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Voices

A Summers tale

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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The modish nonsense word of the moment is "narrative." "The bailout narrative is changing on Capitol Hill"; "The narrative of the black politician has been altered forever"; and so on. It means "story" or "story line" and is often used in tandem with the vaporous Hollywood nonsense word "arc."

This column concerns the Larry Summers narrative, which has been changing in some very interesting ways.

Story Line 1, c. 2001: Fresh from the Bill Clinton cabinet, Larry Summers assumes the Harvard presidency. The accepted narrative is that he's a cage-rattler who will get the university moving again after the genteel torpor of the Neil Rudenstine years.

Fast forward to Story Lines 2 and 2A, c. 2006: Summers leaves Harvard in disgrace . . . or does he? The ex-president and his press-savvy paladins quickly push a counter-narrative, seized on by op-ed typists across the land: Harvard's pampered, super-liberal faculty couldn't handle Larry's brand of hard-headed, 21st-century realpolitik. Plus, look at all the good he did: The World's Greatest University became the World's Even More Astonishingly Rich University with a $30 billion-plus endowment and a whole new campus under construction. In 02138 code, the line was: He may not have been a Greek (a thinker), but he was a Roman (a builder).

Now, as Summers prates and japes on the national stage as Barack Obama's chief economic adviser, the tale of his Cambridge tenancy is mutating.

  • A recent Forbes magazine cover story on the university's financial meltdown suggests none too delicately that Summers helped break up the university's successful investment team, and that he pushed the university into risky, money-losing interest rate swap investments. "The bad bet on interest rates - a swap in which Harvard was paying a high fixed interest rate and collecting a low short-term rate - goes back to a mandate from former Harvard president Lawrence Summers," the magazine comments. It impishly brands the deals "Summers swaps."
  • It's true that everyone is a hero in up markets, and down markets demonize whomever happens to be around. "Summers probably feels he could have handled the downturn if he had been permitted to stay," economic columnist David Warsh wrote this week. "But a substantial reinterpretation of the overall [Harvard economic] story is underway."

  • I and others have nibbled at the interesting tale of Harvard's entanglement with Google. Harvard was the most prestigious university to allow Google to digitize its library holdings, and Harvard was the first - and so far the only - university to give Google the boot, after Summers left. Credit author and blogger Richard Bradley with spotting this little tidbit: The Google executive who sold the digitizing idea, which the Harvard libraries opposed, was Sheryl Sandberg, Summers's former chief of staff at the Treasury department. "This deal smelled rotten from the beginning," Bradley writes. "If the two had still been in Washington, the meeting would have been called what it was: lobbying."
  • Immediately after Obama's election, Sandberg boomed Summers for an administration job, in a fulsome Huffington Post column. Excerpts: "A supportive and deeply caring mentor for me . . . our nation has few economists with his intelligence" blah blah blah.

  • Can't it be argued that the ugly Dr. Joseph Biederman scandal - he and two of his Harvard Medical School colleagues have been accused of under-reporting several hundred thousand dollars' worth of drug company money - is Summers-ism writ large? After all, it was Summers who wanted to engage the university's intellectual capital with the marketplace, and that is certainly what Biederman & Co. have been doing. (In a hilarious sidelight that Harvard probably doesn't find so amusing, Biederman was caught on tape telling a lawyer that the status of a Harvard Medical School professor ranked just below "God.")
  • It is no accident, as the Marxists like to say, that Harvard hired its first big-time compliance cop - a vice provost for research - only after Summers left Massachusetts Hall. Such policemen are quite common at major universities.

    What does it all mean? Summers has more pressing concerns than to worry about how he's perceived in area code 617; he's busy printing new money to finance Obamanomics. The new Larry Summers narrative does bode well for the current president, Drew Faust. Comparisons are odious, but as Summers' stock declines, hers rises proportionately.

    Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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