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Lawrence Summers selected as president of Harvard University

Press conference, Loeb House, Harvard University

MR. STONE: Ladies and gentlemen of the press, welcome. I thank you all for coming. This is a big day in Harvard’s history. My name is Bob Stone. I’m Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation and Chairman of the Search Committee, which was quite an event, I can tell you. And which, as you know, started last July. We are very pleased to come here today and tell you that as of this afternoon we’ve elected Larry Summers as the 27th President of Harvard effective July 1.

I want to thank the many members of the Harvard community first. Faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends who contributed their time and input into making this process a success. We have talked to people all over the University. We’ve learned a lot about the University, and really if it wasn’t for that process I don’t think we ever would have arrived at someone as distinguished, someone as exciting, as Larry. We do appreciate all your time.

I also want to acknowledge and thank Neil Rudenstine, our President since 1991, who has done such an outstanding job leading the University for the past decade. Thanks largely to Neil’s extraordinary and selfless devotion to Harvard, his successor will assume the leadership of a strong and vibrant institution that is very well positioned for the future.

Larry Summers received his Bachelor of Science degree from M.I.T. in 1975 and his Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard in 1982. He became a full professor of economics at Harvard in 1983 at the age of 28, one of the youngest people ever to receive tenure here. In 1987, he became the Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy. That year he also became the first social scientist ever to receive the prestigious Alan Waterman Award, presented by the National Science Foundation. In 1993, Larry received the John Bates Clark Medal, one of the principal honors of his profession given every two years to the outstanding U.S. economist under age 40. Larry went to the World Bank in 1991 to serve as Vice President of Development Economics and Chief Economist. Starting in 1993 he served in a series of leadership positions in the Treasury Department, most recently as the Secretary of the Treasury from July 1999 until January of this year.

Larry embodies a rare combination as one of the most respected scholars and one of the most influential public servants of his generation. He is a person of extraordinary academic distinction with a deeply rooted understanding of the University and its purposes, as well as extensive leadership experience on the national and international scene. His many admirers within and beyond Harvard know him to be someone of exceptional energy and creativity. Someone who inspires people to do their best work. Someone who thinks incisively and imaginatively about how complex institutions work and how they change. He is a gifted teacher, a valued mentor and a thoughtful human being, passionate about education and ideas and full of curiosity about fields beyond his own. We enthusiastically welcome him back to Harvard and look forward to his leadership in guiding the University wisely and ably into the future. Larry Summers.

MR. SUMMERS: Thank you, Bob. It’s good to be home. I accept. Let me first say that I have a very difficult act to follow. Neil Rudenstine has done a remarkable job in leading Harvard over the last decade. Under his leadership Harvard has extended its excellence in many spheres. He’s led a strong effort to keep Harvard open to students of all backgrounds, strengthen collaboration among the different parts of the University, and in countless ways worked to improve the academic, financial and physical resources of this University. There can be no question Neil Rudenstine will leave Harvard even stronger and better than he found it.

It is with a great sense of anticipation, a feeling of excitement and exhilaration, that I undertake the responsibility the Corporation has entrusted to me. Harvard’s central mission is education and scholarship and there is nothing more important to the future of our country, and indeed to the future of the world, than preparing young people to take full advantage of life’s possibilities and creating the new knowledge and ideas that shape a changing world.

People speak often of the ivory tower as remote. And yet over the last few years I’ve been privileged to see again and again how the ideas of scholars, whether regarding the molecular basis of life, the dynamics of global markets, the way we experience literature and art, profoundly shape the world in which we live. And as I’ve traveled widely over the last number of years, I’ve been so very often struck by the leaders I have met talking about their participation for a year, or two years, or four years in a degree program at Harvard or another American university, and how that experience changed their lives and changed the way in which they were governed. So the opportunities for this great University have probably never been greater.

But there are also great challenges, from ensuring that undergraduate education is the best that it can be, to advancing in the forefront of increasingly expensive scientific research, to fostering cutting-edge thinking and teaching regarding the professions, and carrying forward the torch of learning and the humanities.

Fortunately, Harvard is well-positioned to take these challenges on, and it now has both the resources and the room to innovate and grow as it pursues its mission in a changing world. This is truly an exciting era for Harvard, and I believe in a global economy that is increasingly shaped around knowledge and an exciting era for higher education. I look forward to working very closely with faculty, students, staff and alumni to fulfill the central purposes of teaching and scholarship of this great institution. I expect over the next several months before taking up the Presidency to visit Cambridge often and to consult very widely. And before I do much more speaking I will be doing a great deal of listening to the members of this community, who it is already very clear to me have given an enormous amount of very careful and detailed thought to its future in the course of this search process.

Let me finally just thank Bob Stone and the members of the Corporation and the members of the Overseers for their enormous efforts during this search process. I have already learned a great deal from them and look forward to learning a great deal more and look forward to working with them very closely in the future. Now I’m ready to answer your questions.

