Installation Academics

A half-dozen symposiums feature Harvard research on AI, climate change, inequality, and more

Person at lecturn talking about image on screen with other panelists

Panelists from Confronting the Impact of Climate Change | PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN SHAW/HARVARD MAGAZINE

The half-dozen academic symposiums convened this morning as an intellectual prelude to Claudine Gay’s installation as Harvard’s thirtieth president covered a broad spectrum of disciplines, knit together by a pair of common themes. In her remarks last December 15, when her election was announced, she spoke of “An urgency for Harvard to be engaged with the world. And a need to bring bold, brave, pioneering thinking to our greatest challenges.” She amplified:

When I imagine Harvard in the years ahead, I see a university that is even more connected to the world. Through our scholarship—the questions we pursue, the partnerships we build to advance and share knowledge; through our educational programs—who’s in our classrooms, whether that classroom is on campus or online, and what we’re teaching; and through our public engagement—how we extend Harvard’s extraordinary teaching and research to have an impact on issues that matter.

The idea of the Ivory Tower is the past, not the future, of academia. We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it. And that means Harvard has a duty to lean in and engage, and to be in service to the world.

So it makes perfect sense that the symposium topics included inequality in the United States (the subject of an initiative Gay began as social science dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, FAS); climate change; the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the academy and the wider workplace; biomedical science and health (from the laboratory to practice and new enterprises); revitalizing democracy; and the future of the academy itself.

The climate change and AI panels draw in part on initiatives established during President Lawrence S. Bacow’s administration, and now gaining momentum across the University, with significant participation from FAS and its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The AI and democracy panels can be seen as twofers: in and of the world, with important roles for Harvard scholarship, and pertaining to the ways in which the University pursues its mission and the societal conditions in which it operates. The discussion focused on the future of the academy brings that focus to bear on the institution Gay now leads in fulfillment of that mission—and also, more closely than the applied panels (on which diverse disciplines are indeed represented), invokes the continuing power of the humanities and arts, on which Harvard was based nearly four centuries ago.

In the spirit of building on strengths and looking forward, the panels feature both known senior professors and newer members of the community.

Harvard Magazine staff members’ summaries of the symposium highlights follow.

Challenging Inequality in the U.S.: New Ideas and Approaches

Four scholars from different disciplines gathered to discuss how research can help reduce American inequality. The panel’s moderator, Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy (and vice provost overseeing implementation of the Harvard and slavery initiative), opened the session by offering three major takeaways. “First,” she said, “Harvard is doing a lot of important work in the space of challenging inequality. Second, ideas matter for advancing real-world change. And third, this work requires collaboration, which Harvard cannot do on its own.”

Imani Perry, Morss professor of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, and of African and African American studies, who traces her roots to slaves brought to America in the mid-1700s, encouraged the audience to remember that institutions are products of human decision-making. To address systemic imbalances, she recommended confronting the “cultural practice of inequality…that people are socialized in ways to disadvantage others along the lines of race.”

five panelists talking to audience
Panelists from Challenging Inequality in the U.S. | PHOTOGRAPH BY MAX KRUPNICK/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Crystal Yang, Boskey professor of law, advocated for more policy-oriented data collection so that leaders can shed unconscious biases. She argued that judges, rather than making bail choices on gut feeling, should find out which defendants are likely to flee or cause harm.

Robert Sampson, Flowers University Professor (sociology; read more about his research here), who studies how the neighborhood a child grew up in affects his or her life trajectory, suggested that cities pursue neighborhood-level reform. “We don’t often think about remediation of lead or the greening of public spaces as a policy to promote well-being in the long term,” he said, “but it actually has tremendous influences.”

Peter Blair, assistant professor of education, who immigrated from the Caribbean, pushed attendees to think about “who is not in the room.” He discussed “degree discrimination,” in which workers who are “skilled through alternative routes” (STARs) are declined job opportunities simply because they lack a college degree.

—Max J. Krupnick


Confronting the Impact of Climate Change: Building Resilience and New Solutions

With a new president in Claudine Gay, who as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences initiated a synergetic, cluster hire of climate scientists, and a new dean, David Parkes, at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, “We’re in a golden moment” at Harvard for engaging the climate problem, said Steven Wofsy, Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science (read more about his research here). He described a current project to identify sources of methane emissions, a powerful but relatively short-lived atmospheric gas, across the United States. From airplanes (and next year, a new Harvard-designed satellite), his team has identified mismanaged livestock waste, natural gas processing leaks, improperly engineered landfills, and refineries that release huge quantities of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere daily.

But what’s new about his project is a Salata Institute-funded collaboration with Knowles professor of history Emma Rotchschild, who is director of the Joint Center for History and Economics. Rothschild and her students have begun investigating the history of these leaks. Why are these places doing what they are doing? This is the kind of question that “I never would have been able” to answer, said Wofsy, without this collaboration. And the answers are critical to crafting societal solutions.

