Summers in Summary

A presidency, and the University, in perspective

Lawrence H. Summers, at his new home in Brookline, Massachusetts, photographed July 18Portrait by Jim Harrison

Lawrence H. Summers brought to the Harvard presidency prodigious energy and a penchant for framing the University’s future in visionary terms. Taking the long view forward from a millennium just begun, Summers discerned an “inflection point” in the institution’s history. He told audiences in Cambridge, across the country, and around the world, “I’m convinced that, when the history of our period is written three centuries from now…the major stories” would be the terms on which the newly developing and the developed nations come together, and the transformative effect of life-sciences research—particularly in its biomedical applications. Given the “more worldly” nature of contemporary universities, as he described them in his October 2001 installation address, Harvard, in its role of training leaders, could be at the epicenter of those epochal changes.

Accompanying Interview:

"Harvard Can Change the World"

From meetings in Massachusetts Hall to unprecedented projection through the news media, Summers waged a highly personal campaign to align Harvard with his agenda. University priorities became presidential business—for example, in his 2003 Commencement address, when Summers compared the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ then-nascent review of its undergraduate curriculum to “similar projects of renewal—in the eras of Presidents Eliot, Lowell, Conant, and Bok.” (And the result, as he envisioned it, would hold “far-reaching implications not just for the University but for higher education and society more generally.”) Animated by his belief that “what is new is most important for us,” Summers sought comparable acts of “renewal” across the University. By that he meant “not just doing new things and growing larger,” but also “moving beyond activities that have run their course, being selective and disciplined about the most critical paths to pursue.” All this he meant to do at top speed, describing himself in his final Commencement speech as “a man in hurry.”

It is far too early to put into historical context the twenty-seventh president’s agenda, or progress made toward realizing Summers’s goals during his five-year tenure. Between the announcement of his resignation on February 21 (reported in “A Presidency’s Early End,” May-June, page 59) and his departure from office on June 30, Summers addressed the results of his work and his thoughts about the institution. For an interview highlighting those perspectives, see "Harvard Can Change the World." Alongside his views, it is possible to make preliminary observations about some issues, with an eye toward Harvard’s future.



Summers assumed office at a propitious moment for proposing aggressive growth. With the conclusion of the University Campaign in December 1999 and strong investment returns, the endowment was valued at $18.3 billion in 2001—nearly four times the $4.7 billion on hand when Neil L. Rudenstine became president a decade earlier. The institution had spent heavily during the 1990s to work off a backlog of deferred facilities maintenance. Now, with the added resources in hand, Harvard began the new century reporting large operating surpluses in its annual financial statements. The Corporation distributed funds and encouraged the faculties to complete plans for and begin constructing science buildings and offices, to set about filling them with more professors, and to expand student aid. Even with the temporary decline in investment returns early in the decade, the central administration’s endowment funds grew from $2.15 billion in 2001 to $2.93 billion in 2005 (the latest figure published), and the special Allston assessment on schools’ endowments generated about $100 million per year for further land acquisition, planning, and predevelopment work there. Harvard was in an expansive mood, and as he looked to define and fund priorities, the new president could proceed without any immediate pressure to launch another time-consuming capital campaign.

Global Harvard. As an economist interested in international problems, who came to the University presidency from service at the World Bank and as Secretary of the Treasury, Summers emphasized the institution’s global reach. That interest played a role in his 2002 appointment of William C. Kirby to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) deanship. Kirby, an historian of China especially interested in that country’s international connections, had himself studied (and taught) abroad and was a leader in liberalizing the faculty’s procedures for College students to do so. President and dean regularly highlighted opportunities available to undergraduates: expanded Harvard summer-school offerings in other countries, preapproved academic programs elsewhere, and research, internship, public-service, and work options around the world. An Office of International Programs was prominently created in University Hall, and a newly appointed vice provost for international affairs began coordinating policy and programs for the University, giving an institutional focus to all the outreach. At last count, about 1,000 undergraduates per year were doing something abroad.

From early in his presidency, Lawrence Summers was a high-profile figure (as in this February 18, 2002, BusinessWeek cover story) as a personal agent of institutional change.

Beyond urging others to explore the world, Summers, an indefatigable traveler, carried the Crimson banner to places familiar and on the frontier: Beijing, Tokyo, Santiago, São Paulo, and Dubai—not to mention visits to Israel, and to the World Economic Forum in Davos each January. He also hosted Harvard Alumni Association gatherings, complete with faculty panels, in London, Mexico City, and New Delhi. In some of those locations, the peripatetic president practically crossed paths with the leaders of Columbia, Penn, Princeton, and Yale, all of whom are also projecting their institutions’ global presence. Such globe-trotting is the norm for research-university heads today.

