Campus & Community

President’s Report

long read

To the Members of the Board of Overseers,

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the honor to present my annual report for 2006-07.

One morning last July, I awoke, like Rip van Winkle, to find myself again in Massachusetts Hall after an absence of 15 years. Although the University was not much changed in physical appearance, its problems, its resources, and even much of its personnel were no longer the same. Moreover, the recent change in leadership and the cloud of unfavorable publicity that followed left me wondering what I would encounter in my second incarnation as a Harvard President.

The messages I received after my appointment was first announced were hardly reassuring. Media analysts spoke darkly of a faculty unwilling to countenance any change in its accustomed ways and anxious to seize more power to defend its prerogatives. Even friends who wrote congratulatory messages seemed to regard me much like an aging surgeon summoned out of retirement to operate on a seriously ill patient. Many other well-wishers viewed my return as a major sacrifice and expressed the sort of gratitude customarily reserved for firefighters who volunteer to enter a burning building in an effort to rescue the hapless souls still trapped within.

Fortunately, none of these dire forebodings proved to be correct. The patient turned out to have nothing worse than a transient cold. The faculty, far from wanting to seize more power, seemed chiefly anxious to get back to work and more than willing to do what they could to help the University move forward. Best of all, at least for me, my return to administrative duties proved to be less of a sacrifice than a chance to work on issues of great personal interest and to participate in helping Harvard accomplish more than I thought possible to provide momentum for the new administration of President-elect Drew Faust.

All in a Year’s Work

My initial review of the University persuaded me that I should concentrate on three important projects begun by Larry Summers that could not safely be postponed until a new President took office. The first was a three-year-old review of undergraduate education that needed to be brought to a successful conclusion. The second was the planning for developing our new land in Allston. The third involved identifying organizational changes to make the University more accommodating to new kinds of interdisciplinary scientific research that are highly promising intellectually and very attractive to many of the most talented young investigators whom Harvard has and needs to attract in the future.

Thanks to the efforts of many people, much has been done on each front. With respect to the undergraduate program, a small faculty task force worked exceptionally hard to construct a new general education curriculum with clear objectives and carefully drafted criteria to define the kinds of courses appropriate for each goal. Another task force, led by the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Theda Skocpol, produced an ambitious set of reforms to raise the status and quality of teaching, including better preparation in classroom skills for graduate students and new junior faculty; improved student evaluations of courses; closer attention to teaching in making faculty appointments and setting salaries; added support for experimentation in methods of instruction; and greater publicity and recognition for exceptional teaching and for innovations in pedagogy. Finally, another committee, chaired by Richard Losick, produced a report recommending various steps to improve the teaching of science, including more “real laboratory science” by undergraduates and more opportunities to participate in the research of Harvard faculty.

Having studied the history of curricular reform with some care, I can say with confidence that, taken as a whole, the measures just described represent the most comprehensive group of proposals to improve our undergraduate program in more than a hundred years. Of course, the ultimate impact of these reforms will depend on what is done to put them into practice, but there is every reason to hope that the next dean will work actively with the faculty to make sure that the promise of the new reforms is fully realized.

Work on developing Allston has also gone forward on schedule. In January, the University filed a master plan to describe how the property might be developed over the next 50 years. Under the direction of Stefan Benisch, architectural drawings for the first complex of science buildings are nearing completion so that construction can begin within the year. Architectural plans are also underway for a new art center in Allston for the Harvard University Art Museums to provide them with additional permanent space for staff and public galleries primarily for the display of modern and contemporary art.

Though easy to describe, the foregoing projects are extraordinarily complicated, involving major construction, dialogue with many community groups, and negotiations with a number of government offices — all to ensure a new campus of which we can all be proud at a price the University can afford. Fortunately, we have assembled a team capable of accomplishing such a task under the leadership of an exceptional manager, Chris Gordon, who came to us after successfully completing the massive renovations of Boston’s Logan Airport.

Finally, a number of steps have been taken to encourage interdisciplinary research in science and engineering. Work of this kind poses a challenge for all universities, but especially for an institution as decentralized as Harvard. Research at the interface of several traditional departments is often not rewarded by any. Authorization to make appointments in the new fields can prove to be time-consuming or impossible. Teaching in another Faculty or department is sometimes discouraged. Even graduate students may find it difficult to enroll in the courses in other departments that they increasingly wish to take.

Fortunately, a large group of faculty members — the University Planning Committee for Science and Engineering — worked for a year to identify the obstacles to collaborative work and to suggest ways of overcoming them. Last December, the Committee issued its final report after extensive consultation with colleagues, and the Corporation broadly endorsed its recommendations. As a result, we have now established a University-wide committee that can recommend the deployment of resources and faculty positions to support interdisciplinary research and the creation of inter-Faculty committees and departments to accommodate scientists wishing to work in these new fields.

For Harvard, these reforms mark a major departure from longstanding practice. For the first time, decisions about new programs of teaching and research will be made on a University-wide basis. We will investigate ways in which an on-line inventory of all ongoing scientific research at Harvard could be developed, for the purpose of allowing every investigator to learn of potential collaborators with similar interests. We have already launched a pilot project to evaluate the feasibility of creating centralized structures to arrange the purchase and coordinate the use of scientific equipment too expensive to be acquired and utilized efficiently by individual departments or even Faculties. Ways will be found to minimize the barriers that impede professors from teaching across departmental and Faculty lines. Above all, planning and priority-setting in science and engineering will no longer proceed on a fragmented basis but will be accomplished through a deliberative process involving scientists and deans from across the University.

The Organization of the University

Efforts to bring about the multitude of changes just described prompt me to offer some further thoughts about a problem that has been much discussed in recent debates about higher education. Are universities, as currently organized and governed, truly capable of responding quickly and effectively enough to the challenges that confront them?* Skeptics are not difficult to find. As I was once told by a wise older colleague, the late Milton Katz: “Leading a large university is like trying to steer a dog by its tail.” Recent reports on higher education make much the same point, albeit in less colorful language. A group of past and current presidents from major research universities has announced that “many observers of university life (including the authors) believe that the environment is now changing too rapidly and some external constraints, like the financial constraints, have become too strong to maintain the present decision process.” In a similar vein, a report from the National Commission on the Academic Presidency has concluded: “At a time when higher education should be alert and nimble, it is slow and cautious instead, hindered by traditions and mechanisms of governance that do not allow the responsiveness and decisiveness that the times require.”

It is tempting to believe that the most prominent American research universities are immune from these dangers. After all, according to a recent international survey compiled by a group of Chinese scholars, 17 of the 20 best universities in the world are located in the United States. Harvard is certainly among this group; in fact, the same group of Chinese scholars placed us first on their list. All of our Faculties and professional schools are generally considered to rank at or near the top of their fields, and the number and quality of students seeking to enter the University have reached unprecedented levels. *I will not venture any thoughts in this report about the Governing Boards, a subject that involves somewhat different questions and considerations from those taken up in the following pages. Before congratulating ourselves too warmly, however, we should remember that the seeds of incipient decline often start to germinate long before signs of decay become evident to the outside world. It is appropriate to ask, therefore, whether Harvard will continue to be successful in addressing the challenges facing higher education or succumb to a complacent unwillingness to confront the problems posed by its accustomed ways of doing things and its unusual forms of governance and organization.

This subject has taken on new life in the wake of the unsettling events that have occurred at Harvard over the past few years. People have come increasingly to talk about the need to reorganize and restructure to become a more agile, decisive, and innovative university. What can we make of these suggestions? Are there inherent weaknesses in governance that need to be repaired if Harvard is to retain its position among the principal centers of research and education? Such questions have been much on my mind this year as I have worked my way through my brief, unanticipated return to academic administration.

Listening to discussions about reorganizing universities, I have discovered that much of the talk comes down to a desire to expand the power of university leaders at the expense of the faculty. Proposals of this kind are by no means unique to Harvard. Recent writings on higher education, often by past presidents, include the same recommendation. The most common justification is that the world is changing so fast (“at warp speed,” to use the term currently in vogue) that there is simply no time to engage in widespread faculty consultation without missing out on important opportunities. As the former president of the University of Michigan, James Duderstadt, puts it: “The academic tradition of extensive consultation, debate, and consensus building before any substantive decision is made or action taken will be one of our greatest challenges, since this process is simply incapable of keeping pace with the profound changes swirling about higher education.”

Such pronouncements sound plausible; they play upon a pervasive unease that changes are sweeping over America that existing institutions are unable to address adequately. Nevertheless, the diagnosis does not ring true to my experience. In four decades of observing the world of higher education, I have yet to encounter a significant problem that developed at anything approaching “warp speed,” let alone a speed too rapid to allow for thoughtful deliberation. The one field of university work that comes closest to this description is the world of science. Yet even here, the problem is not that opportunities pass too quickly but that their full significance is not clearly perceived soon enough. If that is the difficulty, the remedy is not to give the administration more power but to create better mechanisms for scanning the environment to alert university leaders at an earlier stage to emerging problems and possibilities.

Looking further at proposals to strengthen the hand of those in charge, I suspect that they proceed from an unspoken premise that unilateral decisions by the leadership will somehow be bolder, sounder, and more creative than decisions arrived at through faculty debate. This assumption has deep roots in the lore that has grown up around higher education. Countless tales have been told through the years about the inherent conservatism and political infighting of university faculties. When asked why he gave up the Princeton presidency to enter public life, Woodrow Wilson famously replied that he “left the hard politics of Princeton for the easier politics of Washington.” The cautiousness of faculties has likewise been celebrated by a series of authors such as F.M. Cornford, who claimed (tongue in cheek) that “nothing is ever done until everyone is convinced that it ought to be done, and has been convinced for so long that it is now time to do something else.”

It is certainly true that professors can resist change and that, like most human beings, they are often loath to give up their prerogatives. For all that, however, American universities have fared quite well over the past 50 years, the very period when faculty power reached its zenith. As the international rankings attest, they have done better than most of our more hierarchical institutions in holding their own against foreign competition. Moreover, when I try to recall serious errors of judgment on the part of universities, I find it easier to think of examples beyond the customary purview of faculties, such as the excesses of intercollegiate athletics or the money lost through expensive forays into for-profit distance education, than to list comparable mistakes at the hands of professors.

It is also well to remember that there are severe limits to what one can accomplish by adding power to the administration. In universities like Harvard, where professors do not belong to unions, the most important activities under faculty control have to do with teaching and research. Such functions are not likely to be improved by removing them from the faculty and placing them under executive control. No one ever raised the level of scholarship by ordering professors to write better books, nor has the quality of teaching ever improved by telling instructors to give more interesting classes. In these domains, good work depends on the talent and enthusiasm of professors. Much of the time taken up by faculty deliberation, however frustrating it may seem, is not wasted. Rather, it is a necessary process for generating the sense of ownership and shared commitment that is needed to elicit the best teaching and research.

Of course, there are other powers that some trustees and presidents might like to take from the faculty and give to the chief executive: notably, the authority to hire and fire professors and to abolish and start academic programs without elaborate consultation. It is far from clear, however, that such reforms would improve the quality of decisions, at least in major research universities. In these institutions, presidents would soon find that their new-found powers were very difficult to exercise for fear of seriously antagonizing faculty even to the point of causing valued scholars to leave.

A much more substantial issue about increasing the effectiveness of universities involves the appropriate division of authority between the Center and the several Faculties. Among universities, Harvard has long been known for its high degree of decentralization. The President can hire and fire the deans and review appointments to tenure, and the Central Administration must approve the budgets of the Faculties and their plans to launch new fund drives and construction projects. Within these limits, however, the several schools have traditionally enjoyed great autonomy in devising their own curricula, setting priorities for teaching and research, hiring and deploying their administrative staff, buying supplies, and more. Instead of bargaining every year with the Central Administration for more money, deans are largely responsible for raising their own revenue and keeping their budgets balanced. As long as they do so successfully, they are left relatively free to develop in the way they see fit.

By most indications, Harvard has prospered under this arrangement. By keeping power so decentralized, the University has given responsibility to those most knowledgeable about the different fields and programs in which its intellectual work goes on. The quality of academic decision-making has probably benefited as a result. Experience also seems to show that the added burdens placed on the deans to raise their own revenue and balance their budgets and the granting of greater authority in return for greater responsibility have made the job more interesting. As a result, most deans have been willing to give dedicated service for a decade or more in contrast to the shorter terms that seem to prevail in many other universities. If leadership falters and individual schools lose their way, the Center can always intervene by replacing the dean or tightening up the review of tenure appointments or subjecting budgets to greater scrutiny.

The most common objection to such a decentralized system is that it is unfair to Schools, such as Divinity, Education, and Public Health, that have important missions but lack the support available to Faculties with wealthy graduates in highly paid professions. This argument seems convincing on its face, and experience appears to confirm it. Harvard Faculties with less affluent graduates tend to be more modest in size and have smaller faculties, smaller endowments, and shabbier facilities than their more favorably situated sister Schools, such as Law, Business, and Medicine.

This much is incontrovertible. But is a more powerful central authority the answer? Presumably, the argument goes, a more centralized administration could collect all the revenues and allocate them among the Faculties to reflect the relative needs and potential of each School rather than distribute resources according to the wealth of its alumni body. If this line of reasoning were correct, however, one would expect to find much better Schools of Education and Divinity and Design at universities with more centralized structures. Yet each of Harvard’s smaller Faculties ranks first or second in its class according to the familiar ratings. Relative to their competition, they seem to have done at least as well as the larger, more affluent Schools.

The reasons for this unexpected result are not hard to fathom. Faculties with well-to-do alumni are likely to prosper regardless of the governance of their university. Wealthy alumni tend to give to the School from which they graduated, and once their gifts are made, their wishes must be respected for moral as well as legal reasons. Moreover, Faculties serving more affluent professions can charge higher tuitions and give lower financial aid than Schools that are less favorably situated. Wealthier units in a university, especially the college, can attract greater support from the central administration simply because they are more visible and seem more essential to the overall reputation of the institution. To those that have, therefore, more is frequently given.

Fortunately, there are ways by which a decentralized university can help its smaller Faculties without altering its method of organization. Unrestricted funds can be channeled to Schools that need them most. Presidential help in fund-raising can be focused on less affluent Faculties, leaving Schools of Business and Law to fend for themselves. Loyal alumni with ample means can be encouraged to take an interest in smaller Schools, all of which have missions of evident social importance. In recent years, Harvard has made considerable progress in this direction. More and more potential donors have been persuaded to become involved in our Schools of Education, Divinity, and Public Health. The Kennedy School of Government now claims an endowment of close to one billion dollars even though it prepares its students for modestly paid careers and began its life as a separate Faculty less than four decades ago with very few alumni of any kind.

Although the most familiar argument for centralization may lack merit, one can legitimately question the extent to which local autonomy has been carried at Harvard, especially in matters of routine administration. A case in point involves the hiring of staff. From 1996 to 2006, the total size of the Harvard student body rose by 6 percent, the faculty grew by 16 percent, and the staff expanded by 31 percent. The rates of staff growth varied greatly among the various Faculties and other units within the University. Overall, however, while the ranks of the Central Administration grew by 16 percent, and the personnel in the central service departments did not grow at all, the number of staff in the Faculties increased by more than one third.

There are undoubtedly legitimate reasons for part of this growth. Regulatory burdens have grown heavier; technology has created needs for new expertise; expectations for service on the part of students and faculty seem to increase constantly. Moreover, most members of the staff are hardworking, loyal, and much more valuable to the institution than students and faculty tend to recognize. Even so, I doubt that all the growth in their ranks can be justified convincingly. It is not hard to figure out why. One can always think of new support services to perform in a large university, and experienced administrators, with the best of motives, are often quick to perceive such needs when resources are available to pay for them. Of course, professors too can readily identify important opportunities for new faculty appointments. However, it is much easier to hire more staff than it is to hire more faculty, and quicker and cheaper as well, since administrators are often free to make new appointments without much oversight if money can be found within their budget, while appointing new professors requires lengthy searches and time-consuming reviews in an effort to maintain high academic standards. Of course, when times are lean, the opposite is true; it is easier in principle to reduce staff. In practice, however, universities are usually loath to lay off employees, the more so since most of them will have found plenty of plausible tasks to perform. Over time, therefore, the staff tends to increase at a faster rate than the faculty even though it is far from clear that this result does the most to advance the mission of the university.

This tendency is likely to continue as long as there is so little overall supervision of administrative hiring throughout the University. At present, dozens of separate offices have power to add staff, provided they can cover the cost in their budget. Greater oversight is plainly needed. Staff increases should be budgeted, and every Faculty should have to include its projections along with the budgets they submit each year for review by the Corporation. Any proposals to hire additional staff beyond the budgeted levels should require the approval of a single designated official within each Faculty.

Other instances of undue administrative decentralization are more prosaic but no less troubling. For example, hundreds of people throughout the University are authorized to buy pads, pencils, and other office supplies. As a result, the University regularly loses the savings available through bulk purchasing and more systematic scanning of suppliers to obtain the best quality at the lowest possible price. The amounts involved can be considerable. Now that the University has finally managed to centralize purchasing of personal computers, savings from this one product alone have amounted to millions of dollars. Fortunately, we have recently launched a more ambitious pilot program for centralized purchasing involving the Law School, the Medical School, and parts of the Central Administration. If this effort succeeds as planned, it should spread to other parts of the University and thus accomplish a result that should have been achieved years ago.

While purchasing may be moving toward a more rational organization, other administrative functions still suffer from excessive dispersal of authority. The basic servicing of information technology affords one example; the administration of construction projects another. Dozens of people in different Faculties still receive, process, and acknowledge checks even though this task could doubtless be carried out more efficiently by a central system.

There is a reason, however, why Faculties are often loath to give up their power to perform functions even when the work involved could probably be done more cheaply by the Central Administration. In the eyes of the Faculties, centralization means taking a function that is important to one’s own people and placing it in the hands of an independent entity over which one has little or no control, an entity one cannot easily call to account for any mistakes and inefficiencies that ensue. Thus, much of Harvard’s administrative decentralization reflects the willingness of its Faculties to pay a premium to preserve control over functions that affect their welfare and that of their members.

Under these circumstances, if Massachusetts Hall wishes to obtain the efficiencies of centralization, it needs to offer some sort of guarantee of good service in exchange. At a minimum, there must be contracts with clear performance standards and effective procedures to discuss problems, register complaints, and have them promptly resolved. Some form of regular reporting must be devised by which deficiencies of performance can be recognized and reported periodically to the deans and to the President and Fellows. As a final safeguard, following a reasonable trial period in which the Central Administration can demonstrate financial benefits and satisfactory performance, individual Faculties and units should have the right to petition the University for permission to opt out and find some other way of obtaining the needed service.

