This compilation of Vanity Fair stories includes a little heralded piece by Nina Munk describing how Harvard University, once possessed of the largest university endowment in the world, has watched its nest egg implode in the wake of the global financial meltdown.
The temptation to schadenfreude is rarely more overwhelming, but push it off for a brief moment and contemplate this excerpt from Munk’s original story in VF:
Let’s back up for a moment and return to more prosperous times. It’s 2001 and Larry Summers has just been named president of Harvard University. Unapologetically combative, Summers is determined to lead (or force) the university into a glorious renaissance. Gazing into the future, Summers envisions smaller class sizes, a more diverse student body, a younger and more energetic faculty, a revitalized core curriculum, cooperation among Harvard’s Balkanized divisions, and a greatly expanded campus. Above all, at a university best known for its focus on the humanities, business, and law, Summers hopes to make science a priority. Belatedly, Harvard will match and even surpass the lavish investments that Princeton and Stanford have plowed into the sciences.
As Summers recently remarked to one of his colleagues, “I held out the hope that Boston would be to this century what Florence was to the 15th century.”
And, like that, the dream is gone. Harvard will not be leading Boston to become the Florence of the 21st Century after all.
My bet is on California, warts and all. Let’s not argue if. Instead, let’s discuss how.