed than ever to fastidious transparency in their relationships with corporate and governmental interests.

With his extremely public role, Summers’s punditry and nondisclosures not only imperil good governance — they also damage Harvard’s reputation for commitment to the truth.

These last few months, Summers has staunchly and widely criticized Harvard’s leadership for failing to meet incredibly high standards.

It’s time for him to hold himself to those standards too. Until then, his criticisms of the University — and his commitment to the public — ring hollow.

Jeff M.A. Hauser ’95 is the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a government ethics watchdog group.

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