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"Harvard Can Change the World"

September-October 2006

Lawrence H. Summers met with Harvard Magazine at the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall on June 22. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.

Harvard Magazine: When you were named president in March 2001, and certainly by the time of your installation that October, you articulated an agenda for the University that remained pretty much intact—obviously, fleshed out with details—throughout your administration. How did you come to articulate those priorities?

President Summers: The vision that I articulated in my inaugural speech and that I’ve hewed to reasonably closely and advanced in the last few years was a product of a great deal of deliberation within the Harvard community during the search process. It was a product of many conversations that I had with people in the period after I was named as president. And it was, importantly, a reflection of my sense of the world historical moment and the role that Harvard could play at such a moment.

As I said many, many times, I thought three things that come out of the next quarter- or half-century were going to be in history books 300 years from now. First, the ways in which the industrial countries and developing countries—where living standards were rising thirtyfold in a lifetime—did or did not come together. Second, the transformation in human nature and the ability to curtail human suffering brought about by the life-sciences revolution. And third, the leaders who shaped and managed these broad trends.

It seemed to me that Harvard had central contributions to make with respect to all three. Whether it was my emphasis on opportunity and public service, or the need to refashion the undergraduate experience, or to take cross-university science to a new and different and higher level, or the commitment to cooperation across the University to serve society, or the opportunity to develop a new campus in Allston with the spectacular means at Harvard’s disposal (and little did I know at that moment just how rapidly they would accumulate)—that was the source of the vision.

So, it was a marriage of both internal desire and external imperative.

HM: Obviously, an agenda like that can evolve when you get it into place and are working on the priorities. What were the significant changes, or do you think the agenda substantially held up?

Summers: As I was writing my final Commencement speech, I went back and read my inaugural speech. And while it may have been too optimistic about the University’s ability to change and evolve rapidly, I think the priorities that it set were and are the right ones for the University.

I certainly came during my time in the presidency to appreciate important challenges that we had in doing justice to our art collections, given that the first report calling for the renovation of the Fogg Museum was written when I was two years old. Or assuring that at a time when external funding is moving elsewhere, we do all that we can to support scholarship in the humanities. Some of the really major deficiencies that Harvard has had traditionally in the student activity space and social space and in general in the nonacademic sides of College life were much greater than I appreciated at that moment—I came to realize that much more needed to be done. So, I certainly learned a lot over these five years.

But I was relatively consistent in the vision because I believe—and I think many others, whatever the disagreements, believe—that vision is broadly the right one for the University.

HM: Would you highlight developments under each of the major agenda items, perhaps beginning with access to Harvard?

Summers: As great as any domestic challenge the United States faces is the painful reality that for the first time in our history, the gap between the life prospects of the children of the rich and the children of the middle class and poor is growing. Harvard has been the leader for equal opportunity, and it seems to me that it needs to go to the next level. That’s why we were successful in increasing the size of the lower- and middle-income components of our College class by a third as we eliminated family contributions toward tuition and term bills for any family with an income below $40,000, and now below $60,000. The group Harvard is least successfully recruiting now is the middle class. And so I hope that we’ll use our formidable resources to increase that $60,000 threshold in the years ahead.

Issues of financial aid are also central for public service. In my inaugural address, I challenged the University to extend the principle of need-blind admissions to cover students who want to come to Harvard to work in a health clinic or an urban school or join the civil service. We made great progress by making loan funds universally available to all our students, by providing several hundred Presidential Scholarships [for graduate study], and by creating the Reynolds and Zuckerman Fellowships [for public-service-oriented professional study].

Ultimately, most importantly, we established financial aid as a University-wide responsibility, seeking support from all parts of the University community. Harvard cannot change the distribution of awards in our society. It can change itself to give everyone who wants to pursue a career in public service a chance.

HM: You’ve highlighted science repeatedly.

Summers: Over the next quarter century, most of the following will happen. Cures for many cancers will be found. A vaccine for Alzheimer’s will be developed on the basis of basic research and brain science. Stem cells will show the way towards revolutionary treatments for diabetes and/or Parkinson’s disease. And genomics will usher in a new area of personalized medicine.

Life expectancy rose from 45 to nearly 80 during the twentieth century, and the twenty-first is likely to be one of even greater medical progress. We at Harvard are at the epicenter of that revolution. Draw a five-mile circle around the Yard, the John Harvard statue, and there’s more life science talent than anywhere on this planet. We owe it to the world to maximize this opportunity with our formidable resources. That’s why we sought to fill the gap when the federal government abdicated from stem cells. That’s why we brought together not just the different parts of Harvard but the teaching hospitals and MIT in the Broad Institute. That is why Harvard is building on the great progress that the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences has made by converting it into a school within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). And that is the ultimate potential of Allston: to break down the barriers between schools and between disciplines and departments, to make possible the boundary-crossing enhancements of our understanding that will let us for the first time think about some of science’s most fundamental mysteries and at the same time allow millions more children to know their grandparents.

