MOVE OVER, CORNEL WEST. Step aside, Jesse Jackson. Back off, Al Sharpton. Somebody else wants a piece of newly installed Harvard president Lawrence Summers: Boston mayor Thomas Menino.
West, Jackson, and Sharpton recently tangled with Summers over the university presidentís attempt to cajole the seemingly ubiquitous West into focusing more on teaching and less on cutting rap CDs and working on Sharptonís political campaigns. Before that controversy died down, Summers faced a revolt from his Latino-studies faculty, who are demanding a new interdisciplinary-studies center focused on Latin-American culture in the US. In both high-profile cases Summers quickly backed down, seemingly stung by the bad press.
Enter Menino, who for three months remained silent about Summersís suggestion, made during his October inaugural address, that Harvard needed to heighten its presence on the Boston side of the Charles River. "If we make the right choices, if we take full advantage of a physical opportunity across the river in Allston ó an opportunity to create a campus that is several times as large as this whole yard ó we will have earned the gratitude of future generations," Summers forcefully declared. He was referring, of course, to developing for graduate-school use the more than 100 acres of Allston land that the university secretly purchased throughout the 1990s.
Menino finally responded last week, folding an explicit message to Summers into a third-term inaugural address that was otherwise dominated by Bostonís diminished fiscal prospects. The message? If you want to do business in Boston, youíve got to deal with me.
"I want to invite President Larry Summers to explore what Harvard could do to expand its medical-school complex to Crosstown in Roxbury. This would make the neighborhood stronger and create jobs for the people of Boston," said Menino, referring to the area for which he plans a biomedical-research district. "If Boston has a friend in President Larry Summers, then Harvard has a friend in City Hall."
Unlike Summersís brushes with West and company, which made national news, his wrangling with Menino so far has been congenial and low-profile. (Meninoís team informed Summersís office that the Harvard president would be mentioned in the speech.) Yet for Summers, the stakes are much higher here. What Harvard does in Boston will serve as an important measure of his success as the schoolís president.
The same holds true for Menino. With the regional and national economy in trouble, the pace of development in Boston has slowed dramatically. On the waterfront, in downtownís shadow, the Pritzker family has delayed its plans to construct a business and residential complex. The Starwood Company has placed its plans for a waterfront hotel on hold. The Red Soxí plans for a new stadium remain up in the air. That leaves just two viable development plans, both of which are located in formerly industrial areas at the cityís periphery: Meninoís plans for a biomedical-research zone in Crosstown, and Harvardís plans for a graduate-school campus in Allston. Painfully aware of the new economic reality, Menino is turning to Harvard and its nearly $20 billion endowment ó not just to provide more payments in lieu of taxes (Harvard, as a nonprofit institution is exempt from city real-estate tax), but also to provide the neighborhood benefits usually associated with private development.
"Larry is the new guy in town," explains former Boston Globe political columnist David Nyhan, a 25-year friend of Meninoís who helped craft the mayorís speech. "In the week before that speech, nobody had a worse week in the papers than Larry, other than perhaps Mullah Omar. Clearly, thereís going to be more of an interaction now."
And where will that interaction start? Most eyes are on Allston.
"When Menino says Boston, I think he means Allston," says State Senator Steve Tolman of Brighton. "It looks like Harvardís getting ready to make their move down there."
FOR HARVARD to succeed with its Allston plans, a meeting of minds between two leaders from very different backgrounds must take place. On one side is Menino, a graduate of UMass Boston who worked his way up from Hyde Park political operative to Boston City Council president to mayor. On the other is Summers, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard and served as the Clinton administrationís treasury secretary. "Itís the perfect contrast," says one political observer. "Hereís Tom Menino, the direct antithesis of Larry Summers, looking to show him up."
The only way theyíll accomplish anything, say observers acquainted with both men, is if they both work on their relationship. "Everything with Menino is personal," says one insider. "Itís respect, and Larryís not the best listener. Larryís an academic, and Menino just reacts very powerfully to people who are from a different world. If Larry comes over and pays homage, Iím sure it will be fine, but thatís what Larry needs to do."
Right now, Menino has the upper hand. For Harvard to build on any of the 100-odd acres it secretly bought up in Allston before 1997, it will need considerable assistance from the city. Much of that property is zoned for industrial use and will require all kinds of comprehensive zoning changes. Therefore, Summers needs to be in Meninoís good graces. All Menino needs to do, meanwhile, is sit back and let Summers come to him. And be polite.
Menino and Summers will also have to navigate their relationship without Paul Grogan, Harvardís former government-relations guru, who now heads the Boston Foundation and got along well with the mayor. Alan Stone, a newcomer and former Clinton speechwriter who previously worked at Columbia University, now has Groganís old job.
Summers seems to understand this and has already reached out to Menino, a powerful Democratic mayor and ally of former president Clinton. Just two days after Meninoís speech, Summers ventured across the Charles to appear alongside Menino at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Mission Hill. He forked over $400,000 of a promised $5 million for after-school programs in Allston-Brighton, the Fenway, and Mission Hill.
"Harvard exists for only one reason and that is that the future world depends, more than anything else, on what young people learn and go forth and do," said Summers, expressing a responsibility to schoolchildren who may some day make up the Harvard classes of 2012 and 2020, according to the Harvard University Gazette.
That commitment of Harvardís money to a Boston community sounds a lot like homage to Menino, and paying for an after-school program is certainly nice. But it canít compensate for the scope of the change about to take place in Allston. Four hundred thousand dollars (and even $5 million over five years) doesnít begin to cover the amount Harvard will have to pay for its incursion into Allston. Indeed, the community is counting on the mayor to be its advocate with its neighbor across the Charles.
"The mayorís been pretty good about holding Harvardís feet to the fire," says Paul Berkeley, the president of the Allston Civic Association. "Heís putting pressure on them. I expect the city to be as tough as it needs to be."