College Confidential

The Larry watch

What kind of campus citizen will the ex-president be? Three areas Harvardians should pay attention to.

April 17, 2011

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Will he raise money for Harvard?

Harvard’s long-awaited new fund-raising campaign, delayed first by the campus turmoil Summers created and then by the economic crisis, is finally happening, beginning with a soft launch now and ramping up over the next year. Will Drew Faust tap Summers to help?

“There are a lot of donors who really like Larry,” says Sean Buffington, a former Summers aide at Harvard who is now president of Pennsylvania’s University of the Arts. “Why wouldn’t you use him?”

Why? Because except for President Obama, his last boss, Summers tends to overshadow anyone in whatever he does, and Faust should be the campaign’s biggest draw. Plus, you can never entirely predict what’s going to come out of his mouth. Plus, some alumni love Summers, but some revile him. The trick will be courting the former without alienating the latter.

Faust says she hasn’t yet considered what role Summers might play. “We’re not at that stage in the campaign,” she explains. “But he’s doing a lot of reaching out to alumni, and we’ve had a number of Harvard clubs which have asked him to speak, and he’s a real attraction for students. So, in all of those ways, he represents Harvard forcefully.”

“I’ll try to help out, if asked,” Summers says.

Will he commit to transparency?

The Harvard economics department was embarrassed by Inside Job, 2010’s Oscar-winning documentary about the financial crisis. In one particularly brutal scene, department chair John Campbell squirms while trying to defend economists whose academic work is secretly underwritten by private-sector special interests. Now Harvard is pushing for toughened disclosure standards university-wide, and not all faculty members seem happy about it. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Summers, too, was excoriated in Inside Job. Between exiting the Harvard presidency and arriving in Washington he made millions of dollars giving speeches to Wall Street banks, consulting for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and writing for the Financial Times (FT). Now he’ll have even more opportunities to cash in. Will he pursue and disclose them? It’s a sensitive issue, because there’s a degree to which Summers will always be speaking in his former presidential capacity. “I think financial conflicts should be disclosed,” Summers says. “That’s why, in my FT columns and congressional testimony, I always referenced my affiliation with D.E. Shaw.”

How long until he gets bored?

Summers is only 56 and constitutionally restless. Is Harvard a big enough stage for him? Buffington says Summers has never been the type of person content to just “sit in the academy writing papers and attending conferences.” In recent weeks, Summers addressed the Harvard Club of Boston’s annual dinner, gave a Newsweek interview in which he blasted Harvard alum Mitt Romney as “job destroying,” and made headlines by joking about his portrayal in The Social Network, the Facebook movie about Harvard alum Mark Zuckerberg. (Summers is surely the only Harvard president to appear in two Oscar-winning movies in one year.)

Summers says he will be “writing a book about macroeconomic policy in response to the crisis,” to be published “sometime in the next couple of years.” Asked if he would be content at the Kennedy School, Summers said: “This is a great place. Over time, one can have enormous influence by teaching, by writing and speaking, and developing new ideas.”