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Economist Lawrence Summers, MIT '75, named Harvard president

Lawrence Summers as a senior at MIT, 1975.
Lawrence Summers as a senior at MIT, 1975.
Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University's newly selected president.
Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard University's newly selected president.
Photo / Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

Lawrence H. Summers, noted economist, former Secretary of the Treasury and an alumnus and former professor at MIT, was elected the 27th president of Harvard University Sunday.

Dr. Summers, 46, the first MIT alumnus to head Harvard, succeeds Neil L. Rudenstine, who steps down June 30 after 10 years in office.

MIT President Charles M. Vest commented, "This is a terrific appointment for Harvard, and, of course, we at MIT feel a special bit of institutional pride in Larry Summers as an undergraduate alumnus of our Economics Department. Dr. Summers is a first-rate intellect, has a wide range of relevant experience, and will be an outstanding university president.

"In my view, he is an excellent fit for Havard in 2001. He has a broad view of education and the world scene, including keen appreciation for the role of science and technology. The basic agenda that Larry announced holds great similarity to the current thrusts at MIT. This will create both healthy competition and opportunities for common cause.

"I value my personal and professional relationship with Neil Rudenstine. It has been our habit to meet informally a few times each term to discuss matters of common interest and concern in higher education. Institutional relationships between MIT and Harvard are very good right now, and I would certainly anticipate that they will continue to be with Larry at Harvard's helm," Dr. Vest said.

He received his bachelor's degree in economics at MIT in 1975 and his PhD at Harvard in 1982. He served three years on the MIT economics faculty, where he was named assistant professor in 1979 and associate professor in 1982. He served as a domestic policy economist for President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors for a year before returning to Harvard at age 28 as one of the youngest persons ever to be named a tenured professor.

He served eight years on the Harvard faculty and in 1991 was named vice president and chief economist for the World Bank. He became Under-Secretary of the Treasury in 1993, Deputy Secretary in 1995, and Secretary of the Treasury in July, 1999, presiding over an agency which has nearly 150,000 employees.

Dr. Summers was born in New Haven, Conn. on Nov. 30, 1954 into a family of economics professors -- mother, father and two Nobel Prize-winning uncles, Paul Samuelson of MIT and Kenneth Arrow of Stanford.

"He definitely was not a late bloomer. He was probably born in full bloom," recalled Institute Professor Emeritus Robert M. Solow 44 years later when Dr. Summers was named Treasury Secretary. Dr. Solow taught Dr. Summers as an undergraduate.

Small talk at Thanksgiving dinners in the Summers' suburban Philadelphia home revolved around economic theory and current events, with children encouraged to join in. The teenaged Mr. Summers, who attended public schools and excelled in science and mathematics, was an active participant.

At MIT, Dr. Summers lived in Senior House. "He was unusually bright and he had a serious interest in economics," said his undergraduate advisor, Professor of Economics Paul Joskow, in a 1999 interview. "He was a very good student, but definitely not a grind. He had outside interests, particularly the debate club."

Professor Rudiger W. Dornbusch, the Ford International Professor of Economics, remembered Dr. Summers in 1999 as an engaging young colleague. "He was incredibly bright and clearly a star in his profession already in a wide range of areas," he said.

Summers is 2nd MIT teacher to become Harvard president

It's been 132 years since Harvard last named a one-time member of the MIT faculty as its president.

The first was Chemistry Professor Charles W. Eliot. Eliot, along with mathematician John D. Runkle, was one of MIT's first professors when MIT opened in Boston in 1865. Eliot, a member of the Harvard class of 1853, left MIT to become the 21st president of Harvard in 1869 at the age of 35. He served for forty years and frequently tried to get MIT to merge with Harvard.

Eliot broached the idea with two MIT presidents who were Harvard alumni. In 1870, Eliot discussed a merger with Runkle (Harvard Class of 1851), who was then MIT's acting president. Runkle was staunchly opposed.

In 1897, when chemist James Mason Crafts (Harvard Class of 1858) became president of MIT, Eliot tried again but talks foundered on administrative issues.

In 1900, Crafts was succeeded by Henry Smith Pritchett, 42, who took a great interest in student life. Pritchett, not a Harvard graduate, was interested in Eliot's ideas for a merger of Harvard and MIT because Pritchett saw it as a solution to MIT's severe turn-of-the-century financial pressures. After a faculty and alumni uproar on the issue, Pritchett resigned in 1907.

The two institutions have been in friendly competition ever since.

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