Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers thanked the parents of this year’s juniors for giving him the chance to work with their children, saying working with and for the students has been an “enormous privilege” and the “greatest joy” of his time as president.
Summers delivered a short speech at Sanders Theatre on Friday (March 3) evening to parents on campus for the annual Junior Parents Weekend. Attendees greeted Summers warmly, giving him two standing ovations during his talk.
The talk briefly addressed the controversy that led to his decision to resign last month, but spent more time on students Summers encountered whose stories he thought captured the essence of what an institution such as Harvard should be.
He spoke of a young woman born in a refugee camp on the border of Laos and Cambodia who grew up with her parents in a low-income section of Los Angeles and who was able to attend Harvard because of its generous financial aid policies. When Summers asked about her summer plans, the young woman said she was going to return to her birthplace – the refugee camp on the Laos-Cambodia border – to work and help other refugees.
Stories like that illustrate why it is critical to lower financial barriers to attending top-level institutions to attract talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Summers said. Harvard has taken initial steps in that direction by eliminating the family contribution for students whose families earn less than $40,000 per year.
“There’s no excuse for there not to be equality of opportunity, and if there’s going to be equality of opportunity, we as a university have to do our part in making that possible,” Summers said.
He told of another student with an interest in both Latin America and in economic policy who spent a summer working in Ecuador’s Finance Ministry and who was actually in the room when Ecuador negotiated its program with the International Monetary Fund.
That case shows the irreplaceable opportunities available for students overseas and illustrates the importance of providing greater opportunities for Harvard undergraduates to study and research abroad. Harvard is working toward that goal, Summers said, with the numbers of students traveling to other countries increasing from 400 to 1,000 during the past four years.
Summers praised Harvard’s “authority of ideas,” saying there are few places in the world where a freshman in a seminar class can challenge the findings and conclusions of his or her instructor – even the president of an august institution – as one did in Summers’ freshman seminar two years ago.
“And nobody thinks that it’s a big deal, and the only thing they think worth discussing is whether he is right or not,” Summers said, describing the class’s reaction. “That is a beautiful and remarkable thing. And if it happened in more places, it would be a much better world. And so I believe what is most important about a place like this is that it is one of the very few institutions in the world that is about the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority.
“And if there is anything that I want for your students coming out … of a Harvard education, it is a sense that there is no issue that cannot be debated or challenged, that we may never approach personal truth, that we will never find ultimate wisdom, but that the search is a thing of profound importance and is something that everyone can be a part of through their whole lives.”