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Civic Leaders, and Myths about Undergraduate Teaching

Civic-minded Corporation members, and myths about research universities and undergraduate education

July-August 2021

In his installation address, on October 5, 2018, President Lawrence S. Bacow detailed one specific goal: “[W]e will work toward raising the resources so we can guarantee every undergraduate who wants one a public-service internship of some kind.” During nearly half of his now three-year tenure, while the world and Harvard contend with COVID-19, circumstances have not favored that kind of fundraising—and internships that haven’t been canceled have been reduced to virtual status. But consistent with that priority, Bacow has also told entering students (as he did earlier at Tufts) to register to vote; offered tools that ease the process; and commanded them to exercise their franchise: a first homework assignment, and a foundational act of citizenship.

Whatever the outcome of those internships and presidential injunctions, the Harvard community has witnessed a decisive act of citizenship and service this spring.

After Georgia enacted a restrictive voting law in March, Kenneth I. Chenault and Kenneth C. Frazier led a group of black executives and business leaders to marshal opposition to it and clones pending in other states. They were joined in a “Memo to Corporate America: The Fierce Urgency Is Now,” run as a New York Times advertisement on March 31, by several dozen individuals, including James I. Cash and Theodore V. Wells Jr. By mid April, hundreds more leaders and dozens of corporations had enlisted. Frazier, J.D. ’78, is chairman and CEO of Merck. The Business School honored Cash, Robinson professor of business administration emeritus, widely known for breaking racial barriers, by renaming a campus building for him last fall. They are obvious leaders for such a campaign, and no doubt there are others with Harvard credentials.

But the headliners here are Chenault, J.D. ’76, former chairman and CEO of American Express, and Wells, J.D.-M.B.A. ’76, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison—not for their degrees or professions, but because both sit on the Harvard Corporation. Despite modestly greater communicativeness in the past decade, the University’s fiduciary governing board remains a distant enigma to most of the community. When individual members come to mind, it is usually because of some focal interest: for example, advocates of divesting fossil-fuel investments predictably think little of Wells’s role in representing clients like Exxon Mobil and Philip Morris. (As we know from letters received at this magazine, different advocates will loathe anyone criticizing the efforts to disenfranchise voters.)

What matters in this corner is that on a matter fundamental to American democracy, a couple of Corporation members chose to speak out and to lead a debate that the country has to have. One might not have expected that, even under the circumstances. That they have done so says something good about their guide stars—and about the character of those entrusted with University governance, and the possibilities for fostering the kind of civic-mindedness Bacow has sought to inculcate.

When Harvard and other highly selective colleges announced record-low admissions rates this spring (see harvardmag.com/2025admits-21), op-ed columnists were ready. “Stanford Should Clone Itself,” Berkeley’s David L. Kirp wrote in the Times. The Washington Post’s Helaine Olen wrote “College-acceptance fever is out of control. It’s time to spread the admissions wealth”—the latter conspicuously meaning, she wrote, that “Harvard should use part of its $41.9 billion endowment to admit more students—and lots of them. Other elite schools should consider doing the same.”

The desire to see the wealth shared is understandable, at least in theory. Admitting larger, more diverse student bodies, Kirp maintains, would do more to increase empathy across the barriers of race and class than any on-campus programming for those currently enrolled. Strictly rationing the scarce good of elite education is less beneficial for society than expanding the supply. And the resources available to the richly endowed institutions are stunning, particularly compared to those at many public schools (see “The College Chasm,” by Charles T. Clotfelter, November-December 2017, page 50).

But some of these arguments seem wrongheaded. The nation’s very selective institutions collectively educate perhaps 5 percent of the higher-education cohort: expensively doubling their enrollment, if feasible, wouldn’t make that much of a difference. And in fact, a goodly number of them have accommodated more undergraduates: Princeton is undertaking its second 500-person expansion of the millennium, Yale grew by 800 undergraduates during the past few years, and Rice just unveiled a 20 percent enlargement. Not every school can enlarge its facilities and faculty to do that, but some well-endowed ones have deployed their resources thus.

And even granting the absurd competitiveness now afflicting admissions, the familiar critiques do not bring out a deeper truth about undergraduate education at elite, research-oriented universities. Although such institutions differ (Dartmouth and Princeton, for instance, barely register in professional-school offerings, versus, say, Columbia, Penn, Stanford, or Yale), at all of them, research is the coin of the realm. Yes, many of them have excellent, dedicated undergraduate instructors (read about the College’s investments in pedagogy for this autumn at harvardmag.com/fall-teaching-21), and give students who are so inclined access to labs and projects where exciting discoveries are being made. But even the professors who love being in class with bright-eyed undergrads were appointed because of their scholarly prowess: they are expected to allocate their energies among their research, graduate students, and the aspiring A.B.s and S.B.s. Serious undergraduates who want to learn alongside smart peers, with well-trained professors whose obligations are more heavily weighted toward teaching, can fare marvelously at dozens of liberal-arts institutions across the country.

Research universities don’t like to admit this. They stress the centrality of the undergraduate experience to their institutions, which often added professional and graduate education well after they were founded.

But maintaining this myth has costs. Columnists who critique undergraduate admissions while pointing to universities’ multibillion-dollar endowments miss how much of that money supports research and professional education. Members of Congress and state legislatures often make the same mistake, and propose misguided spending rules or formulas as penalties. Some of the intensity surrounding litigation over affirmative action in college admissions might even be ascribed to the golden-ticket quality of getting into a few places, when there are many more worth considering. Perhaps worst of all, many prospective students pin their hopes on acceptance at one, or a few, institutions, when many others—private and public, highly selective and less so—might be better fits.

A dose of demythologizing might serve several constituencies very well—including the elite universities that have wrapped themselves up in this very myth for so long.

~John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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