Examples of excessive decentralization are not confined to matters of administration. A prime example is the lack of a common academic calendar. At present, Fall classes begin two weeks earlier in Law and Business than they do in Arts and Sciences. Some Faculties end the first semester before Christmas, while others wait until late January. Spring vacations do not occur during the same week throughout the University. As more and more professors and students want to teach and study in Faculties other than their own, these local idiosyncrasies become more burdensome. It is time they were removed.

Another example of excessive academic decentralization emerged this year in the discussions previously described involving interdisciplinary science and engineering. As a University-wide committee of scientists pointed out, the existence of highly autonomous Faculties and departments was impeding the kinds of interdisciplinary teaching, learning, and research that are among the most exciting new frontiers of scientific exploration. The critical change that ensued was the creation of a University-wide standing committee composed of scientists and deans and charged with recommending the deployment of substantial sums of money and the establishment of inter-Faculty departments to develop new fields of interdisciplinary science.

These reforms represent a departure not only from traditional forms of academic organization but from familiar ways of addressing questions of centralization and decentralization at Harvard. Instead of taking power from the Faculties and giving it to the Central Administration, the changes create new forums drawn from the Center and the Faculties to provide the mix of people best qualified to address the problems to be solved. In the case of the new committee on science and engineering, the proper mix consists of professors who can weigh the potential importance of new fields of scientific inquiry and administrators who also understand the financial implications of pursuing such opportunities.

The creation of this new committee increases the likelihood of building a University-wide effort that can attract the ablest young investigators and produce the most important advances in science. The challenge now will be to convince the participating deans that new interdisciplinary programs are not merely exotic creatures of the Central Administration but important extensions of the Faculties involved that enhance their stature and deserve their willing administrative and financial support.

In the longer run, it seems unlikely that the process just described will be confined exclusively to the sciences. Similar problems exist in other fields as well. For example, teaching and research on environmental issues bring scientists together with faculty from the Law School, the Business School, and the Kennedy School. Efforts to teach leadership and administration in the public sector could profit from increased cooperation among faculty members from the School of Education, the School of Public Health, the Business School, and the Kennedy School. Attempts at collaboration of this kind, however, could easily stumble over problems similar to those that have bedeviled life scientists, causing these endeavors either to founder completely or settle for wasteful, disconnected, and duplicative efforts in several parts of the University. To avoid such difficulties, some forms of University-wide structure may be needed similar to the ones for interdisciplinary science.

In addition to considering ways of encouraging interdisciplinary academic programs, the Central Administration is working with the Faculties to foster a more comprehensive planning process throughout the University. The Corporation and the University Budget Office have long exercised responsibility for reviewing and approving the budgets for the various Faculties and other units within the institution. In the past such reviews were designed chiefly to make sure that budgets remained in balance. More recently, however, the process has been enlarged to include a broader dialogue with individual Faculties over plans and priorities for the future.

In part, these larger discussions are simply part of preparing for fund drives that are becoming ever more University-wide in scope. More fundamentally, they reflect a growing realization that an ongoing conversation between the Center and the separate Faculties and units can produce better results than allowing the constituent parts to develop pretty much as they please so long as they do not run deficits. Individual Faculties will usually have a better sense of their needs and opportunities than the Central Administration, but they can also ignore broader institutional interests or act unwisely for other reasons. They may increase their student enrollments in a short-sighted effort to overcome a temporary deficit. They may be tempted to accept substantial gifts for purposes that stray too far from their basic mission. They may begin to expand in ways that duplicate the work of other Faculties.

These are not new problems. Roscoe Pound once enlarged the Law School student body to a questionable size because he couldn’t figure out how else to pay for the construction of the new Langdell Hall. In the 1960s, several of the smaller professional schools began admitting more and more bright (tuition-paying) students into unstructured programs of “general studies” that had no obvious link with a specific career. By the time I arrived in Massachusetts Hall in 1971, the largest body of students in these Schools were enrolled in such amorphous programs, and no one seemed to know why they were there or what happened to them after they graduated.

Weaknesses in planning can be costly. For example, over the years, the Medical School has built a series of highly distinguished departments of preclinical science of which the University can be justly proud. However, it now appears that few of the preclinical scientists teach medical students and that many of them do research that is more closely related to the work of scientists in Cambridge than it is to medicine or human health. Only recently, after the number of preclinical faculty had grown to more than 100 scientists, did the question of their relationship to the rest of the Medical School become clearly visible when all of the preclinical chairs announced a desire to move en masse to Allston.

Another danger in decentralized planning is that similar programs will emerge in several Faculties resulting in duplication of effort and even competition to recruit new professors and raise additional funds. Our work in health policy and administration offers a case in point. Today, units in this field exist in the School of Public Health, the Medical School, the Kennedy School, the Business School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital, with an added professor or two in the Department of Economics and even the Law School. Little coordination exists among these various entities in mounting educational programs, planning research, or seeking new appointments. Granted, such duplication is not always harmful. Still, when similar efforts spring up in several places without adequate coordination, the odds are great that the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts.