Science. From the outset, President Summers highlighted scientific education and research as among his chief priorities. Faculty members are addressing the former issue as they recreate introductory courses, reformulate the College’s life-sciences concentrations and FAS doctoral programs, explore more engaging ways of teaching, rethink the curriculum generally, and involve students in their laboratories (see John Harvard’s Journal, July-August, "The Excitment of Science", "Quantum Leap for Engineering," and "Reconfiguring the Curriculum, and this issue, "Supporting Young Scientists"). Intellectually, Summers focused on multidisciplinary, multiparticipant research projects, where new tools in genomics, quantitative analysis, and computing, for example, promise biomedical advances. Personally, he related that potential to his own experience in being treated for Hodgkin’s disease 20 years ago. Institutionally, he addressed the challenge of discerning “how the University is able to adapt its traditional structures to most effectively engage the adventure of science”—a quest that led him to focus on launching research entities outside the existing schools and departments, and on making science much of the focus of the Allston campus.

Thus, Harvard joined with MIT to form the Broad Institute, a research center for huge genomics programs. Under Provost Steven E. Hyman, scientists proposed collaborative research programs and suggested housing them in a million square feet of new Allston laboratories. Given current federal limits on funding stem-cell research, Harvard faculty members formed their own stem-cell institute, which aims to be an early tenant of a 500,000-square-foot lab complex announced in February (the first tangible Allston project). Other institutes are in the pipeline.

But there have been bumps in the road. The focus on multi-investigator, large-scale science delighted some researchers, but left out many other Harvard scientists: principal investigators running lab groups. Their activities also continue to expand. FAS alone got the green light to increase laboratory space by one- third, at a cost of several hundred million dollars, and fill it with dozens of new neuroscientists, engineers, and biologists, each of whom will need to fit up a lab—investments that will pressure the entire budget for years to come. Sorting out financial resources, administration, and teaching responsibilities among departments and schools and new research-focused institutes is uncharted terrain. A solution has recently been proposed by the deans whose schools embrace science, and a group of faculty members. Their report (see "Sweeping Change for Science"), embracing all science at Harvard, envisions a huge new interdisciplinary effort, with control over appointments, funds, and physical space vested in an academic entity, not the central administration.

However these issues are resolved, and whatever the formidable costs, Harvard’s rapid science expansion will continue, preoccupying future presidents. Advanced scientific techniques and increased federal funding affect all research universities: witness multiple new science and medical buildings at Yale, a wave of construction at Princeton, the University of Chicago’s new Center for Integrative Science, Stanford’s Bio-X program. Harvard’s tradition of independent schools and dual campuses may complicate matters, but the fundamental impulses are common.

Allston. The land assembled in Allston under three presidents may represent outsized potential for campus development, but once again, other universities have similar hopes and hurdles: landlocked Columbia is looking north into Harlem, and the University of Pennsylvania may extend east toward Center City.

The August 24, 2003, New York Times Magazine, appearing just before a new academic year, described the intersection of leader and institution as not always easy: "[T]he discomfort he causes has not persuaded him to stop."

Summers seemed galvanized by the “historic opportunity to create a new Harvard campus for centuries to come” that, done well, would earn “the gratitude of future generations.” Seeking to speed development, rather than pursue more gradual, organic growth, he initially explored an all-science campus, but retreated in face of concerns about separating disciplines, removing research from teaching, and delaying urgently needed science facilities already planned elsewhere. The vision he put forth in 2003 mixes uses: laboratories, new education and public-health campuses, cultural facilities, and undergraduate Houses (the last item controversial, if meant to increase the size of the College; less so if seen as a site to relocate the Quad Houses, which would then be renovated for graduate-student use). Refinement of those ideas with the help of a master-planning firm has brought the Allston concepts forward for discussion with Boston regulators. The only specific siting decisions made so far are for the first science facility and a building renovation to provide swing space while the Fogg Art Museum is upgraded (see Brevia, July-August, page 67). Formation and staffing of an Allston Development Group—reporting to the president and apart from other real-estate operations—have created an institutional home to pursue the work as future presidents direct and finances permit.

