Authors: Richard Bradley
The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University
For Mike, Kate, and Cris
n the afternoon of Friday, the twelfth of October, 2001, Harvard University prepared to swear in its twenty-seventh president. It was a glorious Indian summer day, almost too warm for the fall, when Harvard's hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is marked by crisp, cool air and the soft, fractured sunlight that hints at the imminence of winter. “With every breeze,” a reporter for
would later note pleasurably, “a gentle rain of golden locust leaves showered down on the seated assembly.”
Some five thousand spectators were happily milling around Harvard Yard, the historical and emotional heart of Harvard's campus. The women wore sundresses or slacks. The men took off their sport coats and their blue blazers and rolled up the cuffs of their sleeves. The students were clad in the jeans and shorts and T-shirts they normally wore. Students, parents, alumni, professors, journalists, and politiciansâall had come to witness this unusual transfer of power. The ritual didn't take place very often at Harvardâonly five times in the twentieth centuryâand, about this new president, there hovered a buzz of excitement and curiosity, and more than a little anxiety.
This would be the first new president of the twenty-first century, and how much the world had changed, how fast, since the happy-go-lucky, all-is-right-with-the-world days of the 1990s. In normal times, anyone could stroll into Harvard Yard through one of its myriad wrought-iron gates. But on this day, police had set up checkpoints and rifled through the visitors' purses, briefcases, and knapsacks. One cop was walking a bomb-sniffing dog on a leash. Police officers stationed at regular intervals kept a close watch on the crowd.
Only a month had passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, and, at Harvard, what was expected to be a celebratory moment, a coronation of sorts, had assumed a greater gravity. As in the rest of the country, every ceremonial display of American values became both more urgent and more anxious. And the act of installing a new president at this center of learning and diversity, situated just across the bucolic Charles River from Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution, was really a celebration of Western civilization's most deeply held values. The inauguration of a new Harvard president symbolized America's determined insistence on harmony despite diversity, on peaceful transitions of power, on the need for wisdom in a violent world. That's why there were so many cops. If Islamic terrorists were planning another strike, why not attempt to turn Harvard's day of tradition into a scene of chaos and devastation? You could do a lot worse for symbolism.
Even so, for the new president this day was a moment of triumph. Lawrence Henry Summersâeveryone called him Larry, if not always to his faceâwas taking charge of the university that, by his own account, had rejected him when he was a high school senior. That had been a surprise: Summers came from a truly stellar intellectual family. Both of his parents were economists, and two of his uncles would, after teaching and studying at Harvard, go on to win Nobel Prizes in economics. Instead of Harvard, Summers attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just a couple miles east from Harvard, down Massachusetts Avenue. When Summers was finished at MIT, he did go to Harvard, to earn his doctorate in economics; it was clear by then that Summers was a rising star, and Harvard would not make the same mistake twice. Almost immediately after earning his Ph.D., he accepted a professorship in Harvard's economics department, which made him one of the youngest people ever to receive tenure at Harvard. Twenty-eight years old, and Larry Summers had a job for life at the world's most prestigious university.
Ten years later, Summers would trade the life of the mind for one of politics and worldliness. Like so many of his colleagues in Harvard economics, he left academe for a stint in Washington. But unlike most of them, Summers would not soon return. After taking a position as chief economist at the World Bank, Summers moved over to the Treasury Department, where he would become Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's right-hand man. Harvard professors are allowed two years' leave of absence before they must resign their positions. In 1993, Summers did just that: he gave up one of the most secure and desirable jobs in all of academia. He reveled in government's mix of power and policy, and as the years passed he became increasingly masterful at understanding both. Together Summers and Rubin, in conjunction with Alan Greenspan, presided over what they so often called the longest period of economic expansion in American history. When Rubin resigned in 1998, Summers stepped smoothly into his place, and served as treasury secretary until the end of the Clinton administration.
