On Tenure, Larry Summers Would Likely Not Have Found Leeway to Return

Last week’s announcement that former University President Lawrence H. Summers would leave his post as an economic adviser to President Barack Obama touched off a frenzy of discussion as to whether Summers had decided to leave the White House as part of a response to growing dissatisfaction with the administration, or to keep tenure at the University.

At Harvard, a professor can take a leave of absence of two years without losing tenure. Once that period is up, the professor would have to reapply.

The Obama administration emphasized Harvard’s policy in its announcement that Summers would resign his post, but many critics publicly wondered whether the University could not have made an exception for someone of Summers’ stature.

The answer, University officials and professors said, is no. The University has not granted extensions to the policy in the past—even for some of its most prominent faculty members.

“As the saying goes: they wouldn’t do it for Henry Kissinger so they won’t do it for anyone else,” said John Y. Campbell, chair of the economics department.


Harvard has a long history of sending its professors to serve in Washington, D.C., and the University has an equally long history of professors suddenly resigning glamorous positions to return to Cambridge and resume their teaching responsibilities.

Legendary Harvard Professor John Kenneth Galbraith once took a position in India in the Kennedy administration, according to Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey B. Liebman, but quickly resigned that position when he realized that he risked losing tenure if he did not return to the University.

Summers himself is no stranger to the policy. When he left for a position in the Clinton administration in 1993, Summers resigned his faculty appointment—thereby losing tenure—according to University spokesperson John D. Longbrake.

When Summers, who at 28 was one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard’s history, returned in 2001 to assume the University Presidency, he was reappointed to the economics department. Following his resignation as University President in 2006, Harvard elevated him to the position of University Professor, one of the faculty’s most prestigious appointments.

It is unclear exactly what teaching responsibilities Summers will assume upon his return, but a statement by Harvard Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 hinted that he will resume teaching at the school.

Summers began working for the Obama administration during the presidential campaign when he regularly briefed the presidential candidate on what was then a rapidly souring economy. During his time in the White House, Summers chaired Obama’s National Economic Council, played a key role in crafting the $787 billion stimulus package, and oversaw the administration’s bailout of the auto industry.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: October 3, 2010

An earlier version of the Sept. 28 news article "On Tenure, Larry Summers Would Likely Not Have Found Leeway to Return" misattributed a quote from Kennedy School Professor Jeffrey B. Liebman to Economics Professor Jeremy C. Stein.