It has been 35 years since Derek Bok was sworn in as Harvard’s 25th president and 15 years since he left office. This July he assumed the presidency for a second time, the only person ever to do so.
Bok will serve as interim president for one year. Although it will be the shortest Harvard presidency on record, it will not be short on activity or accomplishments. There are ongoing projects to be pushed forward, new initiatives to be implemented, and administrative problems to be worked out.
Bok, who since his retirement as president in 1991 has served as the Three Hundredth Anniversary University Research Professor and has both taught and written extensively on issues of higher education and government, spoke recently about what he expects to be the principal challenges of his second presidency.
Among the biggest is the huge addition to the physical campus just beginning to take shape across the river in Allston. Bok plans to keep the momentum going and expects that a major portion of his attention will be occupied in overseeing and facilitating that process.
But Bok is just as concerned with the vision guiding the project as he is with its physical manifestation. Among the issues he is focusing on are the completion of a master plan and the development of a set of design guidelines for the Allston campus.
“Design guidelines are very important because that will encourage a set of structures that have some relationship to one another, in the way that the buildings in the Yard are not identical by any means, and yet you have a feeling that they represent a harmonious whole. Good design guidelines are the way to try to achieve that,” Bok said.
Interdisciplinary research is an important component of the planning and building of the new Allston campus. One of the first construction projects to be undertaken in Allston is a complex of buildings dedicated to interdisciplinary efforts in the sciences.
Bok contrasted the state of interdisciplinary research in today’s Harvard with its nascent existence when he was president.
“It’s striking coming back after so many years that efforts that were just getting started and were in a very delicate state now seem to be well accepted and to be flourishing all over the University. There are partnerships that not only reach across departmental lines but also across faculty lines, from Longwood to Cambridge to Allston, and which are quite unprecedented in my experience. I think it’s quite a healthy development.”
But, as Bok pointed out, the increase in interdisciplinary ventures raises concerns having to do with structuring and managing such work and overcoming obstacles that may stand in its way. Bok said that the report of the University Planning Committee on Science and Engineering, which has been completed recently, brings up a number of issues relating to interdisciplinary activities.
“We know a lot about what kinds of oversight and accountability an individual department and a traditional faculty ought to have. We don’t have a lot of experience in figuring out a structure of governance and accountability for interfaculty committees or cross-faculty interdisciplinary departments,” he said.
Many important questions have yet to receive satisfactory answers, Bok said. For example, when professors cross departmental and faculty lines in their teaching and research, who pays them? To whom do they report? Who fills in for them when their interdisciplinary work keeps them for regular teaching duties?
“All that may not be decided this year, but we certainly need to make a good head start and put forward recommendations and ideas about how these very novel structures will be assimilated into our environment.”
Another of Bok’s priorities is to conclude the review of undergraduate education that has been going on for the past three years. Bok said that he has no intention of influencing the content of the review, but he does have some definite ideas on the subject, which come out of the research he did for his latest book, “Our Underachieving Colleges.”
In that book, Bok focuses not on curriculum change but on pedagogy. He asks why college teachers have not taken more advantage of the extensive research that has been done on the conditions that allow students to learn most effectively.
“Although reviews of undergraduate education all across the country are almost entirely concerned with curriculum — what courses do we teach and in what order and which ones are required — the question of how we teach those courses is at least as important if not more so in determining the ultimate value and impact of a college education,” he said.
While Bok anticipates confronting many challenges over the coming year, there are certain tasks he will specifically refrain from undertaking. These are the things he feels are better left to his successor. Among these are making changes in the organization of the central administration, making large and long-term financial commitments, and making important administrative appointments.
“That doesn’t mean I may not help do some of the preliminary work so that the new president is not overwhelmed with major appointments that have to be made. But I think that to the extent we can, if it’s a matter of choosing a vice president or choosing a dean, that is much better left to my successor than trying to do it myself.”