HM: Science education also figured into your focus on undergraduate education.

Summers: While the last several years have seen major curriculum reviews and changes in several of the professional schools, I am less happy with the progress we made in the College. To be sure, we now do have freshman seminars for all students and faculty-led junior seminars in all the major departments, some terrific new team-taught interdisciplinary courses in areas ranging from the life sciences to traditions of great literature, and we have [the equivalent of] two-thirds of a class studying abroad this year, on the way towards our ultimate goal of every student studying abroad.

But even after four years of deliberation, we have not really succeeded in addressing some of the core concerns with undergraduate education at Harvard—concerns that explain why our students report lower satisfaction than students at most of our major competitors. These include issues of student-faculty contact, which will be helped by the major expansion of the faculty that has been launched, but will also require a cultural change that has not happened yet. While many members of the faculty are enormously dedicated to their students, there is a serious collective problem. The average senior faculty member in the average year spends less than 50 hours in an undergraduate classroom, and far too many students find themselves unable to locate faculty advisers for their theses or other projects.

There is also the very great challenge before us of refashioning general education not as a compromise between competing faculty interests in explicating their specialties, but as a broad vision of what kind of education leading citizens should share. This will, in my view, require moving well beyond the Core, placing more emphasis on knowing rather than simply on “ways of knowing,” and will require a concept of liberal education that gives more weight to the study of what is happening around the world, and to science and its social and ethical indications, than the conceptions that have historically prevailed.

I never thought that I had the right overall theory or concept here, and it is in any event a matter for the faculty collectively. But I would be very disappointed if Harvard in the years ahead focuses on the bureaucratic—on questions like the timing of concentration choice or the availability of double majors—rather than the intellectual. Our students are crying out for their education to be delivered in broad ways that provide them with a foundation. They want and are able to learn more and more about more and more. Too often, given the patterns of specialization and focus that are common today, they find themselves learning more and more about less and less.

HM: And campus development in Allston?

Summers: The decisions we make for Allston can be transformative for Boston and can assure Harvard’s preeminence for another century. We are embarked on exciting plans to construct a first major interdisciplinary science building in Allston and to create exhibit space for the art museum. We are well on our way towards a master plan that will point towards the Harvard of the future, with greatly expanded cultural facilities; spaces to bring together science and those in business and engineering and public health who depend on scientific progress; and capacities to substantially improve the quality of student life at Harvard, and to renew the University’s commitment to public service by providing much better spaces for the education and public-health schools. No one can know how all this will turn out, but it is a once-in-a-century opportunity, and I feel very glad that during my years as president we’ve made our first physical commitments in Allston and moved well along towards the overall master plan.

Science is becoming much more collaborative. We’re having what Peter Galison [historian of science and Pellegrino University Professor] might call a tools-based revolution in science, enabling us to see things we never saw before. That points towards structures that are much less wedded to individual disciplines, that are oriented towards the solution of particular problems or the exploitation of opportunities. It places much more emphasis on flexibility, the need to find ways to hire great scientists for 10 but perhaps not 40 years: to have organizational structures that can take on a topic like stem cells in a focused way for the next quarter-century, but—when the focus has moved to something else—are not still heavily absorbing resources and insisting on prerogative 50 years from now.

My hope is that because Allston is neutral ground—not the felt property of any of Harvard’s subunits—it can become the launching pad for something new that reflects the dreams of the most creative young scientists in the world, rather than being too heavily constrained by the administrative concerns that those with responsibility for traditional entities inevitably will have. The decision we’ve made to create a new school of engineering is one important step towards creating an organizational modality that will promote creativity. Particularly in the FAS, it has been difficult for many scientists—particularly those with cross-disciplinary interests—to feel that they can express all their creative energy.

With all the people who have been involved in this project, I leave with a sense of comfort that Allston is well established.

* * *

HM: From the outset of your presidency, you spoke about the importance of new ideas, of keeping fresh and not resting too comfortably in one’s lovely surroundings, of pushing ahead. In final remarks to the FAS in May, you spoke about not just doing traditional things in traditional ways. You talked to the medical community last December about not letting bureaucratic rules and inaction impede pursuit of opportunities in medical science. In your Commencement address this June, you called yourself a man in a hurry. Are there specific habits of mind, certain disciplines, or schools where you feel these factors have outweighed the zest for discovery and for making the University a place of learning and teaching? If so, where did you feel the friction was greatest?

