Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University professor and president emeritus of Harvard University, spoke as a part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series to a full crowd at Alumnae Lounge yesterday evening. It was co-sponsored by the Department of Economics and the International Relations program.
Summers previously served as the 71st secretary of the treasury for President Bill Clinton, director of the National Economic Council for President Barack Obama and the vice president for Development Economics and Chief Economist of the World Bank, according to the Tisch College website.
According to Summers, he was invited to speak at Tufts by Dean of Tisch College Alan Solomont, who he described as “a good friend and a man I admire very much.”
He added that part of the reason he came is because his daughter is a Tufts alumna.
“I feel a closeness to Tufts because my daughter Ruth is a Tufts graduate of 2012, so I’ve been a Jumbo parent,” Summers said.
He explained that he wanted to convey ideas about economics and how they affect people’s individual lives in the Tufts community at the talk.
“I’ll succeed here today if I’m able to share some of my passion for using economics and using analysis more generally to make the world a better place,” Summers said. “If I’m able to help people understand that affecting macro things like the overall performance of the economy, like having better monetary policies or better fiscal policies, [that] ultimately makes very large differences in the individual lives of a lot of people.”
Summers also noted the importance of being an active participant in the political and social environment, emblems of Tisch College.
“I think all of us who’ve had a chance to study at, work at universities like Harvard or Tufts are very fortunate, and I’ve always felt that part of that good fortune is that you’ve got some obligation to try to give something back,” he said.
During the talk, Summers spoke about the 2008 financial crisis, citing the complacency of the banking industry, which was too comfortable and confident with its solid growth and the lack of oversight of the industry.
“What we have to fear most is not fearing” he said, putting a twist on a well-known quote by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When asked if he believed the United States did the right thing at the time, Summers said period from September and October of 2008 to June 2009, was “worse than the Great Depression.”
“Looking at past experience and the condition of other countries experiencing a depression, we did quite well,” he said.
He explained that the choice to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act during the Clinton administration, which limits commercial banks from engaging in securities investments, was made in part because commercial and investment banks, such as Citigroup, were already merging.
Summers also spoke about things he would’ve done differently during his time as secretary of the treasury.
“The reality is that the particular kind of derivatives that were relevant during the financial crisis were either nonexistent or in its infancy when Clinton left office,” he said.
At the end of the talk, Summers answered questions from audience members on a variety of issues.
One audience member asked Summers if he was worried about not seeing wages growing, the widening income disparity and the hollowing out of the American middle class.
“The failure…of the economy to produce better results for the middle class is the defining problem for the [United States] from which most of our other problems follow,” Summers said. “The dysfunctional politics of the Tea Party, Donald Trump and gridlock results heavily from middle class frustration.”
Later, Summers answered questions about his experience in academia, including academic freedom and civil dialogue within academia.
“Universities ought to be places where any idea can be expressed; nothing should be unutterable or undebatable on university campuses,” he said. “When the pressure of the crowd leads to the censoring of speakers, the failure to represent points of view or the disinvitation of speakers who have been invited, something deplorable has happened.”
He also said that there is a broader problem of diversity within academia.
“One of the forms of diversity that I think is important is ideological diversity,” Summers said. “There is too much reluctance to give full airing of conservative or religious points of view.”
Summers also spoke about the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which Harvard condemned in 2013.
“No one should have the right to instrumentalize a university to support their particular point of view,” he said. “The notion of divestment or notion of academic boycotts seems to me so profoundly offensive.”
Another audience member asked Summers a question about new innovations within technology.
Summers concluded the question and answer session by saying that he thinks the most exciting thing about digital technology is “the world’s knowledge is now available to the world.”
First-year Benjamin Janis was one of the many audience members interested in hearing Summers speak.
“I’ve heard many opposing viewpoints of his, and I thought it’d be interesting to hear him myself,” Janis said. “As my Russian film teacher described him, he is the Donald Trump of academia. He notoriously does not shirk away from controversial issues.”
Previous speakers of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, which launched last fall, included Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, according to an Oct. 15 article on Tufts Now.
The next event in the Distinguished Speaker Series will be on Nov. 12 at 5:30 p.m. in Alumnae Lounge. Massachusetts politicians Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA5) and State Representative Keiko Orrall (R) will speak about women’s leadership in politics, according to the Tisch College website.
Sarah Zheng contributed to reporting on this article.