A notorious World Bank memo signed nine years ago by Lawrence H. Summers, the new president of Harvard University, yesterday triggered the first challenge to his administration, as student protesters demanded that he embrace a progressive agenda as a sign of repudiation for the memo.
The memo, which urges shipping more toxic waste to Third World nations, has dogged Summers for years, despite a former aide's statement in 1998 that the ideas were his, not Summers'.
The aide, Lant Pritchett, who now teaches international economic development classes at Harvard, said in an interview yesterday that Summers reviewed the memo only briefly before signing it for circulation among World Bank staffers.
Harvard senior Lara Jirmanus of Medford, Mass., left, and freshman Madeleine Elfenbein of New York protest in Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Monday March 12, 2001. Several hundred students protested the the naming of Lawrence Summers as the school's 27th president. (AP Photo/Julia Malakie)
''He never advocated dumping toxic waste in Africa - he only signed a memo that appears that way if you take it out of context,'' Pritchett said. ''I can't even say for sure that he read it.''
In perhaps its most incendiary passage, the 1992 memo reads: ''I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.'' Pritchett said the memo was meant to be ironic, mocking an argument by other economists that free trade could be viewed as healthy for the environment.
Summers, the former US Treasury secretary, apologized for the memo at a news conference Sunday, but still came under criticism from several Harvard students and some health experts. They said yesterday that the memo could hinder Summers' presidency, given that he is taking over a university whose governing board wants to expand its influence internationally.
''The position is supposed to be occupied by a person with high moral integrity, filled by a person of conscience,'' said John Gershman, a research associate for the Institute of Health and Social Justice, a Cambridge-based nonprofit group. ''I would think there would be some concern about having someone as president of Harvard who has placed his name on principles such as these.''
About 200 Harvard students, professors, and local activists rallied in Harvard Yard yesterday to denounce the memo and to press Summers to embrace liberal policies, such as a base wage of $10.25 per hour for Harvard workers.
''Even if he didn't write the memo, he clearly signed off on it,'' said Benjamin McKean, a junior and a member of the Harvard Progressive Student Labor Movement.
McKean said it was fair to link the memo with his group's living-wage campaign because both presented Summers with a ''moral'' choice to make.
''As the president of Harvard, he should have the highest ideals,'' McKean said.
The memo outlines economic arguments in favor of shipping more toxic waste to underdeveloped countries. For instance, it suggests that pollution has relatively little impact on the low incomes and high mortality rates in those societies.
The memo also suggests that if people in poor countries are given the same right to an unpolluted environment as people in rich ones, then many World Bank conditions imposed on such countries could be undermined.
''The problem with the argument against all of these proposals for more pollution in LDCs (intrinsic rights to certain goods, moral reasons, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization,'' the memo states.
At the Sunday news conference announcing his appointment as president, Summers declined to discuss the memo in detail, but acknowleded that it was an error.
''The best that can be said, to quote LaGuardia, is to say, `When I make a mistake, it's a whopper,''' he said. ''It was a long time ago.''
Summers, who served as Treasury secretary under former President Clinton from July 1999 until January, told reporters that he had a strong record of aiding impoverished nations. He noted he had urged Congress to approve a debt relief measure that freed up money for economic development in the Third World.
As chief economist at the World Bank, Summers had some admirers. He is perhaps best known for successfully pushing for more education of girls worldwide. Using his discretion as chief economist, he called for studies that judged the power of investment in girls' education.
Pritchett, who is on leave from the World Bank to teach at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, recalled urging Summers to let him take the fall for the memo after it was leaked to the media.
''He insisted on playing by the Washington rules, which were, `You sign it, you eat it,''' Pritchett said. ''In academia, the worst thing to do is to put your name on something you didn't write. The worst thing in Washington is to put your name on something and then later disclaim it.''
The Harvard protesters said they were skeptical about the claims of authorship, however. They said yesterday that they would seek a meeting with Summers and press him on the issue.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company