Access. In his installation address, Summers proposed extending the College’s need-blind admission, and the affiliated financial-aid grants, to graduate and professional schools, particularly those training students for lower-paying occupations. As doctoral fellowships, public-service scholarships, and low-cost loans ramped up, he then advocated a new undergraduate-aid initiative. Research at the Century Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and elsewhere had documented the underrepresentation of lower-income students at elite colleges and universities. Summers’s February 2004 commitment of $2 million of University funds annually eliminated parental contributions (but not student obligations) toward the cost of attending the College for families with incomes less than $40,000, and reduced the parental bill for families with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000. By highlighting the economic trends, formulating a Harvard program, and attracting news coverage of its unveiling, he helped make such aid a priority for higher education. Peer institutions from Yale to Stanford emulated Harvard’s initiative, and even raised the ante, encouraging more applications from and enrollment of lower-income students.

The extension of the program last March revealed a different, more internal story—one of many instances of the conflicting priorities, common in large institutions, that became acute at Harvard during the past two years. FAS announced that it would award $90 million in undergraduate scholarship aid during the 2006-2007 academic year—an increase of about $5.25 million from the prior year. Days later, the central administration announced separately that it would augment its lower-income thresholds to $60,000 and $80,000, respectively, using University funds to pay the additional $2.4-million annual cost. That the policies were not coordinated suggested the frosty relationship between University Hall and Massachusetts Hall—on matters ranging from curriculum change to spending on student social spaces. FAS focused on its core aid program, funding for which has increased 65 percent (about $35 million in annual spending) in six years, markedly reducing students’ debt burden upon graduation. The administration pursued its own layer of College financial aid, identified particularly with the president.

The next FAS dean and president will have to sort out the appropriate allocation of financial aid between the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which has worked hard in recent years just to achieve parity with peer schools’ financial offers. Meanwhile, several of the professional schools can legitimately claim to have large unmet needs, for low-income or international students, and those who seek public-service careers.

Undergraduate education. The high priority given by president and FAS dean alike to bettering students’ academic experience yielded mixed results. Undergraduates now have an additional semester to explore the curriculum before choosing their concentrations, and most of them will have more opportunity to take a smaller class taught by senior faculty (in freshman seminars and during their junior years) in even the most heavily enrolled concentrations. But as it became clear that the major substantive question (what to offer for general education, if the Core curriculum is abandoned) would not be resolved in the waning months of the Summers and Kirby administrations, faculty members’ interest in the discussion diminished. Although Derek Bok has only a year as interim president, his experience when FAS adopted the Core curriculum, and his recent research on undergraduate education, suggest that with his encouragement, FAS may be able to engage the question anew, and more fruitfully, this academic year.

Diversity. As noted, President Summers sought to expand international contacts and to reverse the underenrollment of lower-income students—important forms of diversifying Harvard. But he adopted a much lower profile on issues of racial and gender diversity, a bedrock concern of his predecessors Derek Bok and Neil Rudenstine. Following his disagreements with Fletcher University Professor Cornel West, Summers issued a statement in January 2002 expressing his “pride in Harvard’s longstanding commitment to diversity.” Late that year and early the next, as educators nationwide rallied to defend the University of Michigan when the Supreme Court heard legal challenges to its admissions procedures, discussion raged in Massachusetts Hall about what position Harvard would take, until Summers signed on to a supportive amicus brief crafted by Laurence H. Tribe (now Loeb University Professor) and filed on behalf of eight institutions. In 2004, as FAS grew rapidly but the proportion of its tenure offers to women declined, concerned women faculty members who communicated with the president in writing and personally came away with the impression that he neither shared their views nor endorsed any institutional response. In conversation, he raised objections to affirmative action or diversity programs on the grounds that they might compromise the merit selection of scholars or cause injury by labeling people as the beneficiaries of a certain privilege.

This was the background when the president’s early 2005 remarks on the underrepresentation of women in academic science and engineering prompted furious debate within FAS and provoked worldwide news coverage. The furor over these issues contributed to, but was not the sole factor in, the faculty’s no-confidence vote in Summers that spring. The task forces on women faculty and on women in science and engineering he established—and the $50 million he devoted to implementing their recommendations, under a senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity—may in time set new standards for universities’ ability to support the most distinguished faculty members and to plug the leaks in the “pipeline” for academic scientists (see "Developing a Diverse Faculty"). But Summers chose to avoid highlighting these subjects almost completely during his final year in office.