The Central Administration lacks the knowledge to overcome these problems by itself. Faculties will always possess superior knowledge to perceive opportunities, identify needs, and set academic priorities. What the Center can do is to engage the Faculties in a planning process that allows it to ask questions, raise legitimate issues, and help to avoid unwitting errors and short-sighted, expedient decisions. Fortunately, the elements of such a procedure are already visible in the planning process recently instituted between the Center and the Faculties to ensure that incremental funds resulting from the stellar performance of the Harvard Management Company are spent on basic priorities and not frittered away on matters of lesser importance. Gradually, the process is evolving to include such other matters as a review of projected growth in student enrollments, faculty appointments, and size of staff. Once again, however, the trend has less to do with taking power from the Faculties and giving it to the Center than with creating new forums that bring a wider range of views to the process. If conducted properly, the resulting discussions should do a better job of avoiding mistakes and costly oversights while encouraging the University to grow and develop in prudent ways.

Improving Teaching and Education

Although reviews of this kind can stop unwise decisions, they provide no guarantee that the University will react quickly and effectively to new opportunities. There are other mechanisms, however, that help ensure a rapid response to many important possibilities. For example, professors are amply motivated to seek new areas of research in order to improve their chances of making a distinctive contribution. Emerging subjects are regularly discussed in professional conferences and meetings, while organizations funding research, such as the National Institutes of Health and private foundations, are constantly looking for creative ways to spend money and reporting their conclusions to faculty audiences.

The record of pursuing opportunities for educational innovation is more uneven. Most Faculties review their curricula at regular intervals and sometimes make substantial changes. Faculties are also quite prepared to mount new courses of study. In their effort to maintain and upgrade their student body, they are quick to add programs that will attract talented applicants. More recently, they have responded eagerly to opportunities to mount new executive programs, especially those appealing to organizations that will pay well to have their people participate.

Unfortunately, faculties show much less initiative when it comes to seizing chances to adopt more effective teaching methods or to look for other ways to enhance student learning. Examples abound. College professors continue to rely heavily on lecturing to passive audiences even though they claim to value educational goals, such as critical thinking, that could be better achieved through greater use of active, problem-based instruction. Doctoral programs still fail to pay much attention to preparing graduate students to teach, even though PhDs who go on to academic careers will spend more time on classroom activities than on research. Distance learning often remains at the margins of the faculty, especially in private universities, now that hopes for reaping large profits seem to have dimmed. Even executive education tends to flourish only where there is money to be made, while it languishes in areas where prospective audiences cannot afford large fees.

Faculties have shown even less interest in evaluating their own teaching or assessing how much their students learn. It is true that many institutions have recently begun to conduct assessments under pressure from state agencies and accrediting bodies. Data from these studies has been piling up in administrative offices. But faculties have been notably unwilling to use such evaluations to ascertain how well their programs are achieving their stated goals or which groups of students are failing to make substantial progress. Rarely does one find a faculty that makes extensive use of assessments in revising its curriculum or discussing teaching methods.

The sluggish pace of improving methods of teaching was clearly evident at Harvard during my first tour of duty in Massachusetts Hall. Since then, progress has been made, but quite unevenly. The greatest advances have occurred in helping instructors teach more effectively. Our Center for Teaching and Learning, now in its 32nd year, reaches hundreds of graduate students annually and has extended its work to offer orientation and training for new junior faculty. More recently, it has helped to inspire the creation of similar centers in the Faculties of Business and Medicine. And just this year, as mentioned earlier, a task force under the leadership of Theda Skocpol, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, issued a splendid report with a comprehensive set of proposals to improve the quality of teaching further.

Successful initiatives have also sprung up in distance learning, although they consist for the most part of isolated examples begun by individual professors. Michael Porter uses the Internet to work with instructors in 70 different countries to teach his basic course in corporate strategy. Gregory Nagy teaches his Core course in Classics while residing in Washington, D.C., as Director of our Center for Hellenic Studies. More than 100 other distance courses are given under the aegis of the Extension School, which has been a leader at Harvard in developing this new form of education. Over a dozen new experimental courses using the Internet have been funded this year in an effort to expand our knowledge and capabilities in this promising field. Yet there is still no sign at Harvard of any organized effort to explore the potential applications of distance learning through a sustained process of funding new initiatives and evaluating the results.

