Will Summers lead Harvard in a bold new direction?

It seems almost silly to think of the "problems" that Lawrence Summers, the president-elect of Harvard University, will face.

First, there's the need to figure out where to spend the interest spinning off a $20 billion endowment. More faculty, more student aid, an expanded campus - or all three? And what about the embarrassingly regular top slot in college rankings?

In many ways, Harvard University is at the top of its game - standing astride the pinnacle of higher education in reputation, finances, and achievements. But that means Dr. Summers's true challenge will be not merely to keep it there - but to move it to the next level, observers say.

"No one really questions whether Harvard is an excellent place or its commitment to excellence," says Judith McLaughlin, director of a program for new college presidents run by Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "But there are some who will say, 'That's enough.' Others will say this is an opportunity to make a move in a new direction and stake out new territory."

So the No. 1 problem facing Summers will be figuring out what the next level is for an institution some call the "North Star" of American higher education. And if he can figure that out, how does he get 2,000 faculty, 6,600 undergraduates, 9,000 graduate students, alumni, and administrators to follow him?

"For Harvard to stay right at the top and be seen at the top, it's going to be forced into some significant change - and universities are not institutions that readily embrace change," says Frank Newman, director of "The Futures Project" on education policy at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Summers brings many qualities to his new job. He is intellectually brilliant. After getting his BS at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he earned his PhD in economics at Harvard. In 1983, at age 28, he became the youngest tenured professor in the university's history.

Since 1993, however, he has been a creature of Washington. He was a top official at the World Bank. Later, he helped design a US response to the Mexican and Asian financial crises and presided over the Treasury Department in the Clinton administration.

Summers brings to the post the key Harvard pedigree that all previous Harvard presidents have carried. But he is not a traditional candidate with a lot of university administrative experience, and in that sense was not entirely the "safe" choice many expected, Mr. Newman says. But because of his government experience, he is a "bold choice geared to change - and that's a good sign," he says.

High on the agenda of the new president will be shoring up Harvard College, the undergraduate core of the university - adding faculty and infrastructure. But most of all, he'll need to focus more on undergraduate students, many say.

An online poll by the Harvard Crimson newspaper shows 62 percent of students say "the most important use of the next ... president's time" will be undergraduate issues.

"We have a talent pool of students that gets better year after year and the money to hire new faculty, so it's a great time for change," says Fentrice Driskell, a senior and past president of the Harvard College undergraduate council. But she has advice for Summers: "Anytime you're about to change, you first need to reflect," she says. "Hopefully [he] will consider that and gather student input as he forges a new vision for Harvard."

Summers made clear that's his intent at a press conference: "Before I do much more speaking I will be doing a great deal more listening to the members of this community."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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