The International President

On a chilly tuesday morning, March 24, 1998, Neil L. Rudenstine and Angelica Zander Rudenstine, accompanied by a small group of Harvard...

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On a chilly tuesday morning, March 24, 1998, Neil L. Rudenstine and Angelica Zander Rudenstine, accompanied by a small group of Harvard colleagues, entered the crimson-walled compound of Zhongnanhai, in Beijing's old Imperial City--today the heavily guarded home and headquarters of the small group of men who govern 1.3 billion Chinese. President Jiang Zemin, whom President Rudenstine had hosted at Harvard the year before, received Harvard's delegation in the very large chamber where Mao Zedong had worked, slept, and died.

In some ways, the president of Harvard has a tougher job than the president of China. China has one time zone for the whole country; Harvard has different calendars for either side of the Charles River. China is centralized: one country, one party, one leader. Harvard seems like the China of another era, with its independent kingdoms (in former times, "warring states") guided best by the Confucian ideal: the moral suasion of a leader of virtue and intellect.

Yet we cannot underestimate what can be accomplished by moral and intellectual leadership. Neil's visit to Beijing--one of his many trips abroad as president--is only the more public manifestation of Harvard's internationalization during his tenure. Quietly, steadily, forcefully, he oversaw a growth in international studies at Harvard that is remarkable by any measure (faculty, programs, exchanges), but particularly in its reach across a University whose internal borders were once more difficult to navigate than many international frontiers. It is no accident that most of the interfaculty initiatives Neil sponsored had an inescapably international dimension. This is obvious enough in the cases of the Asia Center and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies--but it is no less true for initiatives in environmental studies (with China and India as initial foci) or in the study of mind, brain, and behavior. At the core of these programs was a commitment to a permanent purpose of the University: creating and disseminating knowledge, now unconstrained by the boundaries of departments, schools, or nations. As Neil set out his ambitious agenda for regional, comparative, and global studies to the University Committee on Resources in March 1997, he talked of " ancient as they are contemporary: ideas that have come from the past, and that have now traveled across all boundaries of time and place, stirring the spirit of people everywhere."

In Beijing a year later, Neil spoke at Peking University (known as "Beida"), China's oldest, on the occasion of its centennial. At Beida, a center of intellectual ferment, student protest, and government repression in 1919 as in 1989, Neil spoke "not as a representative of another nation or culture, but as a fellow member of the international academic community." In an era when students on both sides of the Pacific seemed fixated on getting rich, quick, he spoke against an instrumentalist, preprofessional education whose results could be counted in dollars or renminbi. He argued instead for ideas as ancient as they were contemporary--for a "humane" learning, for a "liberal education," and for a "powerful philosophy: the belief that a university education should stimulate our curiosity and open our minds to new ideas and experiences. It should encourage us to think about our unexamined assumptions, and about our values and beliefs." He spoke as a true intellectual to a throng of Chinese intellectuals, and he was met with stormy applause.

Beida's president, Chen Jia'er, a gracious and scholarly host, applauded with vigor. When Neil invited him to Harvard two years later, to lead a delegation of five Chinese university presidents to meet with their American counterparts, a partnership seemed apparent. But upon his return to Beijing, Chen was suddenly and unceremoniously "retired."

Not every culture--sometimes including our own--is tolerant of individuals for whom ideas and knowledge matter most of all. More seldom still do such people come to be leaders. Over the past decade, our University has been blessed with unmatched leadership in the areas that matter most. Harvard has indeed had a president of virtue and intellect.

William C. Kirby, Ph.D. '81, is Geisinger professor of history and director of the University's Asia Center.


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