PRESS REPORTER: Mr. Summers, is there anything …

MR. SUMMERS: Maybe you could each identify yourselves.

PRESS REPORTER: Is there anything in this new job that intimidates you about [INAUDIBLE]

MR. SUMMERS: Harvard is a very complicated place and I believe that the sheer complexity and diversity of this institution will take me some time to absorb, but I will give it my all.

PRESS REPORTER: I’m from the Harvard Crimson. We’ve all really admired President Rudenstine’s work here at Harvard and also know that you and President Rudenstine come from very different perspectives. What will be the biggest difference between your administration and his?

MR. SUMMERS: Neil and I have known each other and have been in contact periodically over the years. As I just made clear, I have enormous admiration for what’s been accomplished at Harvard during his tenure and I will be building on the foundation that he and his predecessors and the entire community have laid. I think that with the success of the Campaign, with the purchases of land in Allston, with the opportunities that are now presenting themselves in a number of disciplines, the nature of the challenges facing Harvard today are somewhat different than the nature of the challenges facing Harvard at the time Neil took office 10 years ago. So inevitably the nature of the responses will be somewhat different. But it is certainly my aim to try my best to build on and maintain the tradition of excellence with which Harvard has been led by Neil Rudenstine, by Derek Bok, and by their predecessors.

PRESS REPORTER: Mr. Summers, [INAUDIBLE] also include the students who are protesting outside, fighting anti-sweatshop methods and there could be a rally tomorrow.

MR. SUMMERS: I expect to be meeting with members of the Undergraduate Council this evening to discuss student concerns. I expect over time to meet widely with different groups.

PRESS REPORTER: You mentioned the land in Allston. You also said you would be coming to Cambridge a bit over the next few months. What’s your thoughts about [INAUDIBLE] between Harvard and the other side of the river? In other words, how does Harvard fit into the Boston community, or maybe it doesn’t fit in sometimes.

MR. SUMMERS: I’ve made my first mis-spoke. I’ve committed my first mis-speak. I will be visiting both Cambridge and Boston frequently in the next several months. I look forward to speaking with Mayor Menino and coming to learn more about the issues that are involved in Harvard’s efforts to be a good neighbor. I don’t think there’s any question about the importance both for Harvard and the communities in which it resides. Harvard’s been a good neighbor under Neil’s leadership. My impression is that substantial progress has been made in the last several years and it will be very, very important that Harvard continue to act as a good neighbor.


MR. SUMMERS: I’m sure that over time, as the world evolves, Harvard will have to evolve as well, but at this point my priority is going to be on listening and consulting with members of the community. When the time is right I’ll have the opportunity to speak in much more detail about directions that seem to me to be very important for the University.

PRESS REPORTER: No specifics today?

MR. SUMMERS: I think I answered your question.

PRESS REPORTER: I’ve spoken to several students who in fact question that you haven’t run a University before, haven’t held an administrative position in a University and they question how you will be as an administrator. What would you say to that concern?

MR. SUMMERS: Well, I will do my very best. You know, in many ways there are differences but there are also similarities between government and a university. In both cases there’s a complex, multi-faceted mission. There is nothing as simple to use as a guide as simply seeking to maximize profit. And the essence of leadership, it has always seemed to me, is forming consensus on the right direction and working to ensure that the quality of the people in an institution are as strong as they possibly can be. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my past positions and it seems to me that same direction, based on consensus and ensuring and maintaining excellence, are crucial requisites here at Harvard.


MR. SUMMERS: Well, I did spend a fair amount of time inside the Beltway. That may be quite different from being a Beltway insider. My heart has always been with the work of thought and ideas. That’s been the base of my career and that’s the world I’ve always wanted to come back to. I hope that during my time in Washington I learned something about the forces shaping or changing our global system and learned something about leadership in complex organizations. I certainly hope to put those skills to use to benefit Harvard.

PRESS REPORTER: Different presidents of the University have used the bully pulpit of Harvard in different ways. President Rudenstine pursued issues of diversity and access to higher education, but he’s pursued them quietly. President Bok, on the other hand, used his position to act very publicly for other issues related to higher education. How do you intend to use your bully pulpit?

MR. SUMMERS: As I’ve said, for the next while I plan to be listening rather than speaking. I’m sure that when it’s appropriate and in Harvard’s interest I will feel free to speak and write on issues that are of concern to Harvard, issues that are of concern to higher education, issues that are of concern to higher education and its relation to the broader society. But to try to speculate on that at this point would be very premature.

PRESS REPORTER: I was wondering what your personal style was going to be. We’ve heard a lot of things, but what are some of the adjectives you might use to describe your own style?

