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College Confidential

Presidential pardon

Drew Faust welcomed Larry Summers back to Harvard. Here's how he's repaying the kindness.

By Richard Bradley
April 17, 2011

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When Larry Summers announced last September that he was leaving the White House to return to Harvard, he appeared to bear no grudge against the university that pressured him to resign as its president five years ago. “I’m looking forward to returning to Harvard to teach and write about the economic fundamentals of job creation and stable finance as well as the integration of rising and developing countries into the global system,” he said in a statement.

Really? The man notorious for making impolitic statements to pretty much whoever would listen was looking forward to writing on the economic fundamentals of job creation? It was hard to believe that would satisfy his ambition. This was a guy whom Time magazine had once named part of “the committee to save the world” – a decade before Barack Obama brought Summers back to Washington to, well, save the world.

Campus observers weren’t buying it: They noted that Summers has rarely published in the last two decades and wondered how his successor, Drew Gilpin Faust, would welcome the return of the man she’d spent the last few years cleaning up after.

“Is Larry going to be seen as bigger than Drew?” asked one professor, who wished to remain anonymous because, like many Harvardians, he’d rather leave the angst of the Summers era behind. “He is bigger than Drew.”

But bigger, at Harvard right now, might not be better. Since Faust took the top job in 2007, she’s restored a sense of comity to a campus once divided by Summers. She’s also seen as the driving force behind such well-received changes as the reform of the secretive Harvard Corporation (the university’s governing body), the return of ROTC, and a retreat from the suddenly unaffordable multibillion-dollar Allston campus – a Summers Big Idea. Thanks to Harvard’s recently humbled endowment, Faust hasn’t been able to lead with her checkbook, but she has still led. “Drew became the president of Harvard at a very challenging time for the institution, doubly burdened by an economic recession and the tumultuous legacy of her predecessor,” says Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a Kennedy School lecturer who was an early critic of president Summers. “Still, she has navigated this terrain with skill and grace.”

If there’s a concern about Faust, it’s that she sometimes acts like the president of small things. While Harvard presidents have tended to focus on big-picture issues, she hosted a panel discussion to launch a series of campus fitness walks – in January – then had to cancel the first stroll due to a snowstorm. Whether you liked Summers or not, he had no shortage of ambitious plans for Harvard – they just had a tendency to implode.

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It’s been a few months now since Summers took the shuttle north from Washington, rejoining his wife, English professor Elisa New, who split her time between Cambridge and D.C. His first day back, a group of students held a bake sale on Harvard Yard to benefit girls studying math and science, a jab at his infamous remarks on the aptitude of women for those fields. But for the most part, Summers’s return has been quiet – almost, as they say, too quiet. He has settled into his office at the Kennedy School, where he is the head of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. He is also teaching a course there and co-teaching an undergraduate economics class, both of which are popular. On a campus where students once asked the former Treasury secretary to autograph dollar bills, Summers’s mix of intellectual dexterity and cultural celebrity will always be an irresistible draw.

Still, the presence of two Harvard presidents on campus is potentially awkward, particularly when one of them is known for her low-key, diplomatic style and the other is a gaffe-prone international economic powerhouse. If Summers maintains a high profile – something he’s never not done – would he highlight Faust’s weaknesses, or make his critics want to buy him a ticket back to D.C.?

Faust, in that same low-key, diplomatic way of hers, dismisses the notion that friction might develop between her and Summers. “We have an established relationship,” she says. When Summers was first named president in 2001, he paid a call on Faust, then the dean of Radcliffe. “He’s a very engaging interlocutor,” she says, “and we had a great interchange and got on well when he was president.”

Summers is just as nice. “I did not experience any awkwardness [with Faust] in the time before I went to Washington and I haven’t experienced any awkwardness since,” Summers said in a phone call earlier this month from Stanford University, where he was visiting. “My focus is on economics, Drew’s focus is on the university, and I think it works.”

Nevertheless, there’s really no precedent for the situation – it’s like matter and antimatter occupying the same space. The closest parallel (and it’s not that close) probably occurred in 1991, when mild-mannered Neil Rudenstine took over from the iconic Derek Bok, who had served 20 years as president. Bok, too, exiled himself to the Kennedy School, where he wrote sober, well-received books about education policy and assiduously steered clear of university affairs. He still does. In response to an e-mail asking if he might discuss ex-presidential etiquette, Bok wrote : “Please forgive me, but I have a strict rule about talking to the media about anything that touches on current events at Harvard. . . . I simply feel that an ex-president needs to stay completely out of Harvard affairs.”

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Will Larry Summers observe Bok’s principle? He says yes. Since leaving the presidency of Harvard, Summers says, “I’ve tried never to interfere in university business – I had my time. But I try to be responsive any time president Faust has anything that she wants to discuss with me or asks me to help out with. That was the attitude that Neil and Derek showed toward me, and I thought it was the right one, and that’s what I’ve tried to do vis-a-vis Drew.”

Maybe the two will never be BFFs, but they’re said to have a solid working relationship, and they’ve broken bread thrice in recent months – at Legal Sea Foods in the Charles Hotel, at a send-off for outgoing provost Steven Hyman, and at a small dinner Faust hosted in the president’s mansion, a.k.a. Larry Summers’s old house. “We talk from time to time about university affairs,” Summers explains.

Over their reunion lunch at Legal Sea Foods, they talked about their families, Summers’s time in Washington, and the proper role of an incoming provost. Safe ground – but the two may yet tackle tougher subjects. “We both like challenging interchanges,” Faust says.

Richard Bradley, the editor-in-chief of Worth magazine, is the author of Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.