Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence H. Summers accepted the position of Harvard University’s 27th president at a press conference on Sunday.
On Friday, the presidential search committee unanimously recommended Summers to Harvard’s Board of Overseers. The board consented to the committee’s choice and confirmed Summers’ appointment over the weekend during an emergency session in New York City.
“It’s good to be home. I accept,” Summers said at a press conference held at the university on Sunday.
Summers received his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. He began working in Washington in the early 1980s, where he served as an advisor on the President’s Council of Economics.
In 1983 at the age of 28, Summers returned to Harvard, becoming one of the youngest professors in the university’s history to receive tenure.
“As a teacher, he was inspirational,” said Harvard Prof. Gregory Mankiw, economics. Summers taught Mankiw when he attended Harvard’s Graduate School and credited Summers with “taking the lead in having me hired” as a professor at Harvard while Summers taught there.
Summers worked in Washington for a number of years before former President Clinton appointed him as Treasury Secretary, a successor to Robert Rubin. Summers held the position until President George W. Bush’s inauguration in January.
There were three other candidates who were also in the running for the position. University of Michigan President Lee C. Bollinger was considered the main front-runner for the position until a few days ago.
“They did look at some outside people, but they chose a Harvard person in the end,” said Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings III.
Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president of University relations, noted that in its 350-year history, Harvard has always chosen an alumnus or current or former member of the university’s faculty or staff as its president.
Several people during the selection process noted that Summers’ experience as both a noted academic and a prominent Washington insider would aid him.
“Harvard needs to have somebody who’s pretty prominent, but also an academic, and I think Summers is both,” said Boston University Prof. Laurence Kotlikoff, economics.
“He’s a noted academic and he has major experience in Washington,” Rawlings added.
Summers’ connections and his familiarity with the Beltway would help him, Rawlings said, because “all of us work with the federal government on projects at our universities.”
“It’s good to have an economist running a university,” Kotlikoff said.
He met Summers when they attended graduate school together at Harvard in 1975, and went on to co-write several papers with him.
“The inclination might be to [hire] somebody in the humanities — but he’s a quick learner,” Kotlikoff noted.
“We [economists] are not as well rounded in terms of knowing as much as we should about other disciplines,” he added, wryly.
Mankiw responded with his assurance that Summers would meet the vast challenges that would face him as the next Harvard president, perhaps as daunting a task as the man would face.
“Larry has extremely broad interests. I’m not sure you could find any [potential candidate] with broader interests,” Mankiw said.
Harvard’s current president, Neil L. Rudenstine, stepped down from his post last May.
Rawlings, who said that he had worked several times with Rudenstine since becoming Cornell president, said, “He had felt from the beginning that he [should] step down after nine or 10 years.”
He added that the reason behind such a restriction was that “you don’t want to impose your own vision on a university for too long.”
“I’ve never felt that there’s a particular length of time” one should remain president of a university, Rawlings added.
Though other Ivy League presidents — including Columbia University President George Rupp, who resigned earlier this month after eight years — have voiced their belief that University presidents should serve only about 10 years, it is unclear whether Summers holds the same view.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Larry’s there for a long time,” Mankiw said. “It wouldn’t be shocking if he were there for 15 [or] 20 years.”
Noting that Summers is only in his mid-40s, Mankiw said, “I also wouldn’t be surprised if he left Harvard after 10 years or so to move to something bigger and better.”
He suspected that, because of Summers’ age and energy, if a better opportunity presented itself, Summers could return to Washington.
“If a Democrat gets elected, and he’s nominated to become Federal Reserve chairman, that’s something he might leave Harvard for,” Mankiw said.
Mankiw last spoke to Summers at “a party a couple of weeks ago.” He confirmed that they had spoken about Summers’ possible nomination.
“It was all over the papers,” Mankiw said.
He would not comment on the particulars of their conversation.
The nine-month search for Harvard’s next president has been one screened from public view and student scrutiny, with no member of the committee willing to comment on the proceedings, and no published minutes of their meetings.
“It’s always kind of secretive,” Mankiw said, adding, “Any hiring process is secretive.”
Rawlings noted that, over the past nine months, the presidential search committee interviewed “hundreds and hundreds of people” in the nomination process, including Rawlings himself.
“It wasn’t because I was being interviewed as a candidate,” Rawlings said. “It was just to gather opinion.”
Mankiw did speculate on how Summers might use his position as president when he assumes it in June.
“Larry has opinions on a large range of issues,” Mankiw said. “He might use it as a bully pulpit