Larry Summers Shares His Thoughts With Law Students

BY ANNA BROOK

Larry Summers with HALB co-founders Sabastian Niles, Shaun Mathew, and Bryce Klempner.

Tuesday, April 25, the Harvard Association for Law & Business (HALB) arranged a conversation with outgoing Harvard University President Larry Summers. The event presented law students with an opportunity to ask Summers questions about his tenure, his departure, and anything else on their minds.

Professor Alan Dershowitz introduced Summers to the group. He mentioned Summers’ most important contributions to Harvard University during his tenure: eliminating parental contribution for students from low-income families, making plans for the expansion into Allston, creating a better atmosphere by integrating the University’s schools together, and increasing the endowment. Summers’s greatest contribution, however, was to “create an exciting, stimulating, and creative environment. More so than any president during my 40 years here,” said Dershowitz. Before giving Summers the floor, Dershowitz expressed his hope that Summers would continue to provoke thought wherever the years would take him.

Dershowitz posed the first question, whether “an intellectual provocateur can be a successful university president today, or if it takes someone who suppresses expressing strong views.” Although often called a provocateur, Summers admitted he was unsure what the answer is or what it should be. On the one hand, there seems to be a different level of tolerance depending on what position an individual takes. On the other, perhaps not all positions benefit from a provocateur. Summers made an example of his years at the Treasury Department, saying that during that time he would not state more than “a strong dollar is good for the US.” “The job of a university president is like a moderator at a presidential debate. You need to bring out the best in everyone,” Summers analogized. At the same time, at a time when the world is short of leaders who have strong thoughts, something is lost when university presidents are muted.

Several questions touched upon current university governance and whether veto power should remain widely distributed or consolidated. Summers explained that when veto power is distributed, a university tends to only approve programs that no one objects to too strongly. Consolidating power would permit schools to pursue goals that individuals are enthusiastic about, leading to more creative activity. He noted that this is perhaps the trend of the future, pointing out successful medical and business schools who have followed the corporate example and centralized power.

Summers’s primary advice for law students was to avoid being fungible. Although fungible jobs are often secure and pay well, there are dozens of replacements waiting in the shadows. “If a question is asked to which only your name is the answer, you will be much better off,” said Summers, urging students to become unique, to find a niche. One place to gain invaluable experience is in the government, where young lawyers face off against partners from the most prestigious law firms.

Summers further advised students to think about how they spend their time and ask themselves, “How long from now will this matter?” Energy should be focused on things that will be remembered many years down the road. For example, he suggested that his time would have been better spent working on the financial aid program or the stem cell research program instead of the debate that eventually led to his resignation, he could have made a bigger impact on the school. “In the same vein, we are more remembered by what we were for than for what we were against,” said Summers. “You are trained to see 11 reasons not to do something, not to break out of a box… You need to decide where to take a stand, where to push things.”

When asked about his plans for the future, Summers compared himself to a 3L. “I am a lot like that 3rd year student at the law school. I want to do something good, something different after graduation, but haven’t quite figured it out.” He said he is looking forward to a period where he will be able to speak more freely, to discuss broad economic policy and global questions through speaking engagements, writing, and some consulting. After a one year sabbatical, he hopes to return to teaching which he greatly enjoyed during the past several years.

In addition to bringing President Summers to the law campus, the newly founded Association for Law & Business has presented speakers to the law school throughout the year from a variety of business-oriented backgrounds including private equity, venture capital, investment banking, and management consulting. Next year, HALB plans to launch the Harvard Review of Law & Business, a journal dedicated to fostering debate between students, academics, and practitioners within the intersecting areas of law and business.

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