Larry Kramer: Introducing the new LSE President

By Matt Sudlow

A locked door and numerous signs warning off students greeted me on arrival to the 11th floor of the Centre Building. After five years at the university, I feel at one with most of our daily habitat. I am the campus and the campus is me. However, the Executive Office at LSE had always proved mysterious, almost mythical, the heightened position symbolic of any apparent staff-student divide. Mount Olympus, home of the academic gods. Now on my first visit, uncertainty and trepidation filled my veins, a feeling I was about to meet my maker. And then came Larry.

In April, Larry Kramer will become the new President and Vice Chancellor of LSE, the figurehead of the university, replacing Baroness Minouche Shafik, who departed to join Columbia University. A quick Google search tells you just why he was called up “out of the blue” for the job last summer. Dean of Stanford Law School from 2004-2012, he successfully enacted key educational reforms and proved a popular member of the Stanford community. Before this, a whole host of other prestigious academic positions, including Associate Dean for Research and Academics at NYU Law School. After Stanford, Larry became the President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2012, a private nonpartisan philanthropic organisation, and one of the largest grant-making foundations in the US with total assets of $12.8 billion, as of 2022

However, when LSE came calling, the move back to academia quickly morphed from a hypothetical scenario to the obvious move. “I left for a good reason”, Larry leads the interview by stating, “I had the chance for 10 years to do amazing work that I really enjoyed and was proud of, but I kind of missed being in the academic setting … I wanted to go back”. And that he did. “[LSE] is one of the world’s great universities. So [it was] just an amazing opportunity to be part of it.”

Larry does not arrive at LSE with all guns blazing for radical change, aware and respectful of our institution’s grand illustrious past. “What I hope to bring to the table is similar to what many of them brought to the table,” he says, speaking of his predecessors, “the ability to appreciate what LSE is and has been.” For this appreciation to manifest in outcomes befitting of our history, it is paramount, however, that the university adapts to the evolving world. “We are going through one of the … historic periods of rapid change. This is akin to the second Industrial Revolution,” Larry boldly affirms. “Thinking about how to retain the strength and relevance of an institution like this in that world,” in his opinion, will be a central part of his role.

To fully understand what Larry is trying to accomplish from a university perspective, it is crucial we view anything through a lens taking into account global issues of the day – after all, from the man himself “they’re exactly what everybody at this university works on”. He speaks of the importance of “preserving democracy, … in a period when it seems to be under challenge”, of “addressing social inequalities that have festered too long”, and of how to “get the benefits of and avoid the downsides of massive new technologies.”  

LSE was founded in 1895 by members of the Fabian Society with a central mission of educating students to play a part in the gradual positive reformation of society and democracy, and it is clear this is an ethos shared by Larry: “From a university perspective, the main goals don’t actually change. It’s to continue to recruit and enable the best faculty to do their teaching and their research. To recruit the best students to give them the opportunity to get the benefit of being with those faculty, and to find ways to have the product of the university have an impact in the world.”

The message is clear. Yes, continuity, but continuity in high standards, and in the goals of impact and reformation. 

Larry also possesses a willingness to learn, a refreshing attitude, admitting he simply “doesn’t know” right now when answering some of my questions and ending the interview with a qualifier – “I might change my mind later!”. This eagerness is consistent with not only his view on just what being President involves, but also regarding the issues plaguing LSE and universities today. “I think the job for someone in my position is more interpretation”, he declares. It’s a job of listening and learning, located in that unique position directly connecting all in the LSE community. And that is a job that has barely begun. 

As for the issues, the percentage of students in the UK who claim free speech is very or fairly threatened at university has increased from 23% in 2019 to 34% in 2022. Larry reiterated he was in a “listen and learn mode” regarding the specificities on every campus, especially coming from the US with significantly different laws. However, he affirmed that “speech that is lawful is protected, and it will be protected here. And we will protect the people who speak, and [their] safety.”

