Harvard

Larry Summers has an ambitious agenda to remake the nation's leading university. Can he do it?

During Lawrence H. Summers' days in the nation's capitol, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary earned a reputation as a prickly guy with an impolitic streak. Summers eventually learned to be more diplomatic, but he seems to have slipped back into his old habits since returning to Harvard University as its president last year. Indeed, after just one semester on the job, Summers already has managed to kick up more controversy than some of his predecessors did during their entire time in office.

Right off, he rattled students and professors alike by lambasting a grading system so generous that, last year, half the grades were A's, while 90% of the seniors graduated with honors. Then, after September 11, he assailed Harvard's long-standing antipathy toward the military, which is banned from campus. Most recently, he offended some of the university's high-profile scholars in Afro-American Studies, who promptly threatened to decamp to Princeton University after questioning his commitment to affirmative action.

Summers will need to resharpen his people skills in a hurry if he hopes to achieve even half of what he has set out to do at Harvard. You wouldn't know it from all the negative headlines, but ever since Summers took over last July, he has been methodically assembling an ambitious agenda to overhaul America's oldest university. Dramatic change is needed, he says, if Harvard is to retain its stature. Sure, the university's endowment has doubled in five years, to $18.3 billion, making Harvard nearly twice as wealthy as its nearest rival, Yale University. Harvard's facilities, student body, and faculty--studded with Nobel laureates and other stars--also remain the envy of the academic world.

So how do you fix something that isn't broken? After an exhaustive inquiry, the 47-year-old Summers--himself a former Harvard economics wunderkind who won tenure at age 28--has come away convinced that his old school needs far more than a minor tune-up. His most shocking conclusion: Harvard College is failing to provide undergrads with the education they need in today's fast-changing global economy.

To rectify what he calls "Harvard's Achilles' heel," Summers is calling for nothing less than a cultural revolution on campus. He wants to stiffen grading, transform tenure reviews, encourage study abroad, and perhaps most important, persuade professors who now get rewarded almost entirely for their research to spend far more time with students. He also has initiated a review of the material undergraduates study that ultimately could help change the definition of a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

Summers' grand ambitions don't stop there. He wants to reassert Harvard's historic role in national policy, especially in education reform, where its president helped to set the national agenda in the 1950s by advocating large, comprehensive high schools. He even dreams of leveraging Harvard's growing prowess in medicine and the life sciences to help create a second Silicon Valley in the Cambridge-Boston area, built around biotech. Harvard has kept its preeminence over the centuries because "it has never been complacent or standing still," says Summers. "It has always been prepared to question the ways things have been done."

To accomplish all this, Summers wants to expand a campus that's already overcrowded. Even before he took over, Harvard had quietly purchased 100 acres in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, adjacent to Harvard Business School--where it now has more land than it owns in Cambridge. Summers wants to move big chunks of the university across the Charles River to this site, which is the size of several Harvard Yards (map). The project has rankled city officials and is opposed by Harvard law professors, who perceive the new site as an academic Siberia. But Summers sees it as "an historic opportunity to create a new Harvard campus for centuries to come."

A lot more than just Harvard's success is riding on Summers' big plans. Globalization and the technology revolution have wrought major changes in U.S. business and society in the past decade or so. Many educators worry that these trends aren't reflected in the education most college students get. "Summers comes to Harvard at a defining moment," says Columbia University's Teachers College President Arthur Levine. "His real assignment is to create a new kind of university to meet the needs of this very different society."

Indeed, even Harvard's archrivals hope Summers will succeed. "All of American education would be well served if Harvard devoted more attention to undergraduate education," says Yale President Richard C. Levin. Similarly, Charles M. Vest, president of Harvard's Cambridge-based competitor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says he's encouraged by Summers' interest in improving undergraduate science education. "For Harvard to stand up and make some bold moves in this area would set a wonderful standard for this country," he says.

