Harvard Rules

Harvard Rules

by Richard Bradley

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It is the richest, most influential, most powerful university in the world, but at the beginning of 2001, Harvard was in crisis. Students complained that a Harvard education had grown mediocre. Professors charged that the university cared more about money than about learning. Harvard may have possessed a $19 billion endowment, but had it lost its soul?



It is the richest, most influential, most powerful university in the world, but at the beginning of 2001, Harvard was in crisis. Students complained that a Harvard education had grown mediocre. Professors charged that the university cared more about money than about learning. Harvard may have possessed a $19 billion endowment, but had it lost its soul?

The members of Harvard's governing board knew that they had to act. And so they made a bold pick for Harvard's twenty-seventh president: former Treasury Secretary and intellectual prodigy economist Lawrence Summers.

Although famously brilliant, Summers was a high-stakes gamble. In the 1990s he had crafted American policies to stabilize the global economy, quietly becoming one of the world's most powerful men. But while many admired Summers, his critics called him elitist, imperialist, and arrogant beyond measure.

Today Larry Summers sits atop a university in a state of upheaval, unsure of what it stands for and where it is going. At stake is not just the future of Harvard University but also the way in which Harvard students see the world -- and the manner in which they lead it. Written despite the university's official opposition, Harvard Rules uncovers what really goes on behind Harvard's storied walls -- the politics, sex, ambition, infighting, and intrigue that run rampant within the world's most important university.

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Welcome to Harvard Yard-or, more precisely, to the president's office in Mass Hall. As Bradley (American Son, 2002, written as Richard Bow) tells it, Harvard found itself in something of an identity crisis at the turn of the new century. Was Harvard still the best school around, or was it being edged out by Princeton and Yale? The Harvard Corporation was worried, so when President Neil Rudenstine retired, it looked for someone who would shake things up a bit. They found their man in Larry Summers, the enfant terrible economist and former Treasury Secretary who became Harvard's president in 2001. Here, Bradley covers everything from Summers's responses to 9/11 and the rise of worldwide anti-Semitism to his attempts to crack down on grade inflation. Readers will even get a peek at his love life. But Bradley is most energized by the fracas around Harvard's African-American Studies department. The best such department in the country, it was built up by President Rudenstine and Henry Louis Gates Jr., but when Summers came along, he immediately alienated Gates and didn't even meet with him, a powerhouse by anyone's standards, until he'd been seated as president for several months-and, when he did, he was wishy-washy about affirmative action. Then there was the showdown with Cornel West, which made the pages of the Boston Globe and the New York Times, after Summers told West his scholarship wasn't up to snuff, that he needed to stop writing popular books and do some serious work. West was livid, eventually leaving Harvard for Princeton. Gates, too, toyed with switching, though for the time being he's still in Cambridge. Bradley chronicles the West-Gates-Summers battle royal in detail that'ssometimes delicious and sometimes, well, mind-numbing. Die-hard Crimson-ites may flock to this, but who else will want to read 400 pages of Harvard insider politics? It's a fluid, solid profile but would have been better as a magazine article.

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Harvard Rules
The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University

Chapter One

The Remarkable, Controversial Career of Larry Summers

From Love Story to Legally Blonde, Harvard abounds in American popular culture. Partly this is because the university produces many creative, ambitious, and occasionally dysfunctional graduates whose Cambridge experience provides a natural subject for their work. It's also because the campus is so picturesque, so resplendent with timeless red brick, graceful bell towers, and sleek sculls gliding along a sparkling Charles River. This is cinematic stuff. Setting a story at Harvard conveys history, power, and tradition; Harvard raises the stakes. Little wonder that thriller writer Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, made his hero, symbologist Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor. The label gives Langdon instant credibility.