And now, at forty-six, Summers was returning to Harvard, poised for another triumph in what was already a remarkable career. It was a move that surprised some who knew him well. “I would never have expected Larry to do this,” said his uncle on his mother's side, the Nobel-winning economist Kenneth Arrow. “I thought of him as a scholar.” Those who knew him from the Treasury Department would not have been surprised, however. They had seen how desperately Summers wanted to succeed Bob Rubin, how hard he had worked to make himself an acceptable candidate for the job. One thing that everyone said about Larry Summers: he was deeply, hungrily ambitious.
At about three thirty, a procession began winding through the Yard. Clad in a black robe with a scarlet sash, Summers stood at the head of a long line of university officials, deans, and professors. The new president smiled at the applause that greeted him as he walked through the crowd. Occasionally, like a politician working a rope line, he stopped to shake hands with someone he knew, or waved to acknowledge the cheers. But the gestures looked a little stiff, as if they had been rehearsed. Summers was about five feet ten inches tall, but he was not a physically graceful man; his robe could not disguise the fact that he was significantly overweight. The extra weight showed itself in his fleshy cheeks and jaw, softening the line between his neck and head and making his piercing blue eyes look small in his face. As seemed to befit a man of enormous intelligence, Summers had a large, powerful head and a broad forehead. His intermittent smiles looked nervous and awkward, as if he had to consider the gesture before he made it. When he did smile, two deep furrows flanked his mouth, almost exactly perpendicular to his eyes. Larry Summers was too intense for a grin to sit comfortably on his face.
As he walked towards a vast stage erected specially for the occasion in front of the Yard's Memorial Church, a grand, white-steepled Colonial structure, Summers was becoming something both less and more than a scholar. As president, he would forever leave behind the single-minded pursuit of economic truths that was once his life's work. When he was youngâyounger, for Summers was still youthful, with the energy of men half his ageâhe was expected to become one of his generation's most important economic thinkers. But that would never happen now. Being president of Harvard left little time for the solitary act of scholarship. Besides, the average tenure of a Harvard president was about twenty years, and after that, most felt more like retiring than returning to academics.
The twenty-sixth president, the one who had preceded Larry Summers, was a scholar of literature and poetry named Neil Rudenstine. He would sit onstage not far from his successor during the ceremony to come. It was too early to say what Rudenstine's legacy was, but everyone knew it would be hard to portray him as a statesmanlike figure. That was neither his appearance nor his nature, and even if it had been, his record wouldn't have supported the description. To his supporters, Rudenstine was a transitional figure who had done all that was asked of him and served Harvard with decency and devotion. But to others, including some of the people sitting onstage with him, Neil Rudenstine was the problem to which Larry Summers was the solution.
As a lone bagpiper played, Summers and his procession approached the stage, ascended a short flight of steps, and took their seats. Here were some of the most powerful people at Harvardâdeans, administrators, senior professors, and members of the Board of Overseers and the Corporation, Harvard's two governing boards. In the first rows of the audience sat the university's biggest donors and most influential alumni. Students and other bystanders were relegated to seats farther back. Summers' three childrenâtwin daughters and a sonâwere on hand, but his wife, Victoria Perry Summers, was not. The new president was in the throes of a painful and less-than-amicable divorce.
Opposite the stage, about a hundred and fifty yards away, loomed the imposing Harry Elkins Widener Memorial LibraryâWidener, as everyone calls it. If Memorial Church stubbornly insisted on the persistence of spiritual life at Harvard, Widener posed a secular challenge. A massive columned temple with a long, imposing set of steps, Widener was the unintended consequence of human hubris: the library was built in 1914 with money donated by Eleanor Alice Widener, whose son Harry, a bibliophile, had drowned on the
While Memorial Church had really only three booksâthe Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and a hymnalâWidener contained almost four million. After the library was built, one of its architects, John McConnell, said, “Harvard was looking around for an empire to imitate. Rome seemed the best idea.”