Summers: I really do believe, as I said in my Commencement speech, that if Harvard has the courage to change, it can change the world. But the courage to change is often hard to find in an institution that has been on top for a long time—and that is substantially balkanized across schools and across departments, and where there is a very great sense of prerogative on the part of many, to the point where veto power often seems to be promiscuously distributed. These are issues in every part of the University, and they are especially issues cutting across the different schools of the University.

There is a fundamental issue for any organization of how much it responds to the greatest opportunities that those within it see, and how much it avoids taking risks by assuring very general comfort before any step is taken. I sought to change this balance in favor of innovating.

Each year, Harvard misses the possibility of making several great appointments because a department is unwilling to vote for someone who makes one or two colleagues uncomfortable. It is hard to believe that the general education system that was right when the Core was introduced when I was a graduate student here in the ’70s could still be right a generation later. We have not created or eliminated a department in the FAS in nearly 40 years. Faculty who come from other schools are always struck by the difficulty of cooperating across school or departmental boundaries here at Harvard. Our failure to heed our students’ desire for a common calendar in all the Harvard schools so they can range freely is a metaphor for a much broader range of issues.

We have more dedicated, creative, and energetic faculty members at Harvard than exist at any other university on the planet. But there is a need, I believe, for a period of reflection on questions of process and governance if the University is to seize the opportunities before it. These issues are less serious in the professional schools, which have developed considerable capacities to cooperate with each other in recent years and are pushed to innovate and held to high standards by the external constituencies represented by the professions they serve.

I am surely not an objective observer, but it seems to me that the FAS, which still has essentially the administrative structure of 50 years ago—a structure where a single dean sets the salary and approves the leaves and teaching obligations of more than 450 tenured professors—has the greatest need for reflection on questions of collaboration with the rest of the University and internal governance. It is only this year that it was able to put forward appointments in what has been a hot interdisciplinary subject for a decade—computational biology. And even after four years of discussion, it was not able to muster a quorum for meetings to discuss the curriculum review.

Another part of resisting complacency is making sure we hire professors before they do their best work, rather than after. I was honored to have a chance to approve the tenure of two people from within the philosophy department, which is one more than the number who received tenure from within during the twentieth century. And there are many more examples. This can bring about a great change at Harvard over time if it is maintained, because it is often the young people who develop their careers here who prove to be the best teachers and the ones who are most committed to their students. Too often when we bring the lions of a given discipline to Harvard late in their careers, their focus is more external and not sufficiently on our students. I hope that emphasis will be maintained on hiring people before they’ve done their most important work, and on placing substantial emphasis on the quality of teaching in FAS appointments, in a way that has been done for a long time in professional-school appointments.

My views are undoubtedly shaped by some of my disappointments. I do think that the record of student dissatisfaction, the record of falling behind in areas of central importance like the life sciences until several years ago, and the deep frustrations that exist in the professional schools all suggest that the whole may be less than the sum of the parts, given the remarkable students and faculty that we have. This calls for reflection on matters of process and governance.

HM: Do you see comparable issues in University governance, at the level of the Corporation and the Board of Overseers?

Summers: I don’t think it’s for me to judge the Corporation and Overseers, other than to praise the dedication of all who have served.

Harvard’s governance structure is unique and was designed at a very different time. When the University is a multibillion-dollar institution engaged all over the world, in some of the most complex kinds of production and service activities that exist anywhere, I think it’s high time to think about whether a governance structure that was designed for a religiously oriented college centuries ago continues to be wise.

* * *

HM: What do you want to do henceforth, as Eliot University Professor, as you set up shop at the Business School and Kennedy School of Government?

Summers: After 15 years in Washington and here in administrative positions, I’m looking forward to a period of reflection and of writing and speaking freely on a wide range of issues from higher education to U.S. economic policy to global development issues to the nonprofit sector more generally. I am really excited about the freedom that a University Professorship will provide.

HM: Are there other issues you want to address?

Summers: I am disappointed by the way my presidency ended. But Harvard is ultimately much larger than any one of us.

I think it is terribly important that everyone at the University remember just how large the stakes are in what we do. We have been extremely fortunate. Because our endowment has performed much better than we could have expected, we have about $7 billion that we could not have planned on even three years ago. This is more than the total endowment of all but three other American universities. While some of that has to be withheld for a rainy day, and while there are a variety of restrictions on those funds, they represent a staggering opportunity for the University to invest boldly—and for those who want to make a difference at and through Harvard to lever their efforts with the tremendous resources at the University’s disposal.

At such a moment, all with leadership responsibility for what Harvard does will be judged by whether the University does things that are truly important—that are noted decades from now. Whether it is new approaches to liberal education, bringing the power of thought to bear on major social challenges, promoting the dream of equal opportunity in new and powerful ways, curing diseases, increasing international understanding, constructing a new campus in a new way, making our library collections available to the entire world, or achieving goals we have not yet conceived, Harvard can change the world if it finds the courage to change itself.