A grueling nine-month search process came to an end when Harvard University named Lawrence H. Summers its 27th president last week. The 46-year-old former secretary of the U.S. Treasury will assume his new post in July after President Neil Rudenstine formally steps down.
The Harvard presidential search committee selected Summers after intense deliberation in the final days of its search. Harvard Provost Harvey Fineberg and University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger were also top contenders for the high-profile job. Media speculation, from sources ranging from the Boston Globe to the Harvard Independent, focused mainly on the Michigan chief as the likely tap.
But the Harvard Crimson shattered the hype around Bollinger when it broke the story on March 9 that the search committee would recommend Summers to the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers for approval. The Harvard Corporation confirmed the Summers appointment in a special meeting on March 11 in a posh New York City restaurant, the Rainbow Room. Hours later, Harvard administrators held a press conference on the school’s campus to dispense the news to the university community.
Summers’ resume is impressive in the political realm, but does not include any administrative posts at a university. He served as secretary of the U.S. Treasury from July 2000 until the departure of President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 from the White House. Previously, he was a deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury under Robert Rubin ’74, a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist at the World Bank.
“[Summers is] a brilliant economist,” said Yale President Richard Levin, an economist himself. “He has shown as a public servant his ability to make difficult decisions and deal with controversy.”
At age 28, Summers became the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 and earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1982. He won several prestigious awards in the field of economics, including the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded every two years to an outstanding economist under the age of 40.
“The only surprising thing is that [the search committee] picked someone with no administrative experience at a university,” Harvard Law School professor David Wilkins said. “But Summers brings a broad range of experience. I am particularly thrilled about his expertise in the international economic arena.”
Rudenstine announced last May that he would leave his office this June after 10 years of service to Harvard. Harvard formed a search committee over the summer and after it conducted 200 interviews and considered recommendations, the committee compiled a list of 400 candidates. Former Vice President Al Gore was among the early candidates, but as the search drew to a close only four names surfaced as likely successors.
Summers, Fineberg, Bollinger and former Princeton University Dean Amy Gutmann were the final four. Hanna Gray, a member of the search committee and former Yale provost, expressed regret that the media focused so much attention on the wrong candidate.
“I feel badly for Mr. Bollinger. This is not a game of winners and losers,” Gray told the Harvard Crimson.
Summers said his chief priorities when he takes office are to strengthen undergraduate education, improve the sciences and advance Harvard’s internationalization in the wake of rapid globalization. Before he officially takes office in July, he said he plans to visit Cambridge often and spend time listening to faculty and student groups.