To the right of the stage was University Hall, the gray-stone headquarters of Harvard's powerful academic administration. Designed by 1781 graduate Charles Bulfinch and built in 1814, the blandly named building belied the power it contained, as blandly named buildings often do. University Hall was the seat of Harvard officialdom, deans and associate deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the people who controlled faculty salaries and the college's academic priorities. On its second floor was the venerable Faculty Room, where about once a month during the school year the president would sit in front of the faculty and hear their concerns and complaints, often delivered with the eloquence of a sonnet and the sharpness of a stiletto. But in recent years attendance at those meetings had declined, a victim of the faculty's waning sense of lifelong allegiance to the university.
Finally, to the left of Memorial Church was Sever Hall, an 1880 building of stone and brick designed by the architect H. H. Richardson. Sever was home to undergraduate classes in the humanities, literature and languages mainly. Of the four buildings, Sever was the least well maintainedâthe dusty, poorly heated classrooms inside looked like they hadn't changed much since the time of their creationâand perhaps the least noted. Surrounded by the imposing structures that housed church, administration, and scholarship, Sever, a place of teaching, was easy to overlook.
The grassy lawn framed by this symbolic square was called Tercentenary Theatre, because it had been the site of Harvard's three hundredth anniversary, in 1936. Tercentenary is not a word that flows mellifluously off the tongue, but that's partly because it doesn't get much useâfew institutions in the United States have been around for three hundred years. Over the course of the 20th century, Tercentenary Theatre had been witness to remarkable oratory delivered by some of the century's most important figures, many of whom spoke of Harvard's role in the world. Franklin Roosevelt, Harvard class of 1904, had spoken there in September 1936, and in that voice so weighty with patrician self-confidence, he had declared, “In this day of modern witch-burningâ¦it is the part of Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind and to carry the torch of truth.” It wasn't the first time that Harvard's mission had been equated with that of the United States itself, and it would hardly be the last.
In September 1943, Winston Churchill had ambled up to a crackly public address system in front of Memorial Church and announced, “English and Americans should spread their language all over the globe as a means of promoting understanding and peace. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” Churchill was, as usual, optimistic. Even as his nation was fighting a war that, whatever the outcome, would inevitably signify the end of Britain's territorial empire, he could speak of a new, Anglo-American empire rising from the ashes. Harvard, a university with English origins that produced the leaders of the United States, was a logical starting point.
In 1947, with the war over, George Marshall spoke at Harvard's commencement and laid out another way for the United States to extend its influence overseasâa policy of aid to Europe that would come to be known as the Marshall Plan. “The United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” Marshall said rather stiffly.
And nine years after that, in 1956, Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedyâhe graduated in 1940âcontinued the theme. “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness,” Kennedy said. “But the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.” Soon enough, Kennedy would fill his administration with men who may have enjoyed power more than they questioned itâHarvard's best and brightest.
But long before the speakers at Tercentenary Theatre had made history, the graduates of Harvard
American historyâat least, from the top down. At one time or another, the alumni of Harvard dominated every field in American life that was worth dominating. Their ranks included seven presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and most recently, George W. Bush, a graduate of Harvard Business School. Beyond the presidency there were countless Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, bankers, businessmen, lawyers, ministers, scholars, and writers. In the colonial era, Sam Adams, John Hancock, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams had all graduated from Harvard. As the United States moved into the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson went there, along with the great historian Francis Parkman and Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy and one of the country's most brilliant historians. Robert Gould Shaw, famous commander of the North's first black regiment in the Civil War, was a Harvard man, and so was William James, the philosopher, and W. E. B. DuBois, Harvard's first African American Ph.D., and Samuel Eliot Morison and John Dos Passos and J. Robert Oppenheimer and James Agee and John Updike and Al Gore and Yo-Yo Ma. The names flow like a river of American political and cultural history. Now they are more contemporary, more popularâTommy Lee Jones, Al Franken, Conan O'Brien, Matt Damon, and Bill Gates (although the last two dropped out). And since 1963, when the women of sister college Radcliffe started getting Harvard diplomas, that list of famous graduates has included prominent alumnae such as Mira Sorvino, Bonnie Raitt, and Natalie Portman.