The least successful form of educational renewal has been the effort to assess how much our students are learning. Only a few attempts have been launched to make such evaluations at Harvard. Ironically, those that have been tried have proved very revealing, identifying striking deficiencies that clearly deserved attention. For example, a study in the 1970s comparing the writing proficiency of freshmen and seniors found that Humanities concentrators had made great progress; that improvements by Social Science concentrators, though not as great, were still substantial; but that Science concentrators were actually writing less proficiently as seniors than they had when they entered Harvard. On receiving these results, science departments acted quickly to remedy the problem. More recently, when evidence appeared documenting the large numbers of undergraduates who were abandoning science for concentrations in other fields, instructors in introductory courses agreed to urge their students to study in groups (inspired by earlier work by Uri Treisman at Berkeley demonstrating the positive effects of group learning on persistence and success in calculus courses). Within a period of a few years, retention rates in science rose by 10 percentage points.

Despite such promising results, efforts to promote assessment at Harvard (and other universities) have encountered much passive resistance. No one opposes them openly, but very few professors or deans express spontaneous interest. This is an odd state of affairs, for faculty members would not dream of examining other institutions in their research without using rigorous methods to evaluate performance. No human endeavor can improve very much without a careful effort to scrutinize how well participants are progressing toward agreed-on goals coupled with an ongoing process of experimentation to overcome weaknesses and improve results. Even so, I returned to office last July to find once again that there were no significant efforts (outside of the Medical School) to evaluate student learning systematically. This year, we have made a modest start by launching assessments of undergraduate learning in the important areas of writing and critical thinking as well as helping to devise an appropriate test for measuring critical thinking in the Medical School. Despite these promising beginnings, there is no guarantee that similar efforts will continue throughout the University once these initial studies are concluded.

The history of attempts to evaluate student learning and to experiment with new and better ways of teaching clearly shows that progress at Harvard and other universities has been uneven at best. This spotty record casts doubt on the well-established practice of leaving matters of curriculum and teaching almost entirely to the faculty. Granted, professors do the teaching and undoubtedly bring a wealth of subject matter knowledge and classroom experience to educational debates. No curriculum can succeed without their willing approval. Experience reveals, however, that faculties often discuss the curriculum without attending to all of its important purposes or considering the methods of pedagogy most appropriate to the task. It is equally clear that most such debates are conducted with insufficient attention to the existing body of evidence about the ways in which students learn, the effectiveness of different teaching methods, or the impact of various curricular models. Once again, therefore, other voices and points of view need to join the discussion. In particular, deans and presidents must have ample opportunity to participate and to urge that particular issues be considered and that relevant evidence and research findings be taken into account.

If this broader debate is to be productive, academic leaders need to strengthen their capacity to inform the discussion. At present, there is no office at Harvard that is specifically charged with searching for interesting possibilities to improve the quality of education — no individual who goes to conferences and scans the literature for evidence of intriguing new research on student learning, innovative methods of teaching, or new ways of assessing educational programs. While the Center has plenty of expertise in critiquing budgets, reviewing building plans, and evaluating other initiatives proposed throughout the University, it contains no reliable source of creative ideas and interesting educational opportunities that deserve consideration. As a result, it is far better at stopping questionable initiatives than it is at stimulating the growth of creative educational reforms. Any effort to strengthen the Central Administration might well begin by remedying this deficiency.

Finding Strong Academic Leaders

While continued growth and success will benefit from new forums for discussion and new voices in the debate, wise and resourceful leadership will remain an essential means to progress. This obvious truth underscores the continuing need to identify and develop capable people to fill positions of responsibility. Finding such individuals has always posed a challenge to higher education for reasons that are all too familiar. Leaders in universities need academic experience in order to gain the respect of the faculty, understand the capabilities and limitations of the institution, and make the critical decisions on issues of education and research. The result is that universities must seek their leaders from a class of people who were not chosen for their administrative or leadership skills and have often had little opportunity to demonstrate such abilities even if they happen by chance to possess them.

This problem is less acute in choosing presidents of universities, since one can usually find provosts and deans and presidents of other institutions with enough administrative experience to allow a search committee to assess their management and leadership skills. The difficulties grow greater, however, in searches for deans, since there are often few candidates who have had much previous opportunity to demonstrate administrative competence and judgment. This deficiency was not so obvious in earlier times when budgets were more modest and the burdens of administration and fund-raising less onerous. Today, however, when a single large Faculty, such as Arts and Sciences, can have a budget approaching one billion dollars, the need for competent leadership has become acute, while the number of professors with significant administrative experience remains extremely small.

What can be done to address this problem? A good place to start would be to overcome the tendency within several Faculties to resist appointing deans from beyond their own ranks. Few living people can remember a dean being appointed from the outside to lead the Law School or the Business School or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Of course, there is something to be said for this tradition. Appointing outsiders undoubtedly carries risks. Such people, whatever their talents, will usually lack the instinctive understanding of local traditions, personalities, and problems that can be critical to making sound decisions. They are likely to arrive with few friends on campus who can be counted upon to give them candid advice, offer criticism when needed, or pass on gossip that can be helpful in giving early warning of developing problems. These handicaps are more than sufficient to justify choosing an insider when other considerations are substantially equal. More often than one might think, however, a careful search yields no strong candidate from inside a Faculty — or at least, none with enough real experience or demonstrated administrative ability to mark them as plausible prospects. At other times, a School may have internal divisions or suffer from excessive complacency. In such cases, an outside candidate may represent the soundest choice. Certainly, Harvard Faculties such as the Medical School have gained a lot from their willingness to look beyond their own ranks for a dean.

Another useful step would be to make a greater effort to create opportunities within each School that test potential leaders and give them valuable experience. Such a practice is commonplace in many organizations but occurs too rarely at Harvard. It requires a willingness by deans to delegate substantial authority to associates not only to chair committees but to actually make decisions on matters of budget, personnel, and other administrative problems. Delegations of this kind seem necessary in any case now that the tasks of administration in most of our Faculties have grown so much in scope and complexity. To help solve the problem of succession, however, deans will have to exercise the self-discipline to give positions of responsibility to potential successors instead of taking the safer course of relying on seasoned veterans on the Faculty who have more experience but are unlikely prospects for the deanship for one reason or another.

Finally, more thought needs to be given to preparing new deans for their responsibilities. When I became Dean of the Law School in 1968, innocent of any prior administrative responsibility, I received no help of any kind in learning how to carry out my duties. So far as I can tell, the same is still true in many of our Faculties. Rather than taking pains to advise their successors, departing deans may bend over backwards not to interfere with their successors, while the latter are often reluctant to seem weak by turning to their predecessors for help. Such reactions may be understandable, but they exacerbate the problem of developing capable academic leaders.

How can we improve on this situation? Although formal training programs exist around the country, they do not hold much promise here, since so much of a dean’s job is dependent on local practices and circumstances. Outgoing deans, however, could prepare extensive background papers to help their successor gain a quick initial grasp of the problems that face them and how they might be addressed. Presidents could take pains to spend time mentoring new deans until they have an adequate grasp of their responsibilities. University officials could work with their counterparts within each School to develop an orientation program to prepare new deans in matters such as budgeting, fund-raising, and personnel administration. Beyond these steps, the University might consider new ways of providing ongoing expert help by such means as using former deans to offer assistance when needed, or creating a small permanent staff of trained academic consultants, or even recruiting outside consultants with experience in universities to help deans cope with serious administrative problems.

Fortunately, a task force of Harvard deans chaired by Jay Light of the Business School has been considering these ideas and developing recommendations to improve our current practices. The advice of this group will surely be valuable in helping us meet our leadership needs more effectively.

Offering Thanks

I have now exhausted my slender stock of suggestions, drawn from a quarter century of administration at Harvard. As I near the end of my final year of service, I have many people to thank. First of all, I must express appreciation to members of the Governing Boards, who have entrusted me with administrative responsibility on three separate occasions and supported me fully throughout. I am also most grateful to Harvard’s alumni, who, to no experienced observer’s surprise, have remained exceptionally loyal to the University through difficult times. I must also give particular thanks to the faculty who have responded to this transitional year with unstinting good will and cooperation. Virtually everyone I have asked to serve on special committees and task forces has accepted and performed with remarkable diligence. I should likewise convey my gratitude to the deans, especially Alan Altshuler, Joe Martin, and Venky Narayanamurti, all of whom agreed to serve beyond the time they would have wished in order to see us through this transitional period. David Pilbeam too deserves our gratitude for filling in ably at a moment’s notice when Jeremy Knowles had to withdraw suddenly for reasons of health. The central staff has likewise responded in good spirit to my eccentric ways while managing to adjust smoothly and professionally to repeated changes in leadership. I would particularly thank Steve Hyman, whose boundless energy, enthusiasm, and ability to deal cheerfully with dozens of problems at the same time taught me how much a good provost can add to the welfare of the University and the enjoyment of its president. Without him, I could hardly have survived the year. Finally, I would pay special tribute to Jeremy Knowles, who gave exceptional leadership to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences through most of the year while enduring more pain and suffering than any of us realized at the time. Truly, Jeremy has set an example of selfless service that none of us who know and care for him will ever forget.

Clark Kerr, that great university president, once told me after years of observing institutions great and small that Harvard still retained something that was becoming increasingly rare among the large universities of his acquaintance — an abiding concern for the welfare of the institution on the part of the faculty and staff. At no time in my quarter century of active administration have I witnessed such abundant evidence to confirm Kerr’s statement. That loyalty has made all the difference in what might otherwise have been a difficult and trying year.

And so, I look forward to ending my administrative service heartened by the realization that much that I care about has come to pass during my brief return to Massachusetts Hall. I leave with gratitude for all those who made this progress possible, with high hopes for the administration that will succeed me, and with renewed appreciation for the special love so many of us have for this remarkable institution.