The question, though, is whether Summers can overcome the formidable obstacles he faces. For all the prestige of Harvard's presidency, his powers are far more circumscribed than those of a Treasury Secretary, let alone a chief executive. Harvard has long given virtual autonomy to the deans of its 12 schools and colleges. In late 2000, for instance, Harvard Law School put the finishing touches on a 20-year strategic plan that calls for slashing class size while increasing faculty, programs, and facilities. Only then did Law Dean Robert C. Clark present a brief overview of the plan for approval to Harvard's governing corporation and Neil L. Rudenstine, Summers' predecessor.

Similarly, most of Harvard's endowment is assigned to specific schools, which jealously guard their wealth. Harvard College and its grad school command roughly $8 billion, while the medical school has more than $2 billion and the business school $1.3 billion. Summers is left with direct control over less than one-fifth of the total.

In this environment, he can hardly just order change. Instead, Summers will have to learn to curb his sometimes arrogant manner and cajole these feudal lords to adopt his agenda. Indeed, practically every plank in Summers' platform requires uprooting entrenched Harvard habits and interests. Given a faculty that is "narcissistic and self-serving," warns Sol Gittleman, the veteran provost of nearby Tufts University, the coming battles are "going to be tough."

To expand the campus, for instance, Summers must persuade some of Harvard's schools to move from Cambridge to the new site in Boston. The law school is a natural candidate, since it's rapidly outgrowing its crowded, 17-acre campus. But Summers met a barrage of opposition when he broached the idea recently to law professors, who overwhelmingly voted against the move two years ago. Although Dean Clark worries that the law school will run out of space if it stays put, he says many professors fear that "if we build from scratch, we could end up with a Brasilia"--an isolated campus no one wants to go to.

In a similar vein, Summers' ideas for remaking undergraduate education cut deep philosophical rifts. For one thing, Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis pooh-poohs the issue of grade inflation. "The principal reason grades have been going up is that the student body is better," he says. Still, Summers is making progress. Harvard's faculty soon will debate a proposal to stop giving honors degrees to students with B averages.

Summers is hardly the first Harvard president to propose radical change--or face fierce resistance (table). When Harvard was founded as America's first college in 1636, it offered a medieval curriculum, imported from Britain's Cambridge University. By the time Charles W. Eliot took office in 1869, the Industrial Revolution had changed the world and "this classical curriculum was nearly useless," says Columbia's Levine. Despite opposition, Eliot reinvented Harvard as a modern university, replacing required classics with an elective system. Similarly, when James B. Conant took charge in 1933, he set out to make a meritocracy out of an elitist institution dominated by Boston's Brahmins. Conant's crusade met intense faculty opposition but nonetheless started Harvard down the road that led to today's dramatically more diverse student body (charts).

On paper at least, Summers is more qualified to lead than were many of his predecessors, whose experience was often strictly academic. After earning his BS from MIT in 1975, Summers quickly established a reputation as a whiz-kid grad student in Harvard's economics department. He was also a workaholic, says fellow grad student Kim B. Clark, now dean of Harvard Business School. In the late '70s, he and Summers established "one of the first 24-hour-a-day research operations" in economics, he recalls, with Clark beginning work about 5:30 a.m. while night owl Summers would "get going about noon and then go gangbusters into the early morning." In 1993, Summers received the John Bates Clark Medal, given every two years to an outstanding American economist under 40.

In fact, Harvard has never had a president with such prominent public-policy experience. In more than a decade in Washington, Summers served on the Council of Economic Advisers, as World Bank chief economist, and then, during the Clinton era, as Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs before becoming Deputy Secretary in 1995 and Secretary in 1999.

But if Summers has a weakness, it's his combative, headstrong personality. "He likes a lot of give and take and can push people," says David Cutler, a Harvard economist who has known Summers since the mid-1980s. Cutler recalls conversations in which he suggested an idea only to have Summers quickly snap back "that he sees six or seven problems with what I suggested." It didn't bother Cutler, who says "that's just Larry's way of processing things." But it's a trait that landed Summers in hot water in Washington more than once.

In 1995, he irritated many on Capitol Hill when the Clinton Administration was desperately seeking congressional backing for a big bailout for Mexico. Summers, then Treasury Undersecretary, drew anger with his overbearing attitude and propensity to lecture lawmakers. His high-handedness wasn't the only reason the effort failed, but it certainly didn't help. The Clinton team ended up sidestepping Congress and instead joining with the International Monetary Fund to rescue Mexico.

Summers got into hot water again in 1997 when he accused Republicans who wanted to cut estate taxes of "selfishness." His boss and mentor, then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, quickly defused the situation, quipping that while he wasn't offended by Summers' remarks, his children were.

In fact, Summers learned a lot from Rubin, whose ability to handle people was widely admired. "[Summers] was a very different man after working with Rubin--more diplomatic and more effective," says former IMF deputy managing director and longtime Summers friend Stanley Fischer. "He does have an intellectually challenging style," adds Rubin. "[But] for a university like Harvard, that should be welcome."

The question is whether Summers can retain the lessons he learned in Washington. Consider the conflagration he ignited after an October meeting with Cornel West, who teaches Harvard's popular introductory course in Afro-American Studies. West later complained that Summers attacked him for cutting a rap CD and supporting the Presidential ambitions of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Summers calls it a "major misunderstanding." He says that while "diversity is crucial to [our] educational mission and academic freedom is sacrosancturging excellence in scholarship and dedication to teaching and the setting of high standards is central to academic leadership." Still, Summers failed to clear up the problem until after it exploded onto the front pages. On Jan. 25, one Harvard Afro-American Studies professor, K. Anthony Appiah, announced his departure for Princeton. While Appiah said he had no beef with Summers, the move could prompt West or other colleagues to follow.

Lost amid the furor is the number of allies Summers has won over since taking office. "I am exceedingly pleased with his leadership," says Harvard Medical School Dean Joseph B. Martin. Adds Richard J. Zeckhauser, politics professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government: "When you lead a university, 1,000 people may support what you do quietly while 50 oppose what you do vocally."

Certainly, Summers' plan to increase student contacts with professors has the support of many undergrads. On the day his appointment was announced last spring, Summers spent two hours meeting with some 50 undergraduate leaders. During the session, he asked: "How many of you have had a half-hour conversation with a senior faculty member about your future or an intellectual issue?" To Summers' chagrin, "less than half raised their hands," he recalls.

Of course, faculty neglect of undergrads is a long-standing problem at many major research universities. Harvard freshmen typically take large survey courses, such as the introductory economics course taught by Martin Feldstein, the renowned economist. But with well over 500 students enrolled, few ever converse with the master. Instead, they interact mostly with graduate-student assistants. "A lot of people complain they have had a very poor experience" with grad-student teachers, says Rohit Chopra, a sophomore who chairs Harvard's student affairs committee.

Summers is launching a multi-pronged assault on the status quo. To lift a student/teacher ratio that lags behind many of Harvard's rivals, he's expanding the arts-and-science faculty to more than 700, vs. 642 today. He's also championing teaching at every turn. It's a crusade that comes naturally to Summers, who as a professor made a point of being available. "When I had a problem, he would even call me at 11 p.m. or come by on weekends," says economist Cutler, who took courses from Summers as an undergrad.

Hoping to put money where his mouth is, Summers vows to change Harvard's internal reward system. The idea is to favor outstanding teachers when filling prized administrative positions and in handing out the university's most treasured award: tenured posts. At Harvard, the president must sign off on tenure appointments, and Summers has already rejected two prominent outsiders, both in their mid-50s. "The hiring decisions at Harvard need to be based largely on predictions of future work rather than just as a reward for extraordinary past achievement," he says.

