Campus & Community

Remarks of President Derek Bok

long read

Harvard University Commencement

I will have to go back to the history books. I’m not sure I’m the shortest [LAUGHTER] living president. Our first president, Master Eaton, had a rather short tenure. He meant to go on longer, but he was charged, I think, by the authorities for beating one of the tutors almost to death, and his wife was adulterating the food by putting goat dung into the Rolly Polly pudding. [LAUGHTER] He then absconded with a large portion of Harvard’s funds and died in the debtor’s prison. [LAUGHTER] So with a little luck, I can do better than that. [LAUGHTER]

This is my last occasion to report to the alumni and so I thought I might share some parting reflections on the challenges for this University and others like it. In preparing these remarks I realize that more than 55 years have elapsed since I first laid eyes on Harvard as an entering Law School student. I remember coming across a bridge in a top-down canary yellow Chevy convertible, fresh from southern California and ready to scale the heights of legal education. And as I think back on that more than half a century, I realize the University has had many moments of transition, each one with its own special challenge.

In the early ‘50s when I first arrived, Harvard had recently emerged from years of war and depression, and was very much in need of creating a larger, more cosmopolitan university. In 1970, the challenge was to overcome acute student unrest and to create an administration capable of managing a much larger, more complicated institution. In 1990, the task was to capitalize on the nation’s prosperity and build much needed financial strength for the future. Today Harvard has no student unrest. Its administration is strong. Its finances have never been more robust. And so unlike past periods of transition, our future today is marked by opportunities, not by problems. And never in the past fifty or even a hundred years have the opportunities for higher education been more exciting, more far reaching or more important than they are today.

For better or for worse, universities have now become the nation’s chief source for the ingredients most needed for continued prosperity: highly trained people, expert knowledge and new discoveries. How these institutions perform is no longer a private matter, but an issue of great significance to the nation. With that in mind, let me mention five questions that universities need to address in order to live up to these responsibilities and make their greatest contribution.

To begin with, we need to be asking ourselves just whom we should be educating. Universities have long concentrated on teaching young people between the ages of 18 and 25. But quietly over the last quarter-century, two great changes have occurred. Professionals everywhere have come to recognize the need for lifelong learning, so much so that at Harvard today, between 60- and 70,000 nontraditional students come each year, for a week, a month, a year of further education. In addition, technology now makes it possible for universities to educate people anywhere in the world. Thanks to the Internet, Michael Porter of our faculty can offer his course on corporate strategy in business schools in 70 countries of the world, ranging from Finland to Ghana.

And so with these two developments, the audience for American universities has expanded from 18- to 25-year-olds who can manage to visit our campuses to everyone over 18 anywhere in the world. As yet, however, universities haven’t thought enough about how they should respond to this far greater universe of potential students. Distance learning, even executive education, are still add-ons to traditional teaching programs. And so I think universities need to review their educational priorities more carefully. They should ask whether it’s more important to teach a course to 300 students for a semester or to plan a one-week program for the top 25 leaders of a major corporation, nonprofit or government agency. I don’t say there’s an easy answer to that question, but it is a question that deserves scrutiny.

Should universities continue to offer almost all their executive education and distance learning programs on a for-profit basis? Or should they subsidize students and groups that can’t pay, just as they do in their traditional teaching programs? Should schools that educate public servants, such as our School of Education or our Kennedy School, continue to give priority to recent college graduates, who often end up in business or some other private pursuit, or should they concentrate on reaching professionals in mid-career, who are much more likely to continue working in the public sector? It’s time to think hard about questions such as these, and not just tack new programs and new methods of delivery on to ancient definitions of our student body.

The second question: How can we best help students to learn? Recent developments give this question renewed importance. Technology offers novel ways of teaching whose effectiveness needs to be tested and explored. Advances in cognitive psychology suggest innovative ways of helping students learn more and retain more. New techniques of measurement can help us determine how much progress our students are really making. And these are all promising developments. The question is whether universities will make the most of it. For as we know, academic culture is remarkably resistant to seeking new ways of improving teaching and learning. And so in this environment, methods of instruction change rather slowly.

But meanwhile there are signs that the public is growing restive. Outside our walls, public officials and voters who elect them are urging universities to demonstrate just how much undergraduates are progressing. Growing competition from abroad is pressing us to do a better job of preparing our students. And so the challenge now is to overcome our inertia and recognize that we will never improve our instruction very much, unless we discover how much our students are learning so that we can discover where our weaknesses are and experiment with new ways of helping to achieve our goals better. And Harvard, of course, should be a leader in making that happen.

The third question is how international American higher education should become. Leading universities already teach scores of foreign languages. They maintain area centers for almost every region of the world. They enroll many thousands of students from abroad every year. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that we still have only a rudimentary idea of how to prepare students for a world in which their lives will surely be affected increasingly by events beyond our borders.