The exchange of ideas. “The university is open to all ideas, but it is committed to the skepticism that is the hallmark of education,” Summers said in his installation address. “All ideas are worthy of consideration here—but not all perspectives are equally valid.” He added, “Our special obligation is to seek what is true”—a value scholars surely embrace, and a practice the president himself had famously pursued in rough-and-tumble exchanges when he was an economics professor. But the application of those principles came to seem blurred. In the controversy over Zayed M. Yasin’s senior English address at the 2002 Commencement—he proposed to use the word jihad in his titleómany observers felt that the president was not supportive of free speech. His Morning Prayers address that fall, characterizing protests aimed at Israel as ìanti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,î struck signers of a divestiture petition, among others, as an act of ostracism, not of debate.

More broadly, these and other incidents—combined with Summers’s focus on the “new” and on science and his championing of quantitative analysis (“What you count, counts,” he said)—made many faculty members feel that he simply did not care deeply about their kinds of research or fields, or about the broad scope of modern universities, with their museums and libraries. These concerns emerged sharply during the FAS faculty meetings in early 2005. The most charged speeches concerned the president’s withholding of the transcript of his remarks on women in science (he subsequently released it), attacks by commentators sympathetic to Summers on participants at that conference who held different views, and the question of his personal openness to discussion—statements that clearly left him shaken.

Administration and power. The Summers administration was strongly centralizing. Massachusetts Hall added two new vice presidencies (for human resources and for policy), and another, in effect, for Allston—itself the most centralizing of all University priorities in its planning and prospective allocation of billions of dollars and new facilities. The provost’s office created nearly a dozen senior positions (and their staffs), for functions ranging from science planning to technology licensing. Fundraising was consolidated in important ways, and in the absence of a unified Harvard campaign was focused heavily on the administration’s science priorities. The use of distributions from the endowment, the fiscal lifeblood for most of the schools, was more tightly controlled.

New priorities and programs were presented to the Harvard community and beyond as initiatives of the president himself. Summers, long experienced in dealing with the news media, hired a personal press officer, and was frequently quoted in major publications worldwide. Able to speak at length without notes, he did so on a multitude of subjects. From his first days on campus, moreover, he reached beyond deans to their staffs and subordinates for information, and weighed in on decanal personnel—in some cases, such as the College administration, prompting wholesale changes. He used the power of appointment vigorously—for example, moving to bring in a new Harvard Law School dean, atypically, at the beginning of a capital campaign—but not always satisfactorily, as his fallings-out with his FAS and education-school deans demonstrated. The demands of working in Massachusetts Hall were great, too: Summers’s chiefs of staff and other assistants turned over repeatedly, clouding lines of communication to the University at large.

At present, it appears that the authority of Harvard’s central administration has been strengthened, and that of the schools’ deans has been diluted. Given the University’s history and structure, it is not yet certain whether the new distribution of power is optimal, or even whether it is stable. Derek Bok and Jeremy R. Knowles, who have temporarily resumed their former positions as president and FAS dean, may help clarify these matters for their successors. In the meantime, as interim leaders, their management will be divorced from the issues of politics and style that became attached to the Summers administration.


Charles William Eliot transformed Harvard and American higher education during his 40-year presidency, from 1869 to 1909. In his embrace of the same job, Lawrence Summers sought equally great challenges and opportunities: to realize the promise of whole new fields of scientific research; to build on Harvard’s identity as the world leader in scholarship and training for the professions and public service; and to embed those gains in an audacious new campus of unprecedented scale. His tenure cut short, he acknowledged in his Commencement address on June 8 that “I have loved my work here, and I am sad to leave it. There was much more I wanted, felt inspired, to do.” It must be a bittersweet consolation that the new University Professorship to which he has been appointed bears Eliot’s name.

The basic issues Summers raised—about science and education, about financial aid and future development—appeared on the University agenda before he came to Massachusetts Hall, and remain there after him, albeit in different forms and institutional shapes. To his successor will fall the task of moving toward more of the answers and, importantly, mounting the capital campaign to realize agreed-upon goals.

Summers provoked discussion from the top—not a trivial cultural shift for a complex place as decentralized as Harvard has long been. On his way out, he expressed frustration about what he saw as institutional rigor mortis: for example, why hadn’t FAS created or eliminated a department in nearly four decades? From their perspective, many professors countered that those forms mattered little: did anyone really think that the work being done in the biology department today had not evolved enormously during that interval? The intellectual renewal he sought, in this sense, is always under way, though not always precisely in the ways or at the pace he preferred.

Such debates, messy though they may seem, are good for the institution—so long as they do not immobilize the teaching and research that are Harvard’s daily reason for being. After the tumult of the past years, professors and students are probably ready to move on, engaging themselves in the life of this distinctive community, and willing to work with new leadership that makes them feel included in defining and fulfilling the University’s mission in the years ahead.                       

~John S. Rosenberg

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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