Harvard University President Lawrence Summers presided over his final commencement Thursday, enjoying a warm reception from students and later challenging the university to make bold use of its unmatched financial resources as it carries on under new leadership.
Set to leave office June 30 after five tumultuous years, Summers spoke at Harvard’s 355th commencement Thursday morning only to confer degrees on 6,706 students in rainy Harvard Yard. Later, he told an audience of alumni he was proud of Harvard’s progress during his tenure — though disappointed it was ending.
“I have loved my work here, and I am sad to leave it,” Summers said. “There was much more I wanted, felt inspired, to do.”
Acknowledging his battles with faculty whose objections to his leadership style help cut his tenure short, Summers said: “Some of us have had our disagreements, but I know that which unites us transcends that which divides us. I leave with a full heart, grateful for the opportunity I have had to lead this remarkable university.”
The former Treasury secretary announced his resignation in February following clashes with faculty that first flared up after controversial remarks he made about women failing to reach the highest posts in scientific fields. He has said he will take a sabbatical next year and then return as a professor. Former Harvard President Derek Bok will lead the university while a successor is chosen.
‘We love you, Larry’
Summers has clearly had fun hamming it up with students at study breaks and sporting events during his tenure, and appeared to enjoy his march at the head of the academic processional through Harvard Yard. He slapped hands with students, some of whom shouted, “Larry! Larry!” and “We love you, Larry.”
In his speech Thursday afternoon, Summers spoke proudly of Harvard’s expansion of undergraduate financial aid during his presidency but called for the university to do more. He wants the school to aggressively tackle research challenges, improve undergraduate education and help solidify the Boston area as a kind of 21st-century Florence, leading a renaissance across a range of fields.
He noted Harvard’s now $26 billion endowment has increased by $7 billion in just the last three years — more than the full endowments of all but four other universities.
Ari Moskowitz, a senior from East Brunswick, N.J., said he was glad to see Summers smiling as he walked past, though he’s sure Summers is disappointed to be losing the presidency.
“I think he was treated unfairly,” Moskowitz said.
Paula Hartzell, the parent of a law school graduate, said she felt sorry for Summers but thought it probably was best that he was stepping down.
“He couldn’t seem to say anything without it being a controversy,” she said.
Harvard chose nine people to receive honorary degrees, including television journalist Jim Lehrer, art historian Leo Steinberg and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.