Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 22, 2009


Nina Munk, Vanity Fair - It's 2001 and Larry Summers has just been named president of Harvard University. Unapologetically combative, Summers is determined to lead (or force) the university into a glorious renaissance. Gazing into the future, Summers envisions smaller class sizes, a more diverse student body, a younger and more energetic faculty, a revitalized core curriculum, cooperation among Harvard's balkanized divisions, and a greatly expanded campus. Above all, at a university best known for its focus on the humanities, business, and law, Summers hopes to make science a priority. Belatedly, Harvard will match and even surpass the lavish investments that Princeton and Stanford have plowed into the sciences.

As Summers recently remarked to one of his colleagues, "I held out the hope that Boston would be to this century what Florence was to the 15th century."

Harvard's soaring endowment was the key to Summers' blueprint for the future. Instead of promoting fiscal restraint, he argued, Harvard should loosen its purse strings. The endowment should be used for "priorities of transcendent importance," he proclaimed to The New York Times in 2008, after resigning as Harvard's 27th president. "There is a temptation to go for what is comfortable," he added, "but this would be a mistake. The universities have matchless resources that demand that they seize the moment."

Caught up in the exuberance of the new millennium, and guided by Summers's transcendent vision for the university, Harvard embarked on a plan of action. In September 2003, Summers cut a crimson ribbon marking the opening of the $260 million New Research Building, at Harvard Medical School: at 525,000 square feet, it was the largest building in Harvard's history. The previous year, construction had started on the 249,000-square-foot Center for Government and International Studies. Designed by Henry N. Cobb, architect of Boston's John Hancock Tower, CGIS, with its two identical buildings covered in fragile terra-cotta panels, ended up costing a reported $140 million, more than four times what the planners had first anticipated.

The New College Theatre came next-a beautiful 272-seat space, built on the site of the Hasty Pudding Theatre of 1888 and retaining, at great expense, the Hasty Pudding's historic façade. A few months later, in November 2007, Harvard's Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering was completed. Its vital stats: 137,000 square feet, an internationally esteemed architect (1996 Pritzker winner Rafael Moneo), and a $155 million price tag, funded almost entirely with debt.

To be fair, when the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering was still in the planning stage, Harvard intended to defray the cost of the building by selling naming rights. Nevertheless, for some now hazy reason, construction was well under way before a willing donor had been secured, and by then it was too late to seize the moment. "It is a lot harder to raise money for a building that has already been built" is how a former dean of Harvard College explained the situation at the time.

Where in the world were the voices urging restraint? "Some people really wondered at the expanse of the new buildings and the pace at which it was happening," I was informed by Everett Mendelsohn, a professor emeritus in the Department of the History of Science, who's been at Harvard since 1960. "Periodically, discussions would take place at the Faculty Council, and one of the deans or the presidents would come, and there would be questions asked. But there wasn't a regular give-and-take... I'd say there was a sense that the critics were not being heard."

Even today construction is going on at Harvard. The polished 520,000-square-foot Northwest Science Building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has just opened. Over at Harvard Law School, a $250 million project, designed by the firm of Robert A. M. Stern, is a work in progress: a giant limestone building with a 700-car underground garage.

On the subject of Harvard's billion-dollar construction pit in Allston: over the years, quietly, the university had been assembling and buying hundreds of acres in the Allston-Brighton area, more land than it owns in Cambridge. Once home to slaughterhouses and stockyards and stench, Allston seemed the most likely place for Harvard to expand. In a 2006 interview with Harvard Magazine, Summers described Allston as "the launching pad for something new that reflects the dreams of the most creative young scientists in the world."

The university's master plan called for a "seminal" transformation of 220 acres in Allston over the next 50 years: in place of broken pavement and abandoned warehouses, Harvard would build new walkways and bicycle lanes. A paved piazza would be surrounded by theaters and museums. A new pedestrian bridge would span the Charles River. Here and there, landscapers would plant abundant, well-tended gardens. Small, charming shops would be adjacent to outdoor cafés. All that and more was the Utopian plan.

After decades of planning, construction began in Allston in 2007. Part one was to be the $1.2 billion Allston Science Complex. At 589,000 square feet it would include four buildings designed to house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Harvard Medical School's Department of Systems Biology, the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and the new Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Earlier this year, however, when it became clear to everyone at Harvard that the effects of the global recession would be profound, construction at Allston was abruptly stopped. Not, mind you, that the verb "to stop" is part of Harvard's current vocabulary-the project is being "re-assessed" and "recalibrated." Once its mammoth foundation has been poured (for otherwise the unstable mud walls could cave in), the Allston Science Complex will be on hold.

Meanwhile, as Harvard pauses to recalibrate, five huge and silent cranes, like prehistoric relics, like monoliths, dominate the local skyline-or at least they did when I was there in May. Residents of Allston are furious; they think they've been double-crossed. You dirty rats, screamed a cover of the Boston Herald, referring to Allston's growing rodent problem and, subversively, to "rats" at Harvard jumping ship.

In theory, Larry Summers, who now heads the National Economic Council under Barack Obama, may have been the right person to lead Harvard into a glorious renaissance. In reality, however, when Summers was president of Harvard, he alienated just about every faculty member who crossed his path. Instead of being admired as a visionary, he was said to be arrogant. Instead of being recognized as a bold and fearless leader, he was perceived as a cerebral bully. That Summers suggested women lacked a natural ability for sciences did not help matters one bit. Nor did his very public feud with the professor of African-American studies Cornel West, who decamped for Princeton. In early 2006, anticipating a vote of no confidence by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers resigned.


Blogger Joseph said...

People like Larry Summers own the country. The rest of us are just visiting.

July 23, 2009 1:20 AM  
Blogger Daro said...

Not to mention Harvard lost 25% of its endowments playing the stock market when the crash hit. Chr1st! Even I saw that one coming. So much for their lauded business school...

August 4, 2009 9:25 AM  

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