Lawrence Summers

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Larry Summers

Lawrence Henry Summers (born November 30, 1954) is an American economist, politician, and academic. He is the current and 27th President of Harvard University.


Early life

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Summers is the son of two economists, as well as the nephew of two Nobel laureates in economics: Paul Samuelson (sibling of father Robert Summers, who changed the family name from Samuelson to Summers to avoid anti-Semitic prejudice) and Kenneth Arrow (his mother's sibling). He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at 16, where he originally intended to study physics but soon switched to economics (BS, 1975), and then Harvard University as a graduate student (Ph.D., 1982), where he studied under economist Martin Feldstein. He has had stints teaching at both MIT and Harvard. He became among the youngest tenured professors in Harvard's history in 1983 (though not the youngest; Alan Dershowitz and Noam Elkies were both younger when appointed full professors).

Professional life

As a researcher, Summers has made important contributions in many areas of economics, primarily public finance, labor economics, financial economics, and macroeconomics. To a lesser extent, Summers has also worked in international economics, economic demography, economic history, and development economics. His work generally places emphasis in the analysis of empirical economic data in order to answer well-defined questions (for example: Does saving respond to after-tax interest rates? Are the returns from stocks and stock portfolios predictable?, Are most of those who receive unemployment benefits only transitorily unemployed?, etc.) For his work he received the John Bates Clark Medal in 1993 from the American Economic Association (an honor economists often consider as prestigious as the Nobel Prize). In 1987 he was the first social scientist to win the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation.

Summers left Harvard in 1991 and served as Chief Economist for the World Bank (1991–1993) and later in various posts in the United States Department of the Treasury under the Clinton administration. From 1999 to 2001 he served as Secretary of the Treasury, a position in which he succeeded his long-time political mentor Robert Rubin. In 2001, he left the Treasury and returned to Harvard as its President.


As Harvard President, Summers has expressed positions on several politically-charged subjects that lie to the right of the American academic community. This, together with his often rough demeanor, has made for a controversial tenure as President of Harvard, particularly among his colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Early in his tenure, he criticized high-profile African-American Studies professor Cornel West in a private meeting between the two, alleging grade inflation in an ethnic studies course and criticizing West's extracurricular pursuits in politics and spoken word poetry. West responded by later accepting an open invitation to move to Princeton University. In 2002, Summers controversially stated that a campaign by Harvard and MIT faculty to have their universities divest from companies with Israeli holdings was "anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intention".

Exporting polluting industry to poor countries

In December 1991, while at the World Bank, Summers signed a memo, an excerpt of which has become known as the infamous Summers memo [1] ( The excerpt, an "ironic aside" according to its author, argued that pollution from first-world countries should be dumped into third-world countries:

"Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?"
"I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to it."
"I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City."

The "memo" made him a favorite target of environmentalists and others critical of neoliberal economics, who believe it to be consistent with his attitudes in general and a symbol of "the arrogant ignorance of many conventional 'economists' concerning the nature of the world we live in" (Brazilian Secretary of the Environment Jose Lutzenberger). Summers maintained that the memo was misunderstood, offered as a "sardonic counterpoint, an effort to sharpen the analysis."

Differences between males and females

In January 2005, Summers gave a speech [2] ( at an economic conference in which he discussed possible reasons for the current underrepresentation of women at the top in many fields, especially in science and engineering. He said that although his remarks were provocative, it was vitally important to study the underlying reasons. These may include social issues, such as willingness to commit fully to a highly demanding career, and biological differences between the genders. An excerpt from the speech:

"So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong."

His remarks generated a media controversy over the question of gender differences, and provoked criticism from Harvard faculty. Though he initially defended his original opinion, in a later statement he claimed that "The issue of gender difference is far more complex than comes through in my comments, and my remarks about variability [in the ability of men and women] went beyond what the research has established." [3] (

Summers' opposition and support at Harvard

On March 15 2005, members of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which instructs graduate students in GSAS and undergraduates in Harvard College, passed 218-185 a motion of "lack of confidence" in the leadership of Summers, with 18 abstentions. A second motion that offered a milder censure of the president passed 253 to 137, also with 18 abstentions. [4] (

The lack of confidence measure is different from a "no-confidence" vote, which in the British parliamentary system causes the fall of a government, and it has no formal effect on the president's position. The members of the Harvard Corporation, the University's highest governing body, are in charge of the selection of the president and have issued statements strongly supporting Summers.

FAS faculty are not unanimous in their comments on Summers; influential psychologist Steven Pinker defended the legitimacy of Summers's January remarks. When asked if Summers’ remarks were "within the pale of legitimate academic discourse," Pinker responded "Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa [an Islamic school] [...] There is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously. [...] Some psychologists are still offended by such hypotheses, but yes, they could certainly be considered at most major conferences in scientific psychology." When asked if Pinker himself found the remarks offensive, he responded "look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is 'offensive' even to consider it?" [5] (

External links

Preceded by:
Robert Rubin
United States Secretary of the Treasury
Succeeded by:
Paul O'Neill
Preceded by:
Neil L. Rudenstine
President of Harvard University
Succeeded by:

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