Nevertheless, much of the literature and film featuring Harvard casts the university in a critical light. Consider perhaps the most famous Harvard drama. In Erich Segal's 1970 novel Love Story (the film of which is screened for Harvard freshmen every fall), the university comes across as a cold and uncaring place, aesthetically impressive but officially hostile to the romance of Harvard man Oliver Barrett IV and Radcliffe student Jenny Cavilleri. They fall in love at Harvard, but certainly not because of it. Love distracts from work.

In The Paper Chase, the 1973 film about a law student who falls in love with his august professor's daughter, Harvard is a place where excellence takes root not because of its culture of competition, arrogance, and frosty interpersonal relations, but despite it. Then there's 1997's Good Will Hunting, the tale of a working-class math genius who falls for a Harvard undergrad. In that film, the typical Harvard student is presented as pompous, effete, and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. Other, less good movies present Harvard still more cynically. In 1986's Soul Man, the only way a young man can afford Harvard is to pretend that he's black in order to win a scholarship. And in the 2002 comedy Stealing Harvard, a well-meaning uncle attempts to pilfer $30,000 so that his niece can pay Harvard's costs.

In the realm of nonfiction, there is a sizeable genre of "I spent a year at Harvard" books—memoirs of the law school, medical school, divinity school, and so on. In theme and structure, such chronicles -- such as Scott Turow's One L -- constitute survival narratives. A year at the Harvard Law School is the academic equivalent of surviving a plane crash in the Peruvian Andes or being stranded on a deserted island with only a beach ball for company. As in most Harvard-themed works of culture, individuality is in short supply, spontaneity prompts rebuke, and love is an endangered emotion.

Harvard's administration devotes enormous amounts of time, money, and energy to generating more positive media coverage. The university seems to have more press secretaries than Congress, and they spend as much time shooting stories down as helping them get written. Much of their job involves getting faculty members quoted in newspapers and magazines on issues related to their expertise, and at this they are remarkably successful -- helped, no doubt, by the prevalence of Harvard grads in the press. Some years back, a writer working on a book about Harvard asked a group of researchers to count the number of instances in which the New York Times cited Harvard over a period of several months. They expected the number to be large, but even to their surprise, they found that the Times mentioned Harvard more than all other universities combined.

Of course, Harvard doesn't rely on outside press organizations to advertise itself. It publishes dozens of reports, bulletins, journals, and magazines lauding the accomplishments of members of the Harvard community. There's nothing sinister about this -- all universities do it—but Harvard does it bigger and better. Among numerous examples, the Harvard University Gazette, a weekly newspaper during the school year, profiles Harvard faculty and lists the remarkable number of lectures, exhibits, and performances happening on campus in any given week. Harvard Magazine is a slick, professional magazine sent to all Harvard alums six times yearly. The university web page, a more recent innovation, projects a harmonious image of Harvard across the world, twenty-four hours a day.

If, in the summer and fall of 2001, you had read the articles in Harvard publications and on Harvard websites about new president Larry Summers, you would have acquired a meticulously selected and oftrepeated set of facts about him. You would have known that Summers was energetic and "brilliant" -- a word repeated so often to describe him that it became almost a third name. You would have known that Summers was an inspiring teacher, often mentioned as a likely winner of the Nobel Prize in economics. And that Summers had spent a successful decade in Washington, capped by his eighteen months as secretary of the treasury. From all the things written about him, you might have gotten the impression that Summers resembled TV's West Wing's President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen -- only smarter.

All the promotion paid off. Summers received glowing treatment in the non-Harvard media, which proclaimed that he was just the man to restore the role of university president to its pre-Rudenstine standing. Larry Summers, wrote one Boston Globe columnist, "has the potential to be the greatest president of Harvard since Charles W. Eliot," the nineteenth-century figure generally considered to be Harvard's greatest president, period ...

Harvard Rules
The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University
. Copyright © by Richard Bradley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

The former executive editor of George magazine, Richard Bradley is the author of the number one New York Times bestseller American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and the New Republic. A graduate of Yale College who received his A.M. in American history from Harvard, Bradley lives in New York City.

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