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Summers Looks Back at Harvard Presidency


Harvard University's academic year has ended, and so has the presidency there of Lawrence Summers. Various entanglements and wrangles, especially with Harvard's faculty of Arts and Sciences, led to the resignation. Lawrence Summers joins us now from Cambridge.

Mr. Summers, you are 52 years old; a distinguished career. You served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. And before that, you were chief economist at the World Bank. Weren't you surprised by how political an academic campus is?

Professor LAWRENCE SUMMERS (Former President of Harvard University): Yeah. I think I probably supposed when I left Washington that I'd be leaving politics a little more than was the case. And I probably had a bit more conviction that it was going to be the ideas that counted and the contribution that could be made, rather than a sense of prerogative that was going to be the only issue in a university. So, sure, there were political things that were sources of great frustration to me, but that's not what the community, as a whole, should be judged on.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. But just in terms of your own experiences there in five years as president, you had a whole bunch of sort of dark and stormy sessions. You got in trouble for implying, or may be being perceived as implying, that women don't excel in math and science because they lack some kind of, your words were, intrinsic aptitude. Was this a slip of the tongue? Shortly after you said it, did you think uh-oh?

Prof. SUMMERS: Susan, the way - it's actually a significant misquotation that you just provided.

STAMBERG: How did I misquote you, Mr. Summers?

Prof. SUMMERS: Because what I said was - I never said that women were less able than men.

STAMBERG: You didn't use that phrase: intrinsic aptitude?

Prof. SUMMERS: I did, but I used it in a context. Certainly, those remarks sent a signal that was very different than the one that I intended. And I certainly wish that signal had not been sent. What I've tried to do is turn heat into light.

You know, at a time when 30 percent more women are graduating from American colleges than men, we are going to recognize that there are differences between genders. And we're going to need to do research that figures out how we can best meet the needs of everyone at a time when our society needs more talent.

STAMBERG: Hmm. a number of the fights that you've fought, Mr. Summers, involved pushing, really, for more rigoroum(ph) at campus. You wanted to reform the curriculum. You attacked grade inflation. And you had to fight your faculty on a number of these things. And I wonder whether the star system, that situation in which you have these big named, tenured professors, whom you can't fire -does that system give members of the faculty too much power?

Prof. SUMMERS: I think there are very important questions of governance that may even include the tenure system that great universities, like this one, are going to need to reflect on. I certainly did worry and continue to worry about the responsibility of the faculty for the quality of the undergraduate education. You know, in some areas, like the humanities, two-thirds of the students were getting A's. And I don't think that's setting the kind of standards for our students that we should.

I do think that it is a very great challenge to develop a curriculum that's based on a theory of what the next generation of leaders needs to know, rather than a set of political compromises between faculty over what they want to teach.

STAMBERG: Just personally, now, Lawrence Summers. You have had tremendous success in the claim in every single job that you have held before you went to run Harvard. Why do you think that this big job was so gnarly?

Prof. SUMMERS: You know, Susan, I'm a person who, in every job I've had, pushes very hard to make as much of a positive difference in the world as I think an institution can. There are probably some moments when I pushed too hard, given the culture of a 370-year-old institution. I think it's a very different place than it was five years ago. It's a very different place for the students who enjoy significantly more faculty contact. It's a tremendously different place in the contribution it's making to science and technological research. It's a university that's much more engaged internationally.

And so, yes, I certainly wish there had been less controversy at a variety of moments, but I feel very good about the progress we've made.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much, Lawrence Summers, ending a five-year stint as president of Harvard University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.