Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Larry and Harvard

A reader asks the following about Larry Summers:
The media is saying that Larry is leaving the White House in part because his leave from Harvard is almost up and if he stayed away longer, he'd have to reapply for tenure. From your own experience, is that probably true? I thought universities routinely relaxed such policies for star academics like you and Larry. Also, how prestigious is it to be a university professor?
Different universities have different policies regarding faculty leave for policy jobs, and different degrees of enforcement. Harvard allows two years of leave, and it has the reputation of enforcing the rule rather strictly. I can imagine that Larry could have negotiated an extra semester of leave, but I would have been surprised if the university had extended his leave much beyond that. (FYI, I left my CEA job in February 2005 after being in Washington for precisely two years.)

Also, being a university professor is quite a good deal.  Top pay with maximum flexibility regarding teaching etc.  As I understand it, you do pretty much whatever you want.

Would Larry have been rehired by Harvard if he resigned and stayed another couple of years in Washington?  Unclear.  The pro case for rehiring would be that Larry is one of the smartest guys around and has a great deal of fascinating experience to share with students.  The con case would be that he has been out of the academic research game for quite a while and that in a time of reduced financial resources, faculty slots should be devoted to younger scholars rather than potentially extinct volcanoes.  Ironically, if Larry were on the faculty voting on this matter, the con case is the kind of argument he might have made.

So, while I am sure that Larry's decision had various inputs, Harvard's leave policy was very plausibly one of them.

I can also say that ec 10 students will likely be among the beneficiaries of Larry's return.  Larry was a regular guest lecturer in the course, and his lectures were always well received.   He does a great job illustrating the connections between economic theory and economic reality.