What is the most significant issue we face on campus? Larry’s opinion is clear. “The biggest challenge facing students and faculty is how to do as much as they can, within the limited resources that we actually have for it,” he says, emphasising this throughout the interview. And the statistics speak for themselves. Cambridge’s colleges alone have £6.9 billion in combined wealth, in addition to the university’s £4.9 billion. Compare this to LSE, with a current endowment of just £340 million, in addition to a capital portfolio of £160 million. In its quest for academic excellence, LSE is lagging behind in a pecuniary sense, located at around the same financial level as a large Oxbridge college. “You’ve got some of the best universities in the world here, of which LSE is one of the very, very best,” Larry claims, “and it’s amazing what it does, given the constraints that are put on it to actually do what great universities can do.”

And these constraints involve that of government policy, according to Larry. “It’s a kind of miracle to me how strong the UK universities are, [and] I’m sure I’m going to regret saying this, but that is so despite government policies that seemed designed to strangle and … impoverish the universities”. Funding for higher education is forecast by Universities UK to drop to its lowest real level since the 1990s, and proposed limits on dependents of overseas students decrease potential funding even further.

Larry has a clear plan to gain the funding required for a university of LSE’s stature. “Philanthropy has not been a big part of UK higher education. And it needs to, … if you look at the great universities in the world today, almost all of them have developed strong philanthropic communities,” Larry says. This is evidently crucial for him, but it won’t be easy, declaring, “the biggest part of my job is going to be out there persuading people to give.”

During the interview, when talking about the near-celebrity status he will soon take up on campus, Larry described himself as simply an “academic administrator”. However, for me, this is far from the truth. The LSE community is so often questioned, with barbs of low student satisfaction rate omnipresent from our first day here. In my five years here, I’ve come to realise this, too, is not true, and Larry has done this before even his official day one. Someone eager and willing to be a part of our university community, someone who already talks referencing “we”, and “ourselves”. 

I was highly surprised by just the amount of people who I spoke to about this interview who stated they had already met Larry, whether at school events or bumping into him around campus. Members of RAG shared he was keen to be a part of the ‘pie in the face’ tradition, and a sabbatical officer expressed they would love to present him with a ticket for Fight Night. In the interview, he mentioned he was eager to teach a class in the Law School. It is all so easy for the University administration to wield the sword away from the student body, to make the often challenging decisions isolated from the direct student experience. Already, Larry is showing this is not his style.

After the interview, the conversation quickly turned to music, something Larry is very clearly passionate about. During his post-college years in New York during the early 80s, Larry played drums in a band, attempting to replicate the newly-found success of local band Talking Heads on the new wave scene. To quote a previous interview, his goal in New York was to “be an artist or a writer … to change the world somehow, but not with any of those bourgeois professions.” 

Larry now sits here as our new President in the midst of a distinguished career, and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this, in bourgeois professions. But for him, his central driving force has always been constant. Ideas. “I grew up in a lower middle class blue collar neighbourhood, nobody took ideas seriously”, he tells me. “I was enthralled with ideas and that was really the thing. So I went to law school to basically get my mother off my back … planning to drop out, but discovered that it was actually a place where I could do this.”

And get off his back, she did! Attending the University of Chicago Law School was the launching point for Larry’s career, and the less-than-conventional decision-making process is reflected in a key life motto. “In every point in my life, I’ve made choices that were based on what was the best thing I could do, given where I was”, he declares, “I always advise students not to plan too far ahead … follow your nose.”

Obviously having given this question thought pre-interview, Larry shared two other central life lessons he lives by. Firstly, whilst ideas and political or cultural viewpoints may diverge, he stresses the importance of the person over the abstract. “We see people are letting disagreements over abstract matters, whether it’s politics or whatever, destroy their relationships”, he states, “the people you actually deal with matter more [than ideas].” 

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly for me, is a strikingly simple but important mantra – “making progress matters most”. He demonstrates this through analogy, stating “the world is now filled with people who I call no loafers for whom no loaf is better than a half … What matters more is that they show the world who they are, even if it means nothing gets done.”

Although stressing the need for continuity of our tradition of academic excellence, it is clear that progress is central to Professor Kramer’’s vision of LSE – the university must evolve equally as fast as the rapidly changing world it is located in. However, clearly showing throughout these professional mantras is Larry the man. The father, the music lover, and extra in Ender’s Game (yes, there’s no way this isn’t being included!), the newest member of our school community. Welcome to LSE, Larry.

Matt Sudlow interviews the new President of LSE, Larry Kramer


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