Moderator Kari Nadeau, interim director of the center for climate, health and the global environment and Rock professor of climate and population studies at the School of Public Health, emphasized that the time had come for multidisciplinary action, and the panel’s composition reflected Harvard’s broad expertise in confronting a problem of enormous scope: through education and better social policies; by addressing health inequities exacerbated by climate change; and through art and literature that has drawn attention to this global crisis. As Levin professor in literature and professor of East Asian languages and civilizations Karen Thornber summarized, “the key impediments to climate solutions are cultural, economic, and political.”

Also participating in the discussion were Stephen Ansolabehere, Thomson professor of government; Tamarra James-Todd, Winkler associate professor of environmental and reproductive epidemiology; and Laura A. Schifter, lecturer on education.

—Jonathan Shaw

Harnessing Generative Artificial Intelligence for Learning, Teaching, and Working

The panel, moderated by Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean of science Christopher Stubbs, convened four scholars from diverse disciplines to mull the advantages and liabilities involved in generative artificial intelligence’s markedly public moment today: Amanda Claybaugh, Stone professor of English and dean of undergraduate education (read about the latter here); Isaac Kohane, Nelson professor of biomedical informatics; Karim Lakhani, Hintze professor of business administration (his research and administrative leadership are also covered here and here); and Claire Leibowicz ’16, a doctoral candidate at Oxford and head of the AI and media integrity program at The Partnership on AI.

Panelists shared revelations about generative AI to paint a synthetic picture of the tool’s disruption of knowledge production. Claybaugh, who leads the University’s working group on generative artificial intelligence alongside Stubbs, underscored the importance of harnessing the tool’s benefits without degrading the pedagogical process. In CS50, a course in which generative AI can be “too helpful,” she said, the instructing team devised a generative AI tool that acts as a teaching fellow, guiding students toward self-discovery rather than writing their code for them (read a report on the course and its AI here). “It is imperative that we maintain the integrity of the education we offer,” Claybaugh said. Kohane said that the democratization of these tools has led to patients, many of whom have felt frustrated by the red tape and opacity of healthcare systems, to seek diagnoses on their own—often with shocking accuracy. “There’s a change in the locus of expertise,” he said.

While each panelist spoke from distinct vantages, their central message remained constant: the future of generative AI remains uncertain—and the co-creation of solutions necessitates vigorous public dialogue. Leibowicz, who runs studies to ascertain how regulatory concerns about AI should translate into policy, said student use cases are vital to ensuring sensible guardrails. “We need to be much more participatory about how we do this,” she said. Lakhani considered it “a problem” that so many individuals regard generative AI as a societal inflection point without bothering to learn about the technology. He urged audience members to go online and view YouTube tutorials of how to engineer prompts to feed into generative AI platforms. “You have to be working with it to know its limitations and advantages,” he said.” 

Toward the end of the discussion, Stubbs captured the exhilaration and anxiety intrinsic in the proliferation of AI technologies today. Calling learning about generative AI one of the most rewarding intellectual journeys of his life, he also cited “an apprehension.” “I feel like this tool is a little like handing a toddler a chainsaw,” he said.

—Isabella Cho ’24

Innovating for Impact: Science for the Mind and Body in the Twenty-First Century

When do children start learning to read? When they first speak, or learn the alphabet? In kindergarten? “Reading development,” said associate professor of education Nadine Gaab, actually “starts in utero, because the fundamental milestones of learning to read are sound and language processing.” She studies developmental cognitive neuroscience, especially in language-based learning disabilities, and when 65 percent of American fourth graders are reading below grade level, and worldwide, some “250 million children not reaching basic literacy levels,” her lab looks for answers to this problem by focusing on how academic skills evolve from newborns through late adolescents. How does brain development occur over time and what happens to children who struggle? “School is really your first job,” she noted, “If you fail at your first job? That is really affecting you, seeing yourself, your self-esteem, as a learner,” and has immeasurable consequences in terms of “vocational and economic outcomes.”

4 panelists address audience

Panelist Kara McKinley, assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, spoke about her work on tissue-regeneration research—how the body can inherently heal itself—from studying the uterus. “The uterus can sustain itself without scarring despite relentless cycles of damage due to menstruation,” she said. “Every month during the menstrual cycle huge portions of the uterine lining are degraded and shed, and yet the body can heal from what it essentially a massive self-inflicted wound, perfectly, without scarring.” When 45 percent of all deaths in the United States are associated with scarring and imperfect healing disorders, she adds, “our goal to help our bodies heal better.”

Other panelists also addressed life-science research at Harvard: how to accelerate the discovery of new cures through accurate modeling of the human brain and human diseases; what the body’s defense mechanisms tell us about fighting infections and cancer, and how we can best build and train our immunological weaponry. Arlene Sharpe, Kolokotrones University Professor (immunology), whose lab studies T cell costimulatory pathways and their immunoregulatory functions, spoke to powerful scientific advancements and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. This is just the beginning because there is incredible innovation happening, and this is a truly golden time in this area of cancer immunology and immunotherapy, bringing together basic scientists, translational scientists, and clinicians to work together, she said. And to me, one of most exciting things about being at Harvard is the collaborations that happen here.   

