The President on the Podium

Throughout his presidency, Neil L. Rudenstine spoke on many hundreds of occasions, from large, public gatherings, like Commencement afternoon...

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Throughout his presidency, Neil L. Rudenstine spoke on many hundreds of occasions, from large, public gatherings, like Commencement afternoon addresses and University Campaign events, to intimate memorial services for singular scholars and steadfast supporters of Harvard. His topics ranged from the opportunities for truly global research and learning and the evolution of diversity as a core component of education to deft miniatures such as intellectual and personal portraits of honorary-degree recipients and cherished academic mentors.

Fifty-four of these texts, together with a foreword by historian Hanna Holborn Gray, Ph.D. '57, LL.D. '95--University of Chicago president emeritus, and member of the Harvard Corporation--have been collected and published as a 377-page book, Pointing Our Thoughts: Reflections on Harvard and Higher Education, 1991-2001. The excerpts presented here do not aim to summarize Rudenstine's approach to great institutional issues. Rather, they convey some sense of his way of analyzing problems, his frames of reference, his humor and love of language, and his values as he expressed them during the course of a decade of service to the University at the end of the twentieth century.

~The Editors


How do we encourage and protect genuine freedom of inquiry and speech, even speech that may be offensive to some, while also encouraging the development of other important values that are essential to the creation of a community--values such as mutual respect, generosity of spirit, civility, and a genuine desire to understand those with whom we may profoundly disagree?... For us in the University, there can be no compromise concerning either set of values--the academic, or the communal.... We can be civil without being simply innocuous. We can be controversial and provocative without necessarily declaring open season on those who disagree with us. The way we talk to one another, and the tone we use in argument or debate, will often be as important as what we actually say.

~Installation Address, October 18, 1991


When I was a first-year undergraduate at Princeton in 1952, the course I most wanted to sign up for was a famous canonical hit called "Ren and Ref" ("Renaissance and Reformation"). It was taught by Professor E.H. Harbison, John's father....Later, that course took on a greater and intriguing symbolic meaning for me, and came to represent the unresolved dichotomy of Princeton--at least the Princeton of my own era: the fascination with, and indulgence in, stylized excess, juxtaposed with an equally powerful need for Presbyterian or Calvinistic self-purgation and constant moral scrupulousness. In the Renaissance part of Professor Harbison's course, we encountered all those dubious, extravagant, amorous, venal, and aesthetic Medicean and Borgiaesque cardinals and popes, who were then followed so swiftly by Savonarola's sackcloth; by the Reformation's Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin--people who generally disliked large outdoor parties and who reinvented the concept of "Arts Last."

~Introducing composer John Harbison '60, Arts First Medalist,
May 6, 2000


When we are reading Anna Karenina or Dubliners; when we are watching Othello or Riders to the Sea; when we are wrestling with Thucydides, or reciting Keats, Yeats, or Seamus Heaney, we know that we are about as close to the vital signs of human experience as any representation is likely to take us.

...there is nearly always in humanistic and artistic fields a strong pull that ultimately leads us back to an original source--a particular novel, painting, poem, or string quartet; or a great philosophical, historical, or religious text that can dramatize and reimagine life in ways that expand our vision and deepen our sense of what is possible, delightful, terrible, or impenetrable: in short, something that can enlighten us, move us, and genuinely educate us.... If we are fortunate and alert, we may gradually learn how to see more clearly the nature and possible meaning of situations and events; to be better attuned to the nuances, inflections, and character of other human beings; to weigh values with more precision; to judge on the basis of increasingly fine distinctions; and perhaps to become more effective, generous, and wise in our actions.

~Commencement Day Address, June 4, 1998


Those individuals who wish to bear witness to what they believe to be a higher law, or a more sacred truth, should choose paths that very great religious and moral leaders have long since taught us to choose: nonviolence and forbearance, let us say, require more courage, more patience and steadfastness, more religious spirit, and certainly more humility in relation to God, than acts such as those we see now carried out almost daily in the names of the different gods of different peoples. Surely it is time to remind ourselves that we are citizens who live among other citizens; that our civic duties involve civility; that we belong to democracies which deserve to be cherished, not desecrated.

~Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Service, November 15, 1995


[In the latter part of the nineteenth century], another age of discovery--a sort of Magellan-like efflorescence--had begun. There was a more or less unstoppable urge on the part of compulsive tycoons, middle-class classicists, pecunious as well as impecunious botanists, insatiable bibliophiles, and indomitable entomologists and archaeologists to travel, search, unearth, possess, organize, display, study, and, in effect, conquer everything in sight, by amassing collections of every conceivable kind of artifact, manuscript, glacial pebble, rare or well-done book, organic specimen, art object, anatomical revelation, astronomical observation, and countless other phenomena. At Harvard, the Peabody Museum, the art museum, the Warren Museum at the Medical School, the new observatory, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology were only a few of the tangible structures created by this powerful surge of sustained inquiry and acquisition....we might well say that aspirations grew, knowledge grew, the curriculum grew, buildings grew, and the budget grew.

~Mid-Campaign Speech, October 25, 1997


One of the most startling events of my first autumn term [as a young student] was something that I'm sure did not seem to be an "event" at all to anyone else, least of all to my academic adviser, who was responsible for it. I simply showed up at his office, as scheduled, and was stunned to see that the entire side wall of his study consisted of ceiling-to-floor shelves that were absolutely crammed with books.

Yes, I had seen shelves of books before--in the slightly gloomy, Victorian brownstone public library in Danbury, Connecticut, where I had grown up. But it had never occurred to me that any individual human being might buy, read, and actually possess large numbers of books as a part of normal, everyday existence. Even more striking, it was clear that these were, so to speak, "real" books, not textbooks or ordinary school books. And they seemed, collectively, to touch upon every conceivable subject: at least every subject that I could conceive of.

~On an experience at the Wooster School, from a speech at
Belmont Hill School, October 9, 1998


His own advice...was always tentative rather than prescriptive. There were no sudden showers of lists or articles or books one was told to consult. Of course it was important to be reading widely and learning everything possible about the entire Elizabethan period and beyond. But there was always the conviction, which Harry so strongly communicated, that the poetry itself--in my case, Philip Sidney's own work--mattered first and last, and that if one stayed with the poetry long enough, it would sooner or later yield up its secrets.

Looking back, I can now see how his entire way of teaching and advising was so consistent with his own approach to literature and criticism. In his essays and books, he could be systematic and press an analytical argument when he felt it was necessary. But more than anything, he was guided by his extraordinary sensibility, by those wonderful antennae always scanning and picking up the least flicker of any significant literary vibration in the atmosphere. Those qualities, so intuitive and finely tuned, made him the best possible supervisor for a young and uncertain student like myself.

~Memorial service for Harry Levin (who was Rudenstine's
dissertation adviser), October 20, 1994


[The campaign proceeded] in an intensively collaborative way, conceiving of the University as a single institution that must--now and in the future--function as a unity, as well as a collegium of distinctive individual parts.

~Address celebrating the conclusion of the University Campaign,
May 13, 2000


When we think about major progress in most spheres of life, it is not surprising that we tend to focus on political, legal, economic, societal events--on achievements arrived at through great struggle, conflict, and pain. But there are other very profound, if less dramatic, victories that are also difficult, and every bit as vital (indeed, essential) to our ability to make even elementary sense of our world, of ourselves, of our values, and of our purposes.

From this point of view, new illuminating knowledge gained through persistent, deep research--research that can so often seem fruitless and inconclusive while it is in process, knowledge gained through careful analysis, through imaginative as well as incisive scholarship: these are among our most precious resources. Very few things are as powerful in helping our quest to understand other individuals and groups, or grasp the substantiality of what they have experienced or created. Little else will equip us so well in our effort to keep the human record honest, straight, and clear; to keep memory accurate as well as fresh; to make the present comprehensible, or to endow the future with potential meaning and hopefulness.

~Department of Afro-American Studies Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration,
April 8, 2000


In effect,...the poem, and our seminar, became one way of thinking about Harvard as a human place, as well as an academic place. And our few lines of verse seemed to reassure all of us that it was natural--in fact, inevitable--to stumble, and equally possible and natural to recover or restore equilibrium. Indeed, this process was central to the experience of learning, of growing, and of building relationships that would ultimately be more durable because they had been so fully tested.

There have been many wonderful moments during these past 10 years at Harvard. And this week of teaching--of watching young people reach more deeply to understand words, implications, and meanings--was as important an experience as any I have had.

~Remarks on teaching "This Is Just to Say," by William Carlos Williams,
to entering freshmen in a poetry seminar last September, at the
President's Associates Dinner, November 17, 2000


A hardbound version of Pointing Our Thoughts is available for $35 from Harvard University Press ( The text is also available electronically at


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