Today’s world also offers universities countless opportunities to share their knowledge and expertise with other nations. In the past, universities have helped to plan new colleges in Third World countries. They have offered consulting services to foreign governments for everything from health-care systems to economic planning and tax reform. They’ve administered hospitals, created stock markets, started business schools. Today Harvard alone is distributing hundreds of millions of dollars of AIDS medicines in Africa, building a school of public health in Cyprus and training high-level civil servants in India and a great deal more. Some of these foreign ventures have succeeded, others have not. The time has come for universities to examine the record carefully and develop more thoughtful strategies and guidelines for just what they should and should not do overseas. Conceivably they could grow, our universities could grow like multinational law firms and corporations, and build branch campuses in other countries, business schools, medical schools, colleges in other continents around the world. They could launch massive programs to teach students overseas by Internet. And they could hire out to governments to improve their administration, organize health-care systems, upgrade their schools. And all of that is heavy stuff.

But in the process, universities could also overtax their administration, get embroiled in local politics, lose large amounts of money and tarnish their reputations by underestimating the difficulty of trying to transfer what they do to cultures very different from our own. These are difficult choices with answers full of potential both for doing good and for getting universities into deep trouble.

The fourth question is how to make the most of opportunities in science. There are many exciting new frontiers today. High-performance computing makes it possible to manipulate and test vast bodies of data that were beyond our capability only a generation ago. Mapping the human genome opens huge opportunities for improving human health. Neuroscience yields exciting possibilities for understanding human thought, emotions and behavior. Much of this work is vastly expensive. No university can hope anymore to excel in everything. Each institution will have to choose what fields best fit its capabilities. And even Harvard is no exception.

New frontiers of science are distinctive in other ways. They call for working in collaborative groups of investigators, drawn from different disciplines. They also blur the lines, the traditional lines between basic and applied research. Today scientists doing fundamental work on the human genome are not inspired alone by the desire to discover truth for its own sake. They are fired with enthusiasm by the desire to cure malaria, schizophrenia or diabetes. A work of this new kind does not fit easily into the traditional university divided into many separate disciplinary departments and faculties. These separate fiefdoms, which have served universities so well, now threaten to inhibit young scientists who want to study in a variety of fields, teach at several faculties or work with people from different departments, appoint new colleagues whose investigations fall between traditional boundaries.

Here at Harvard, fortunately, a new faculty task force has given us a blueprint for addressing these problems, calling for a University-wide committee to identify the priorities in which to focus our efforts and to create University-wide departments and committees, along with a host of other changes to make the campus more accommodating to interdisciplinary work. These proposals may seem routine to many of you, but they are major departures from our famously decentralized tradition. And we must embrace them in order to do our best work.

Beyond the frontiers of scientific research is a larger problem of science. It is no longer enough that the quality of science in major universities is without peer in the world. If our country is to prosper, excellence in science and math must extend beyond higher education into our public schools. And here American does poorly.

Our high school seniors rank far down the list of nations in their competence in science and math. Part of the problem lies beyond the reach of universities, in decaying neighborhoods, inadequate teacher salaries and the pervasive distractions of a society soaked in popular culture. But there are things that universities can do. They can improve high school texts. They can propose improved teaching methods. They can prepare better instructors. If we are to do our part in preparing society for the future, we must recognize a larger responsibility to promote scientific understanding throughout the educational system.

Last but not least, how can universities nurture and inspirit the humanities? Humanists today often feel neglected and unappreciated. Their critics reply that the humanities have lost their way and immersed themselves in obscure postmodern theorizing about race, gender and class. In years to come those tensions could easily be exacerbated by the growing emphasis on science, leaving humanists feeling more and more marginalized. That should not be. The new advances in sciences offer the possibility of prolonging human life, destroying human life, transforming human life artificially in ways that challenge the very meaning of what it is to be human. In the face of such prospects, the traditional focus of the humanities on questions of value, of meaning, of ethics, are more important than ever before. Such questions are extremely difficult. They do not lend themselves to testable theories or to empirically verified results. But they are no less essential if we are to make sense of the changes that science thrusts upon us and create a society in which we can all live fulfilling lives.

So far from marginalizing humanities, universities must look for ways to encourage humanists to address such questions in ways we can all understand, so that they can help us build a world in which our scientific advances do not overwhelm us, but are made to serve humane purposes.

The five questions I’ve posed present a daunting challenge for Harvard. Earlier moments of transition, as I described them, were marked by practical problems with concrete objectives, quieting student unrest, raising money, improving administration. Today we have to grapple with issues that are larger, more exciting, but less well understood. Who should we teach? How can we best teach them? How can we prepare our students and use our resources wisely for a more global interconnected world? How can we develop appropriate environments and structures to foster creativity in science at time of unusual opportunity? And how can we balance the growth of science by nurturing grander visions for the humanities? This is a much more formidable agenda than I have seen in my lifetime. It is also more significant. Universities matter more to society today than ever before. And what Harvard does is especially important since we now possess the greatest collection of exceptional students, talented faculty and financial resources of any university on earth.

Deciding how to use those remarkable talents for the greatest good is an awesome responsibility of vital interest to everyone. It is an exciting time, a difficult time. But one must go back to the aftermath of the Civil War to find a time with such creative possibilities. On that occasion 140 years ago, Harvard managed to transform itself from an old-fashioned college with some primitive professional schools into a modern research university. The task that awaits us now is to help the University rise again to the challenges it faces so that we can succeed once more in making the fullest use of our exceptional resources for the benefit of all of humankind. Thank you very much.