Other participants included Irene Faravelli, postdoctoral fellow in stem cell and regenerative biology, economist Amitabh Chandra, McCance family professor of business administration, and panel moderator Amy Wagers, Forst Family professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, moderated.

—Nell Porter Brown

Revitalizing Democracy

In the symposium, Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, McCormack professor of citizenship and self-government Archon Fung, assistant professor of public policy Yanilda González, Kempner professor of American history Jill Lepore, and Eaton professor of the science of government Daniel Ziblatt examined how to strengthen democracy by considering historical cases and crises that have occurred outside the United States.

After introductions by moderator and Ogletree professor of law Guy-Uriel Charles, the speakers discussed how the United States reached its current levels of political polarization and inability to talk across political divides. “Many of us have a tendency to be justice authoritarians versus small-d democrats,” Fung said, with a majority ranking other political goals over maintaining the integrity of democracy. He stressed the need to privilege “the authenticity and priority of democratic processes over our own priorities as individuals.”

Lepore framed the current crisis in a historical context, pointing to the late 1960s and early ’70s as a crucial turning point when political polarization and income inequality started rising and the U.S. Constitution became “functionally unamendable.” Ziblatt focused on the ways in which the U.S. political process is an outlier on the world stage and particularly vulnerable, saying, “We have a political system that over-represents minority viewpoints” such as that of the extreme right, and have failed to eliminate or weaken counterproductive practices like the filibuster in the Senate.

González pointed to democratic crises in Brazil and Venezuela, and discussed how, in many countries, “societal views on policing and crime are a pretty good indicator of societal tolerance of authoritarian practices,” making resistance to police reform one of the major barriers to strengthening democracy. To conclude the opening presentations, Allen pointed to international efforts to provoke dissention in the United States and said, “We can learn the most about our own weaknesses by asking what the global community sees as our vulnerabilities.”

Throughout the discussion, each panelist offered ideas for reinvigorating democratic governments; some ranged from changes in attitudes like increasing our willingness to make friends with people of different political camps to believing more in direct participation in democracy; others included significant policy corrections like police reforms or the use of “sunrise amendments” to the Constitution.

The speakers concluded by addressing what universities can do to help societies view diversity as a strength rather than a threat. Lepore said that so far Harvard has “has not been a leader…in having a classroom pedagogy and residential life reflect a commitment to civil society and to this notion of citizen assemblies,” while Ziblatt said that the University is best at being a generator of ideas and, “We need to be ready with ideas when the opportunity arises” to implement them.

—Lindsay Mitchell

Looking Ahead: The Future of the Academy

The panel, moderated by Robin Kelsey, Burden professor of photography and dean of arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (also in this podcast), focused on how universities must adapt and change to meet the unique challenges of this moment, ranging from polarization to novel technology to economic inequality. Panelists commented on the need to make higher education more accessible and broaden its appeal beyond narrow silos of learning.

Louis Menand, Bass professor of English, reflected on innovations made by past Harvard presidents like Charles W. Eliot and James B. Conant, finishing his opening remarks by saying “My only advice for President Gay is be bold, as these presidents were bold.”

Durba Mitra, Wolf associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality, similarly called for a renewal of academia’s promise of access and collective justice, noting that “a small fraction of individuals in the world have had access to higher education.”

The speakers agreed on the importance of more cross-disciplinary and cross-ideological disagreement, whether it be the interdisciplinary design courses taught by Megan Panzano, senior director of early design education and lecturer in architecture, or the religiously diverse classrooms overseen by Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church. Panzano argued such collaboration was “not a dilution” of each field but a broadening and strengthening of the participating disciplines.

The discussion also touched on renewing the legitimacy of liberal arts education. Professor Mitra summarized what she saw in the value of such liberal arts teaching in one word: “democratization”—i.e. broadening access to knowledge. Menand said, “It’s always been hard to persuade the general public of the value of having this kind of education,” calling for more public discussion laying out the benefits of such an approach. He continued, saying that “the purpose of liberal education is to free your mind, to think in new ways, creative ways about the world.”

The panelists remarked several times on the challenges posed by the recent Supreme Court decision outlawing affirmative action, noting the continued importance of centering marginalized voices in what has historically been an exclusionary space. The panelists also discussed the importance of Harvard’s global outreach. Menand commented on the large number of international first-year students, praising Harvard for interacting with the global community. Similarly, Mitra repeatedly focused on how women in the decolonizing world are still fighting to secure their place in academia. Finally, Potts touched on the importance of Harvard as a source of moral education, observing “that there are moral demands upon us as we face our future.”

—Aden Barton ’24

Read an account of the installation performance showcase in Gay’s honor, on the evening of September 28, here.

Check back for a detailed account of the installation exercises and President Gay’s address on the afternoon of September 29.

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