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Seven years ago, when I was named as the first dean of the new Radcliffe Institute, I said I was deeply honored to have been chosen for what seemed to me the most exciting job in higher education.
Little did I realize then that I’d be standing here today – with all the more reason to say those same words.
I am deeply honored by the trust the governing boards have placed in me. I will work with all my heart, together with colleagues across the University and the broader community, to reward that trust.
I am a historian. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the past, and about how it shapes the future. No university in the country, perhaps the world, has as remarkable a past as this one. And now our shared enterprise is to make Harvard’s future even more remarkable than its past.
This will mean recognizing and building on what we already do well. It will also mean recognizing what we don’t do as well as we should – and not being content until we find ways to do better.
We face extraordinary opportunities. We are on the verge of a new College curriculum that has already deeply engaged the faculty and that promises more coherence, more choice, and more excitement in undergraduate education. We have just received a faculty report calling for renewed and enhanced dedication to teaching. A new advising system has been launched. We have just created a cross-university structure to assure Harvard’s place at the forefront of scientific discovery. We are beginning an expansion into Allston that will provide the space in which to make new connections – among scientific disciplines, between teaching and scientific research, among professional schools, between the community and the University. At the same time, it offers us the ability to improve significantly the facilities for graduate and undergraduate students, for the arts and for athletics. We have dedicated ourselves as well to a dramatic expansion of access to Harvard’s academic community – at every level: with the undergraduate low-income initiative, with the commitment to bring women and minorities into science and into the professoriate more broadly, and with our efforts to make the professional schools more affordable. I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago.
But if we at Harvard are to accomplish all we intend, we need to find new ways of working together, of engaging the creativity of one of the most talented communities in the world. We need to break down barriers that inhibit collaboration among schools or among disciplines, barriers that divide the sciences and the humanities into what C.P. Snow once famously called two cultures, barriers that separate the practice of the arts from the interpretation of the arts, barriers that lead us to identify ourselves as from one or the other “side of the river.” Collaboration means more energy, more ideas, more wisdom; it also means investing beyond one’s own particular interest or bailiwick. It means learning to live and to think within the context of the whole university.
But, for me, today is not about particular programs, or about a list of specific priorities or goals. I have many, many people to talk with, much more to learn, and much thinking to do, before that day comes.
For me, today is about affirming the idea, and the ideals, of a university, of its transformative purposes of teaching, learning, and research. American higher education is hailed as the best in the world, and attacked as falling short. Americans sacrifice and struggle to get their children into college or university, yet mock those same institutions as self indulgent, hidebound, badly managed. American universities were throughout the 20th century the sites of the nation’s most significant scientific enterprise – as well as critical engines of innovation and economic growth. Yet we find ourselves wondering in 2007 whether we – at Harvard or at any other university – have the resources, the organizational capacity, the relentlessness, and the leadership to generate continuing excellence and innovation in the sciences and across the spectrum of knowledge.
What Harvard does in this next decade will serve as an important part of the answer to these contradictions and challenges. What we do will determine not only whether Harvard retains its preeminence. It will help to define the character and meaning of universities for the 21st century – whether they can be supple enough, enterprising enough, ambitious enough to accomplish all that is expected of them – and no less important, whether they can do so while preserving their unique culture of inquiry and debate in a world that seems increasingly polarized into unassailable certainties.
I am indebted to everyone whose efforts have made this University great, and especially to my predecessors – Neil Rudenstine, who brought me here as Dean of the Radcliffe Institute, Larry Summers, whose powerful thinking and impatience for results cleared the way for important new initiatives, and Derek Bok, whose steady hand has kept us on course during this past year.
I love universities and I love this one in particular. I can imagine no higher calling, no more exciting adventure than to serve as the President of Harvard.
Thank you very much.