boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Mayor Thomas M. Menino (left) said he appreciated the direct style of Lawrence H. Summers, outgoing Harvard president. ‘‘There was no secrecy in the Larry Summers era,’’ the mayor said.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino (left) said he appreciated the direct style of Lawrence H. Summers, outgoing Harvard president. ‘‘There was no secrecy in the Larry Summers era,’’ the mayor said. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File 2004)

Bold style brought firm Allston plans, larger public role

The boldness and bluntness that contributed to Lawrence H. Summers's downfall as Harvard University's president also enabled him to alter the course of an often self-satisfied institution, prodding it to make changes that were long overdue, said many of those who observed him up close.

When the Harvard Corporation chose Summers to lead Harvard in 2001, there was a sense among its members that the nation's most prestigious university had become complacent. Summers was brought in to shake things up, and he didn't disappoint.

Among other initiatives, he jump-started the university's expansion into Allston and decided that the new 200-acre campus on the other side of the Charles River would focus largely on science. He called for a new emphasis on undergraduates and argued that their curriculum should focus more on actual knowledge and quantitative disciplines and less on ways of thinking. And he took bold steps to make a Harvard education more accessible to low-income families.

Summers was also outspoken in his belief that Harvard and its scholars should be players in the public arena, not just intellectuals in an ivory tower. That belief led him to step into thorny public debates such as divestment in Israel and a perceived lack of patriotism among university professors, but it also led him to push Harvard to elevate disciplines such as public health and education with a direct impact on people's lives.

Economics professor Edward Glaeser said it is important to make a distinction between Summers's rough edges as a manager and his vision of Harvard's future, which Glaeser viewed as a savvy approach to meeting the demands of the 21st century.

''Thirty years from now, it's entirely possible that we will look back on the Summers presidency as, oddly enough, successful," he said. ''He had very good ideas about the university and the right vision about the university's future, but he lacked the key skills of how to manage difficult academic talent."

Summers's style contrasted sharply with that of his predecessor, Neil Rudenstine. While Rudenstine was gracious and deferential to the faculty, Summers could be abrasive and confrontational. Rudenstine was cautious and sought consensus; Summers believed that what Harvard needed was daring leadership.

Summers's record on fund-raising, an important barometer of a president's performance, was mixed. Although total receipts topped $2 billion during his tenure, the percentage of alumni of Harvard College who donated to their alma mater declined from 48 to 40 percent between 2001 and 2005. A university spokeswoman at the time minimized any suggestion that Summers's leadership was to blame. But last year, Harvard postponed a capital campaign amid the controversy following his remarks suggesting that women may lack an intrinsic aptitude for science, and the resulting uproar among the faculty.

Summers's manner, however, was the right medicine for Harvard's move into Allston, many observers say. He inherited a difficult situation: Many faculty members were reluctant to move across the river, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino was still simmering over the 1997 disclosure that Harvard had used a third party to stealthily buy 52 acres in Allston, a purchase that took the land off property tax rolls.

But Menino, who is often described as being brusque himself, said he appreciated Summers's direct style. He also praised Summers for allowing residents to have a voice in how the area will be developed.

''There was no secrecy in the Larry Summers era," the mayor said. ''What there was was full disclosure and full involvement. He was forthright. Once he made that statement, you were able to work with him."

Rudenstine had made it clear that he wouldn't relocate any school against its will. Summers dissolved the uncertainty and boldly laid out his vision of what the Allston campus will look like.

''When Larry came to Harvard, really nothing had been decided," said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. Grogan was in charge of Harvard's government and community relations during the last three years of Rudenstine's tenure. ''There were all sorts of options, but really no shape to what was to happen in Allston. I think he's given it shape."

Glaeser, who has been involved in the planning of the new campus, said Summers has set a clear course for Allston that the university is likely to follow after he leaves.

''He has pushed the whole university to think big in Allston," Glaeser said. ''He has been very aggressive in seeing Allston as a place for science, and he has been pushing for a major undergraduate presence."

Last week, Menino and university officials announced that the first building on the Allston campus will be a 500,000-square-foot science complex, anchored by a stem cell laboratory. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute will occupy at least a quarter of the space in the facility. The institute will advance Harvard's efforts to circumvent federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, and it represents Summers's bold foray into an issue fraught with controversy.

Dr. George Q. Daley, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a faculty member at the new Stem Cell Institute, praised Summers's decision to locate the institute in Allston as ''a natural bridge between efforts going on in Cambridge and clinical work at the medical school," which is in Boston.

Summers made it clear during his 2001 inaugural address that he believed that science was getting short shrift at Harvard and that he intended to raise its profile.

''We live in a society, and I dare say a university, where few would admit -- and none would admit proudly -- to not having read any plays by Shakespeare or to not knowing the meaning of the categorical imperative, but where it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the meaning of exponential growth," he said then.

Daley said Summers understood that a working knowledge of science will be increasingly vital in the years to come.

''Science has to play a greater role in the education of the Harvard undergraduate in the future," Daley said. ''No one going forward in our society can be a responsible citizen, let alone a leader in business or the greater community, without having a very, very firm command of essentials and basics of science."

Menino and Grogan also gave Summers high marks for getting Harvard involved in community endeavors. Menino said Summers used Harvard's prodigious resources to help pay for housing, afterschool programs, and summer jobs in Boston.

Scott Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives