Whither Harvard?

A new president must rethink the University's academic structure...

In early 1991, as the Corporation was completing its search for a successor to Derek C. Bok, this magazine published "Fixing the Turnips," by Adams University Professor Bernard Bailyn (March-April 1991, page 75). The essay, originally a talk presented at the Harvard Alumni Association's sesquicentennial the prior October, took its title from Bertrand Russell's astonished reaction to the worldly involvements of American institutions of higher education. Of the University of Wisconsin, Russell observed, "when any farmer's turnips go wrong, they send a professor to investigate the failure scientifically."

Bailyn's reflections on Harvard, his own particular institution of higher education, and its presidents homed in on its deliberate engagement with society--an engagement necessarily in some tension with the pursuit of scholarship. "Harvard has never been an ivory tower," he wrote,

a closed universe of scholars talking to scholars and students. It has always been, has had to be, open to the world, responsible to its founding and governing community--hence in the service of society--and yet at the same time devoted to the demands of learning for its own sake. That balance between learning and service is the heart of the institution, and it has shifted in emphasis from time to time.

At the end of the Bok decades, Bailyn called for one of those shifts in emphasis:

In recent years we have had a rich and beneficial turn to public service, mainly in the professional schools. We are positioned as never before, in our powerful professional faculties, to fix the turnips when they go wrong, indeed to see to it that they grow properly in the first place.
But as we begin a new transition, I hope we can conceive of the balance shifting back toward the University's primary faculty--toward the magnet of learning, toward disinterested study, toward intellectual pursuits not for extrinsic purposes but for their own sakes. We are in no danger of forgetting the turnips. The danger is that the University will become a mere holding company for highly publicized, semi-independent service institutes, its original core faculty still respectable but old-fashioned, diminished, and by-passed in importance. I hope in the years ahead we will above all honor our first commitment, which an earlier Harvard president, Josiah Quincy, defined simply as "giving a true account of the gift of reason."

For the past decade Neil L. Rudenstine, a literature scholar with a Harvard doctorate, has been the University's twenty-sixth president. His agenda has included the gathering of humanities professors in renewed facilities in and at the edge of the Yard--but the faculty has not grown in size at all. The major libraries have been effectively rebuilt, or will soon be--not just Widener, but the Law School's Langdell and the Medical School's Countway. Where would Bailyn, now emeritus, strike the balance today? "I come back to what I wrote the last time around," he says. "It's still, I think, the major issue."

Other observers not previously on record, invited by the magazine to comment on the search for Rudenstine's successor, were prepared to forecast the challenges awaiting the University's next leader. At a time of widely perceived rapid change in higher education, they raise questions about Harvard's structure, about the way the president spends his or her time, and about Harvard's role in leading national discourse on the purposes of universities. They caution Harvard not to think it can stand above or apart from the technological, economic, and demographic forces shaping the context for higher education in the United States and globally.

One can imagine other, equally compelling perspectives about Harvard's future in the new century. Underlying all the specific issues, surely, is debate about the University's basic vision, values, and culture. In presenting these diverse opinions--and recalling Bailyn's historical analysis of what distinguishes American institutions like this one--we hope to encourage that debate as it unfolds among faculty, staff, students, and alumni, from the most far-flung to those most closely involved in Harvard's latest presidential search. ~The Editors


Speaking Out, Giving Back

by David W. Breneman


It has become commonplace among faculty today to dismiss the notion of the college or university president as an academic leader. The reasons are numerous, but boil down to the necessity in recent years for the president to serve as the chief development officer, devoting enormous amounts of time to fundraising. Not only does such activity distract from many on-campus academic issues, but, in the view of some, it produces a president who is reluctant to speak out on controversial matters of public policy: every strong statement by a president runs the risk of offending some potential donor. Hence, to many faculty members, presidents have been reduced to largely irrelevant figures, needed for their rainmaking abilities and for ceremonial purposes, but little else.

This view is exaggerated, but nonetheless captures an unfortunate reality of today's academy. One might hope that Harvard's financial position is sufficiently strong that its next president will not have to devote most of his or her time to cultivating donors, a prospect that opens up possibilities for academic leadership within the university and nationally. Countering this hope is economist Gordon Winston, of Williams College, who has described the current state of academe as a "positional arms race": a competitive struggle in which challengers force a never-ending search for more resources, better students, and stronger faculty. If Winston's stylized model is accurate, Harvard should seek an individual capable of maintaining an ever-accelerating pace of fundraising, for the presidency will offer few other options.

Perhaps, however, Winston's model is overdrawn. What then? If the next president can secure the time and space to focus elsewhere, what are the priorities that call for attention?

Speaking as an outsider, I would argue for two activities of central importance. First, the next president should use the bully pulpit that the position provides to speak and write forcefully about vital issues confronting education at all levels. Harvard occupies the premier position in American higher education, and if the voice of its president is silent, a valuable opportunity is lost. The president who would speak out must be enormously skillful in how that is done, of course, but in today's world education has so many vocal critics--and has become a subject of such intense public concern--that not to have a leader's voice from Harvard weighing in on the issues is an enormous loss to the country.

An example may help. In the recent U.S. presidential campaign, education policy figured prominently in each party's platform. Furthermore, for more than a decade, reformers of all stripes have been advocating fundamental change in how we produce and and deliver education, including proposals for charter schools, educational vouchers, reform of teacher education, school class size, and so forth. One might think college and university presidents would have something to say about these basic issues, but with few exceptions their voices have been silent. Presidents such as James Bryant Conant and Robert Maynard Hutchins were deeply involved in educational issues that affected the nation in the twentieth century, speaking out and writing in leading journals of opinion, but those days seem long past. The university leader's role as public intellectual has vanished; the incoming president of Harvard would serve the academy and the country well by re-engaging in such efforts.

Second, I would urge the next president to consider the identification and promotion of a highly visible--and clearly charitable--activity that the institution would embrace as a contribution to community improvement. It is essential that Harvard help to counter the growing criticism that our best universities seem to be intent upon maximizing their endowments--behaving increasingly like profit-making organizations, rather than the tax-favored charities that they are. As the wealthiest institution of higher education in the land, Harvard must take the lead in demonstrating to a skeptical public that its wealth serves public purposes. We have moved during the past decade to a view of education as a private good, capable of being bought and sold commercially, and many of us fear that one consequence of this shift in attitude may be a growing reluctance to continue providing colleges and universities with favored tax treatment (offered because society benefits from the growth of knowledge and education). Harvard's wealth makes it a natural target for critics and would-be tax reformers; it is essential that the next president fashion an agenda that shows why, despite its wealth, Harvard and institutions like it continue to deserve the public's financial support.

Again, an example may help. Recent developments in areas such as information technology and biomedical research have emphasized a proprietary view of knowledge as a commodity to be bought and sold for private benefit, rather than the larger public good. It would be an act of enlightened self-interest for Harvard, led by the president, to demonstrate in a tangible way that the older view of knowledge as a public benefit is still vital. Using the university's own material and intellectual resources to provide consulting and problem-solving services to nonprofit community agencies, for example, would be one way to do that.

Apart from these two suggestions, the search committee need only identify a brilliant scholar, superb teacher, extraordinary manager, charismatic leader, and endlessly energetic person to carry the institution into the next decade. But isn't that the standard charge to search committees?

David W. Breneman is University Professor and dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.


Becoming Nimble,Overcoming Inertia

byNannerl O. Keohane

Harvard's future looks very promising indeed. The extraordinary quality of the faculty and student bodies, a handsome and well-maintained campus, legions of devoted alumni and friends, and an endowment that dwarfs those of all competitors put the university in an enviable position. The Harvard "brand name" is unsurpassed around the world as a symbol of educational excellence. These are precious resources, and it is hard to imagine a situation in which Harvard will not continue to contribute richly to research, teaching, and service to society. It is possible, however, to identify some clouds on the horizon to which the leaders of Harvard need to be attentive in the years ahead.

Terry Sanford, president of Duke from 1969 to 1985, compared being a university president to monitoring a carousel. When you've done it for awhile, he said, you begin to recognize most of the animals as they come around. "I've seen that polka-dotted pony before," you say to yourself, or "That dragon came around just a few minutes ago." The trick is to watch for the animal that you haven't seen before, and make sure to devote your time and attention to that new phenomenon.

My advice to the next president of Harvard would be to watch for those new animals; they will bring some challenges the university may not be well-prepared by its illustrious history to meet. These may occur in the areas of information technology, of new markets for learning packaged in new ways, of new demands on the part of students in various situations, or of new developments in major fields of enquiry that require a high degree of organizational flexibility. Having each tub on its own bottom was a workable strategy when things in higher education moved at a more stately pace. It may not be an advantage when the whole enterprise needs to head briskly in some new directions.

Change is a natural attribute of institutions of higher learning. It is unusual, however, for such a bewildering variety of new factors to arrive on the scene at the same time, and for their potential interactions to be so unclear. The real question for Harvard is whether the institution will be sufficiently nimble to retain its competitive edge in this fluid environment, whether the different parts of the university can work well enough together to take advantage of opportunities that require or handsomely reward collaboration.

A few years ago, pundits issued dire predictions of the imminent demise of traditional campus-based higher education, defeated by the power of the virtual university. As usual, their predictions were much too simplistic; the doomsayers also underestimated the ability of our apparently ponderous institutions to react imaginatively in our own defense. Although we still face significant competitive threats from virtual knowledge providers for certain kinds of certification, higher education has shown a commendable ability to absorb and use the particular strengths of instructional technology to its own advantage.

This is true both in what is properly called "distance education," in which course material is made available to students at some significant distance from the campus, and in the case of "on-line" learning, which can be used to good effect for teaching students on the same campus, indeed in the same classroom, with the faculty members. There are mind-boggling new opportunities in these areas, and Harvard, like all excellent universities, will need to choose wisely how it invests in them. Making such choices will depend not only on faculty and administrative creativity and entrepreneurship, which are not in short supply at Harvard, but also on the institution's ability to coordinate the choices for maximum advantage--in terms of resources expended, economies of scale, and learning lessons from the experience of other institutions and from one's neighboring department.

Most universities these days are exploring significant numbers of new alliances--with other universities in the United States and around the world, and with corporate partners. This landscape is changing very rapidly, and it is not at all clear how things will look when the dust finally settles. The sense of urgency lest all the attractive partners be taken seems misplaced, given all the potential partnerships and the untested nature of many of these shared endeavors. Nonetheless, the configuration of our enterprise is changing fast, and change of this kind rewards institutions that have decisive leadership at the center and can make relatively rapid choices among attractive potential investments.

Each of the schools of the university could, of course, make such alliances independently with counterparts on other campuses; but there has been a sense that Harvard needs no partners to accomplish its own goals. This is not so much complacency--for that does not seem a term that accurately reflects the current spirit in any Harvard school--as insularity. Perhaps insularity will continue to be a rewarding strategy for the university in the years ahead, given its unparalleled resources; but it may not; and the next president of Harvard should find the tools to leverage the advantages of the whole university.

Interdisciplinarity is a watchword in higher education these days, and most universities talk a better game than they actually play. Yet the most interesting questions increasingly crop up at the boundaries of traditional disciplines, and the most creative faculty members work with colleagues from several different fields. Here again, Harvard's traditions do not facilitate collaboration across schools, and this may impede the university's ability to respond effectively.

In all these areas, Harvard has made progress over the past few years. There is reason to be optimistic that the progress will continue. Still, powerful inertial forces are arrayed on the other side. The new leader will need to be both savvy and entrepreneurial in making sure the institution's bets are placed on the right new horses as the carousel continues its course.

Political scientist Nannerl O. Keohane, LL.D. '93, has been president of Duke University since 1993. She was president of Wellesley College from 1981 to 1993.


The Professional and Global University

by John T. Dunlop

Almost imperceptibly, two changes in teaching and the "student" body have transformed Harvard in its fourth century. First, special and executive programs for professional education and training have emerged and flourished, beginning with the creation of the Nieman program for journalists and editorial writers in 1937, the year after the University's tercentennial celebration. There followed the Trade Union Program in 1942 and the Business School programs for advanced management and middle management, growing out of the wartime experience of training supply officers for the navy. All of the professional schools have now developed programs for "their" professionals.

Second, after the scope of recruitment to Harvard College was expanded from New England to a national base in the postwar years, the graduate and professional schools globalized their admissions. In the academic year 1999-2000, while international students constituted only 7 percent of the undergraduates, 25 percent of full-time graduate and professional students came to Cambridge from beyond the United States. International students--those pursuing full-time study on non-immigrant or temporary visas--accounted for 44 percent of the Kennedy School's full-time enrollment in 1999-2000, and for 29 percent to 35 percent of the student bodies in business, public health, design, and arts and sciences. The same trend toward globalization has also carried over to the growing special and executive education programs.

Moreover, these twin developments--globalization of the student body and enrollment in executive programs--have accelerated in the past decade. While degree candidates in all faculties and schools increased only 5 percent from 1988 to 1999, the number of international students increased by 34 percent in the same years. The Kennedy School reports that it had in 1990 a total of 652 participants in executive programs, with 20 foreign students; in 1999, its executive programs enrolled 2,679 participants, with 391 foreign students. International students at the University today come from 123 countries worldwide, with the largest contingents from Asia, Europe, and Canada. Research inevitably follows: the Kennedy School, for example, has set up an office in Washington, D.C., and the business school now has a presence not only in Silicon Valley, but also in Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, with Europe to follow.

In the 1999-2000 academic year, Harvard enrolled approximately as many students in special and executive programs (ranging in length from two days to two years) as regular degree students. Holding aside the special relations between the medical school, teaching hospitals, and continuing medical-education programs for physicians, the Kennedy School had 4.5 times as many executive as regular students, and the schools of education, design, and business all hosted 1,000 to 2,000 executive students. Radcliffe must also be mentioned: more than two thousand people enroll in its seminars. The prospective growth of on-line education is likely further to expand both special and executive programs and the enrollment of international students.

These twin developments have uncontestably contributed to the educational experiences of regular Harvard students in the College and the graduate and professional schools alike. International students enliven class discussion, compel attention to comparisons and contrasts, and encourage professors to widen the scope of readings and analysis. Social contacts in living areas and interactions in class and outside lead to friendships and relationships that expand horizons and understanding. Cases of international practices and institutions are naturally incorporated in courses, raising different questions and broader issues. Not only regularly enrolled students from the 50 states but also faculty members are changed in the process, acquiring a more global appreciation and understanding. The recent diffusion of the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) among faculties, despite some downsides, may enhance these opportunities.

Nonetheless, almost unobserved, the trends toward globalization and executive education have now grown so much as to raise issues that deserve attention and appraisal by the incoming president of Harvard. Are there desirable limits on the size of international student enrollments in graduate and professional schools? What areas of the world should be favored or constricted? What does increasing special and executive programs do to regular educational programs? Has enough attention been paid to the potential interaction of executive-program students and regular students? How do these developments affect the selection of tenured faculty? Do executive programs lessen faculty attention to disciplinary research and growth?

What impact do these twin developments have on fundraising for the central educational mission? Can active alumni associations be developed in most countries, and can substantial financial support follow, given different tax laws? At what costs? Should an overview be taken at the presidential level of the highly decentralized decisions over the past decade that have enhanced these executive programs and globalization? And what role should the new Radcliffe Institute take in these developments as it defines its programs?

Harvard's new president will need to review the University's increasing global- ization and its booming executive-education programs, to assure maximum benefit to, and minimum distration from, the fundamental mission of teaching and pursuing new knowledge.

Lamont University Professor emeritus and former U.S. secretary of labor John T. Dunlop, LL.D. '87, was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1969 to 1973.


The Intellectual Agenda

by Charles S. Maier

Building on the achievements of the Rudenstine decade, a new president of Harvard has the chance to question the institutional premises of scholarship and teaching with a degree of what I'd like to envisage as creative irresponsibility. Thanks to the remarkable generosity of its donors and the sustained ascent of the financial markets, our University is financially flush at least for now. Those who will speak for Harvard can be less preoccupied with the continual fundraising that has marked the last decade. They have the freedom--and the mandate--to reflect publicly on the fundamental changes in the organization of learning that have overtaken the University during the past decade and on the needs of a larger democratic society. Neil Rudenstine has been a splendid president in so many ways: he encouraged alumni loyalty; he has been a wonderful craftsman of the English language; he has been gifted in making his faculty feel respected. Withal, he has left several major challenges for whoever succeeds him: continuing to adjust Harvard to the changing organization of knowledge; defining the university's role in a transformed democratic world; and, as always, tending to the heart of the teaching enterprise, the undergraduate learning experience.

As President Rudenstine doubtless foresaw when he appointed a provost, the traditional compartments of learning--whether within departments or within the larger faculties--are no longer watertight. Interdisciplinarity has increased; newly salient issues such as human rights, environment, and area studies have encouraged cooperation among scholars and an alert curiosity among students. Within established disciplines, traditional lines of inquiry break down: in the fields I know, sophisticated theorizing, on the one side, and a riotous concern with language and culture, on the other, are transforming academic inquiry. All the traditional borders of nineteenth-century scholarship enshrined in venerable departments are being crossed in inventive but profoundly disruptive ways. And this even without taking into consideration the impact of computerization and the Internet. President, provost, center directors, and activist faculty members have all moved Harvard significantly beyond turf battles as they have generated interfaculty seminars and research agendas. But many questions will continue to arise about the allocation of resources, the power to appoint, and the right to offer degrees. In light of the changes underway, should departments control and originate appointments to the degree they have? How we teach and how we carry out research no longer need have--perhaps no longer should have--such an intimate contractual relationship with individual departments and even faculties. The University and its leaders cannot evade rethinking the question of how we organize learning, teaching, and scholarship in the twenty-first century.

Second, a new president should be prepared to propose publicly what role the American university should play in this refulgent period of national power and influence. It is clear that in a world of English as an international language, American financial practices as a world norm, United States military leadership, et cetera, attendance at this university (along with a few others) defines elite status for the new professional class from around the world. But do we not have a further mission? In a society where elites are being recast, but not necessarily enlarged, how should the University work to overcome the global stratification that it simultaneously helps to reinforce? What are the commitments to equality that accompany the University's vast privileges of autonomy and its power to credential learning? The Harvard community will never come to a consensus on such basic issues. But a new president should be willing at least to state the questions persuasively and insistently. We are a private institution, but with a public trust. If self-reflection does not begin here, where should it start?

Finally, we need to look at our own teaching. Harvard's besetting sin is complacency. We believe foreign students should come here to study; but for all the cosmopolitanism of so many faculty members, the College discourages undergraduate students from going abroad--not actively, but in the impediments we raise. This at a time when European universities are multiplying their international requirements. Should not our undergraduates be chased into exile for a year? This may require loosening an increasingly structured set of requirements. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences invented the Core program to re-engage senior professors in teaching undergraduates; we have responded, but often at the cost of remoteness from students in the Core's large courses. In any case, like all curricular solutions, the Core suffers from institutional entropy: its offerings become more like other courses, which can themselves be counted for Core credit; we revert tacitly to distribution requirements. Perhaps it is time to impose a sunset law on this sacred feature of the curriculum.

What a challenging moment for a new president; what a privileged moment to be teaching here--free of money worries, at the probably brief apex of American power and our university's prestige! What a wonderful community of students and faculty and devoted alumni: but how do we remain open to the world and build in the capacity to change? How can this institution, so well-heeled, so increasingly bureaucratized, so relatively content, retain its innovative edge? Large challenges--not ahead, but upon us now.

Charles S. Maier is Krupp Foundation professor of European studies at Harvard.


Beyond One-Upsmanship

by Michael S. McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro

For well over a century, Harvard has stood for excellence in American higher education; increasingly, it is coming also to stand for wealth. All private colleges with significant endowments are facing sharp questions about their nonprofit status. Are these institutions charities, or businesses, or banks? With Harvard's endowment about to surpass $20 billion--enough to provide nearly a billion dollars a year toward Harvard's $2-billion budget--the question will certainly be pressed on Harvard.

What happens if Harvard experiences five years or 10 years more of such fantastic financial success? There is no guarantee this will"


You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Durba Mitra

Harvard’s first professor appointed solely in gender studies

Sarah Wyman Whitman

Sarah Wyman Whitman was an original and compelling figure in late nineteenth century Boston. Very much a public personality, she was a painter...

Uses—and Abuses—of Austerity

Economists revisit an unsettled economic policy.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults