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The Fed's uncanny crimson connection

September 12, 2013: 7:00 AM ET

In the high-profile race for Fed chair, there's one hands-on favorite: Harvard University

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

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FORTUNE -- Whichever way the battle to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve resolves -- surprise, surprise -- it's all about Harvard.

Although not the college so much. The only player in this drama with a Harvard B.A. is the one who's about to exit. Bernanke graduated in 1975, then headed down Mass Ave. to MIT for his economics Ph.D.

Maybe he passed Larry Summers walking in the opposite direction. Summers, the odds-on favorite, graduated from MIT, also in 1975, then continued at Harvard. He earned his Ph.D. in 1982, immediately joined the economics faculty, and one year later, at age 28, became one of the youngest tenured professors in Harvard history. Apart from a few significant breaks in Washington, he's been there ever since.

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While he was a graduate student, Summers studied under Marty Feldstein, who would probably be the Fed chairman right now if George W. Bush hadn't picked Bernanke instead. Among his classmates was former Fed Vice Chairman Roger Ferguson. He also took at least one class with a Brown grad who got her Ph.D. at Yale and would ultimately land at Berkeley, but who launched her teaching career at Harvard. That would be Janet Yellen, current vice chairwoman of the Fed and Summers' chief rival for the top job. (Alas, both Summers' spokeswoman and a spokesman for Harvard declined to say what class it was, or what grade he got.)

The Fed chairmanship hasn't always been the birthright of Harvard grads. Charles Sumner Hamlin, the first Fed chairman, who served from 1914-1916, was a Harvard man, class of 1886. But he was the last for 63 years -- until Paul Volcker, who went to Princeton as an undergraduate and later earned a master's in political economy at Harvard. (Both Volcker and his successor, Alan Greenspan, who has three degrees from NYU, have honorary doctorates from Harvard.) Hoover appointee Roy A. Young, who had the misfortune of presiding over Black Friday, didn't even go to college.

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Summers seems to be President Obama's (Harvard Law, class of '91) top choice but he faces stiff opposition in the Senate Banking Committee. Twelve of the 22 committee members are Democrats, which ordinarily would seal the deal. Except that according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, at least three are dead-set against Summers. Two -- Oregon's Mike Merkley and Ohio's Sherrod Brown -- somehow got where they are without passing through Cambridge. The third, however, and maybe the most determined, is former Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, now the senior senator from Massachusetts. She overlapped with Summers when he was president at Harvard, and according to the Boston Globe, is still ticked at him for blocking her appointment as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2010.

If those three Democrats stand their ground, then Summers will need at least one Republican vote in order for his nomination to reach the floor. Which probably can't happen without the approval of the ranking Republican on the committee, Idaho's Mike Crapo. BYU class of '73 -- and yes, you guessed it, Harvard Law '77.

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