MR. SUMMERS: I think I’ll leave adjectives about myself to others, but certainly my objective would be to be a consensus builder, to identify priorities which are shared widely in the community. I noted some of them in terms of improving undergraduate education, in terms of strengthening the sciences, in terms of maintaining academic excellence, particularly in the recruitment of younger faculty, in terms of maintaining a commitment to diversity, in terms of setting clear, long-term plans, in terms of making sure that those areas of knowledge where crossing traditional boundaries are addressed. These will be the kinds of issues where I’ll be seeking to work to build and implement consensus because in a university, indeed in almost any institution, it is consensus-building that is the basis for enduring forward movement.

PRESS REPORTER: One more question. If there’s not consensus, what would you then say is the right one even there’s not consensus?

MR. SUMMERS: I think inevitably in a university decisions are taken collegially by the university administration, by faculty. I would work with students, with alumni and with all the University stakeholders. My objective as President will be to work with those groups to forge the best possible outcomes.


MR. SUMMERS: It seems to me that technology and the support it provides to mobilization both afford opportunities to extend excellence and it is very important to take advantage of those opportunities. But anytime one seeks to extend excellence there is always the risk of diluting excellence, and the excellence of its people and the excellence of its ideas are really Harvard’s greatest strength. So I don’t have a specific plan to speak about that at all today. But it seems to me that as the University community moves forward on the decision about the issues of globalization and indeed the issues of online education distribution, the challenge will be to extend the impact of Harvard’s excellence where that’s possible, but to do so without taking the risk of diluting that excellence. And just what the best way of doing that will be is obviously a question that’s already received a great deal of thought and will continue to receive more thought in the future.

PRESS REPORTER: Can you talk about when you first might have considered a university presidency as part of something you might aspire to, and when specifically your ambition pointed you toward Harvard?

MR. SUMMERS: Well, I would say that the possibility of being involved at some point in my life in academic administration is something I’ve thought about for some time. Bob Stone contacted me to explore whether I had a possible interest in speaking about the Harvard presidency late last fall. At that point I decided that I did.

PRESS REPORTER: Early in the presidential search when Al Gore and Bill Clinton were mentioned as candidates for the presidency; they were criticized for, among other things, being not sufficiently intellectual for the job, but also being too political for Harvard. You’re clearly a Democratic insider. How will your past [INAUDIBLE] with the Democrats affect your work?

MR. SUMMERS: You know, I took an oath of office when I served in the government and that oath of office was to uphold the Constitution and seek to do what was best for the United States. That’s what I tried to do when I was in the government and certainly it seems to me that Harvard’s work is supremely non-partisan. It seems to me that whatever one’s political persuasion, I think it would be hard for many to disagree with the importance of free thought and inquiry and with the importance of effective instruction and effective teaching and preparation of young people. So I look forward at Harvard to interacting with first-rate scholars and with others regardless of their political persuasion.

PRESS REPORTER: As the next President of Harvard you’ll be joining a long line of great men with distinguished and illustrious legacies. How do you see yourself in that line of great presidents? Looking back years in the future, what will be the Summers legacy as President of Harvard?

MR. SUMMERS: At this point all I want to say is that as of right now I will be the last person in that long list. I’d rather get into the job before seeking to answer the question.

PRESS REPORTER: Is there a minimum time period that you will give to serve?

MR. SUMMERS: I’m not even in the job. I’m the 27th President of Harvard in some 350 years and I think that says something about the traditions in that area and I expect to be here quite a while.

PRESS REPORTER: The people outside are concerned with a memo, and tell me if there’s anything inaccurate here, in the memo you wrote that toxic waste could be shipped to underdeveloped countries. Could you explain those comments and address whether or not we should be concerned?

MR. SUMMERS: I’ve had multiple occasions to comment on that memo and I think the best that can be said is to quote La Guardia and say when I make a mistake it’s a whopper. It was a long time ago. I’ve spoken elsewhere to the circumstances of that memo. I don’t think there’s any question that it has to be a crucial priority for the United States, and indeed other countries, to work to support development in the poorest countries in the world. That’s why we at the Treasury were the leading supporters in the major debt relief initiative passed in Congress last year. An important part of achieving successful development in the poorest countries is respect for environmental values.

PRESS REPORTER:A lot of people on campus have been critical of the process with its secrecy, the lack of input from students, from faculty. What would you say to those critics to reassure them that you’re sensitive to concerns?

MR. SUMMERS: I think it would ill become me at this juncture to criticize the selection process. Let me say in a serious vein that I spoke earlier about the importance of forming consensus, the importance of working with all parts of the University and community. It seems to me that other administrators and I will only be able to do that if we are accessible. It’s certainly my intention to work as hard as I can to be accessible to all parts of the University community. It’s in part of that spirit that I’ll be meeting with the student group tonight, which I trust will be the first of many, many meetings. Thank you.