The Interim Agenda

Derek Bok, Harvard’s president from 1971 to 1991, resumes those duties on July 1 on an interim basis until a permanent successor to Lawrence H. Summers takes office. In late March, shortly before his second visit to campus in preparation for his return to Massachusetts Hall, Bok discussed his emerging perspectives and priorities with Harvard Magazine.


• On possible disarray within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) or other parts of the University:

“I haven’t spent enough time in Cambridge in the last three months to answer that question with complete confidence,” Bok said. But based on extended meetings earlier in March—including with FAS’s Faculty Council and some of the department chairs—he said, “I strongly suspect that there is a widespread desire throughout the FAS to get back to work and put the past behind them.”

• On decanal appointments and other significant vacancies:

Responding appropriately “calls for a delicate balance,” Bok said. “I don’t want to risk making long-term appointments that could cause a problem for the next president. On the other hand, I don’t want to burden my successor with having to make more major appointments right away than a new president can comfortably handle.” To strike the proper balance, he said he would make permanent appointments “where there is a very strong and obvious candidate,” opting in other instances for temporary appointments but doing “enough of the preliminary spadework to ease the task of my successor.” (Moving quickly to fill the most prominent vacancy, Bok in mid March solicited ideas from faculty, staff, and students concerning the FAS deanship. He noted that the Corporation had asked him to undertake this search “immediately,” in the hope that a successor can be in place by July 1.)

Derek Bok
Kris Snibbe / Harvard News Office

• On revising the undergraduate curriculum:

“[FAS dean] Bill Kirby has already asked me to meet with several of the committees involved,” Bok said, and some faculty members have extended invitations, too. “So I will certainly accept those invitations and share any knowledge and ideas that I have, because the subject is not only very important to Harvard but of great personal interest.” (Bok was president when the current Core curriculum was created, and his new book, Our Underachieving Colleges, addresses curriculum design and pedagogy.) But he proceeds with the “clear understanding that the ultimate decisions in these matters are for the faculty to make.”

• On Allston:

Acknowledging that he had not yet studied the plans in depth, Bok noted, “My strong impression is that progress should continue and not be stalled merely because the University is looking for a new president. I don’t think we can afford to have the process bog down.”

• On his general goals:

“I hope that I can maintain the progress that is already under way to promote interdisciplinary initiatives, to improve undergraduate education and the development of science at Harvard.” Bok said he aims to “allow my successor to take office with as few unnecessary problems and with as much helpful preparation as I can provide.” As an interim leader, Bok said, he would not formulate major new multiyear University initiatives, noting, “I think there will be plenty to do maintaining momentum with the ones that we have.” He has already asked each dean and vice president for plans for next year, indicating their goals, anticipated problems, and ways he could be most helpful, so he can begin his tenure with “a pretty good sense of what I need to do to help the University move forward.”

• On the presidential search:

“At my request,” Bok said, “I am not going to serve as a full member of the search committee,” because of his administrative duties. “But I do hope that I will be able to consult frequently.”

He added, “I have no way of knowing how long my tenure will last, but I would say that everyone seems agreed that it should be a lot shorter than last time. I will be mightily surprised if I am still in Massachusetts Hall past June of 2007.”


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