Former Treasury Secretary Summers accepts appointment to be Harvard's 27th president

By Heidi B. Perlman, Associated Press, 03/11/01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Lawrence H. Summers, once a young academic star at Harvard who later became U.S. Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, will return to the university as its 27th president. Summers, 46, will replace Neil H. Rudenstine, who is stepping down in June after a decade at the helm of the nation's oldest university. The appointment was approved Sunday by Harvard's Board of Overseers.

"It's good to be home. I accept," Summers said at a Sunday afternoon press conference. "Harvard is a very complicated place. Its sheer complexity and diversity will take some time to absorb."

The board chose Summers over two men with experience in university administration: University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger and Harvard provost Harvey V. Fineberg. But Summers has close Harvard ties, earning his doctorate there in 1982 and a year later becoming one of the youngest faculty member ever granted tenure there.

"Any one of them could run Harvard," presidential search committee chair Robert G. Stone Jr. said of the other finalists. "Summers won out because he had a Harvard background and knows the school."

Summers said he planned to meet with undergraduate leaders Sunday evening to discuss student concerns, and said he intends to build consensus on campus, improve undergraduate education and maintain academic excellence during his presidency.Friends and colleagues described Summers Sunday as an enthusiastic and curious learner, a tireless worker always in search of new challenges, and someone who will quickly learn what he needs to know to do the job.

"He's shown that whether it was dealing with the Mexican crisis and bailout in the Treasury department, or working on new theories of unemployment as an academic, he has a tremendous capacity to take in new information and think out of the box," said Larry Katz, a Harvard economist who has known Summers for 20 years.

A native of New Haven, Conn., Summers graduated from MIT at age 20 and did his graduate work at Harvard. He taught at MIT from 1979 to 1982, and then served for 10 months as a domestic policy economist on President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers until 1983, an experience he said left him disillusioned. After leaving Washington, he was named a professor of economics at Harvard. In 1987, he became the university's Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy until leaving in 1993.

At Harvard he became a part of Gov. Michael Dukakis' "kitchen cabinet" during Dukakis' failed 1988 presidential campaign, emerging as a point man in Dukakis' coterie of outside advisers.

Summers also served as the World Bank's chief economist from 1991 to 1993, then undersecretary of the U.S Treasury for international affairs from 1993 to 1995, then deputy Treasury secretary in 1995.

Former President Clinton appointed him Secretary of the Treasury on July 2, 1999, and he has served as a fellow at the Brooking Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, since leaving office. Even during his busy years in public service, friends and colleagues said, he remained interested in Harvard. "All the time Larry was in Washington, he always wanted to talk about Harvard," said Richard Zeckhauser, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government who knew Summers' parents and met Summers when he was a precocious 12-year-old. "I'd say, 'you're really into interesting things, you're bailing out Thailand.' And he'd say, 'how are things going at the law school?"'

In assuming one of academia's most prestigious jobs -- the initial candidate pool included nearly 500 names -- Summers faces an enormous array of challenges, from managing its disparate schools and programs, to overseeing a $19 billion endowment, to dealing with the cities of Boston and Cambridge and reinvigorating undergraduate life.

"He's as brilliant as any academic he'd be dealing with, and he has the social skills that no other academic has at this point," said Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who was Summers' student at Harvard and worked for him at the Treasury.

The Harvard presidency can require endless phone calls and massaging of delicate egos, and Rudenstine was so exhausted by the job that he had to take a three-month leave of absence in 1994. But Zeckhauser said Summers will have little trouble summoning the energy. "He goes into this with an incredible enthusiasm and not a whit of intimidation," Zeckhauser said. "His attitude is, 'Great! I get to go to dinner with the Celtic Studies department?"' Summers' wife, Victoria Summers, is a tax attorney; they have twin daughters and a son.

About 30 students protested outside the press conference, saying the selection process was a "covert operation" and too secretive. The Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement also planned to protest Monday against policies Summers promoted as chief economist at the World Bank.

Chanting "Whose university? Our university," the students pledged to push Summers to include students in future university decision-making. "The whole presidential search was done in secret. We wanted input and we were not granted that," said 21-year-old Lara Jirmanus, a senior. "We want him to promise to give us a say."