What's more, with Harvard about to begin its biggest faculty-hiring spree in a generation, he vows to make "teaching evaluations part of every decision." For that reason, he expects to favor for tenure Harvard's own assistant professors, who are often bypassed in favor of outside luminaries. "People who come up through our system tend to be more oriented towards teaching," Summers says.

Meanwhile, the new president is embarking on what many experts feel is a long-overdue review of undergraduate curriculum. Like most liberal arts colleges, Harvard requires students to choose a major from one of some 40 disciplines. In addition, they must broaden their minds by completing one course each from eight areas across the curriculum. But given an explosion of knowledge and the growing importance of science, all universities "need a new kind of synthesis, a way of separating the chaff from the wheat," argues former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, who now heads the Carnegie Corporation.

For starters, Summers wants to beef up what Harvard traditionally has dismissed as "physics for poets"--science education for nonscience majors. Today, Harvard has a "culture where it is unacceptable not to be able to name five plays by Shakespeare but where it is fine to not know the difference between a gene and chromosome," he complains. "We have to find ways of making a basic understanding of science a crucial part of what it means to be an educated person," he says.

He's also pushing to encourage more study abroad. Harvard has long made it difficult to get credit for study overseas, in the belief that nothing matches a Harvard education. What does exist is "half-assed," complains Chopra, the sophomore who hopes to become an urban planner. Indeed, less than 10% of Harvard students study abroad. In contrast, 21 Dartmouth College departments sponsor overseas study and 47% of students take part.

Summers wants a more interdisciplinary approach to learning as well. Currently, most students major in traditional subjects, such as English or earth sciences. But "as the nature of knowledge has changed, many of the most exciting areas of inquiry cut across traditional disciplines," says Summers. So it's increasingly important to combine biology and computer science, say, or politics and regional studies.

The problem is, Harvard's faculty, not Summers, has the authority to mandate a new curriculum. So he must persuade them to go along. In a university where departments fight fiercely for students and resources, "it will be a hard assignment," warns Columbia's Levine.

Relocating whole portions of the university to Allston could prove equally challenging. Harvard got off on the wrong foot with the city by buying up most of its Allston land secretly before disclosing it as a fait accompli a few years ago. Relations have since improved. But some city officials worry that gentrification could destroy the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding the commercial land Harvard bought. "I don't want to see families who have lived in Allston for several generations" pushed out, says Mark Maloney, head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Then there's the question of who at Harvard will get uprooted. Summers is mulling several options. One is to move in their entirety some of the crowded professional schools, such as education or law. A second: relocate some of Harvard's museums and administrative offices. Third, Allston could become a center for scientific research, Harvard's fastest-growing academic activity. While some in each group welcome the added space, opponents fret about lost power and prestige.

Summers' biotech dream is one argument for expanding science across the river. In recent years, Harvard has set up the Institute for Chemistry & Cell Biology and the Institute for Proteomics, the study of proteins, to push biomedical research. And the Medical School has launched its largest expansion ever with the same aim.

The result, Summers argues, is an historic opening if Harvard can seize it. MIT, Harvard, and its affiliated hospitals already have attracted biotech companies such as Biogen, Millennium, and Vertex. They could serve as the springboard for more industrial development. "Where high tech is only moderately driven by academics, biotech is completely driven by it," says Chris Gabrieli, a partner at Everest Ventures, a biotech venture-capital firm. He sees a seamless flow in which cures are developed at Harvard or MIT, tested in Harvard's teaching hospitals, and spawned into companies. But to make that happen, Harvard must break from its pure-science past and move closer to MIT's philosophy of working closely with companies--a big cultural change.

Plenty of Summers' constituents at Harvard support some or even much of what he's trying to achieve. But acting like a hotshot academic who says whatever comes into his rapid-fire mind could leave him banging his head against the Georgian brick buildings of Harvard Yard. If he can learn how to truly lead, Harvard could be transformed into an even better institution than it already is. In the process, it might also set an example other American universities would want to follow.

By William C. Symonds in Boston, with Rich Miller in Washington

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