Campus & Community

A provost’s view across a decade

long read

Departing Steven Hyman recalls challenges and changes aplenty

He ran the National Institute of Mental Health and then led Harvard’s expansion into interdisciplinary research during a 10-year tenure as provost. During his final days in office, Steven E. Hyman shared his reflections on a decade in Mass Hall with the Gazette.

GAZETTE: The provost’s job was a relatively new post when you moved into this office. It was only, what, 10 years old at an institution with more than three centuries of history behind it? How did you go about forming the role?

HYMAN: Well, to be really honest, the job, by itself, was not fully attractive.  What brought me back to Harvard was Larry Summers’ invitation to come here and help build interdisciplinary science and engineering.  We shared a sense that Harvard had, in aggregate, the most remarkable faculty and students in the world, but that we were missing the boat in some really innovative areas because of bureaucratic barriers to collaboration.

Harvard was so disaggregated that we were not only failing to benefit from our intrinsic faculty strength in the purest academic sense, but in addition, affiliated units like the Harvard Art Museums, the American Repertory Theater, and the Arnold Arboretum, which had been very entrepreneurial and successful, were in many ways increasingly unrelated to Harvard’s core activities. There were too few undergraduates who were deeply engaged with the American Repertory Theater, for example, and except for history of art and architecture concentrators, there were very few students who had spent serious time engaging the remarkable collections of the Art Museums.

It seemed, once I got here, that we needed to strike the right balance between Schools and independent units and the center of the University.  Some things are better done locally.  But, at the same time, there’s no reason why the problems of the 21st century should happily conform to the academic divisions that had largely been concretized by the 1920s, and, in many cases, by the end of the 19th century.

In short, I had an exciting set of related programmatic goals.  Something had to be done to bridge institutional boundaries at Harvard, whether in the sciences, social sciences, or in arts and culture.  In addition, we owed it to our students to have an experience of the richness of Harvard University, not only of an individual School. To accomplish such goals in a decentralized university, as well as to administer the University more effectively, required the building of a modern Provost Office.

GAZETTE: With the creation of the Stem Cell Institute, the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and the founding of the Wyss and the Broad institutes, the past decade clearly has been marked by great strides in interdisciplinary research at Harvard. Why was it that this area commanded so much of your attention?

HYMAN: The world has been changing around us very rapidly, including the ecosystem of innovation.  One of the greatest risks to a successful and influential institution like this one is inertia.  There is always the risk that we will fail to experiment with our forms of organization, precisely because we are doing well. Temperamentally, I am always a little anxious, a little paranoid, trying to look around corners.  I came to believe, even when I was here in the early 1990s, that we are not fully benefiting from our own strengths because of bureaucratic balkanization.  The reason that such collaborative efforts have required so much attention and energy is that they go against the grain of our institutional design.

GAZETTE: How were you able to cut through the bureaucracy to clear a path for greater collaboration?

HYMAN: It required a lot of listening, a lot of conversation, and then persistence.  I am by nature a very impatient person and sometimes an unforgiving person.  I had to learn patience and flexibility as colleagues raised lots of concerns about new organizational experiments, based on the palpable success with the existing conditions of the University. There will always be someone who sees the administrative burdens of joint ventures or broader collaborations as outweighing their benefits. I do understand that the idea of having a department that is part of two Schools, for example, is a total pain for the deans and their staffs. But intellectually, sometimes there’s no other way of advancing a field that doesn’t fit into any one of our “tubs.” If you consider the Wyss Institute, there was a certain amount of skepticism at the time of its founding. But bioengineering is one of the most exciting areas of science, and it’s one of the most rapidly growing fields of concentration for undergraduates nationally.  It’s an important portal for women into engineering. How are you going to develop cutting-edge bioengineering if you don’t have a joint venture that includes engineering, medicine, basic biology, chemistry, and physics?

I was pretty dogged about things that mattered. You do have to pick your battles, but you can accomplish a lot if you listen to concerns, try to craft win-wins where possible, but ultimately make a decision. We’re lucky now to have an unusually collaborative group of deans who like each other, who work well together.  That was not always the Harvard tradition.

GAZETTE: A lot of what we’ve talked about so far this morning revolves around the sciences, but as provost you also had the theater, the museums, and other cultural institutions within your purview. You’re a neurobiologist. Do you have a personal interest in arts and humanities?

HYMAN: I do.  I majored in the humanities as an undergraduate, and before I decided to head for neuroscience, I was thinking of becoming an academic philosopher or an academic historian of science.

We’re living in this interesting time when lots of our students, in theory, could retreat to their rooms and get their culture from electronic devices.  I don’t think that’s entirely bad, but I do think that shared experiences in a theater that arouse emotion and thought and engender conversation are really critical for our students. I was very fortunate to find in [A.R.T. director] Diane Paulus somebody who wants to have a great theater, who at the same time reaches out energetically to our students.

And think about the University Art Museums.  What’s the difference between the Harvard Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts?  Well, a major difference is that we prioritize our mission of teaching and research over attendance figures.  In fact, I have no attendance goals for the University Art Museums.  I have powerful goals for the engagement of the University.  Again, I was fortunate to find Tom Lentz, an individual who really wanted to direct a University art museum, and who’s using the renovation of the Fogg to build study centers, facilities that will serve students not only of art history, but of many, many other subjects so they can engage directly with art and with material culture.

So, what’s the value of these things?  Why do them?  Well, we’re teachers.  We’re here to help the next generation not simply achieve a skill set for their coming career.  They’re smart enough; they’ll figure that out. We want to create students who can be both deep and broad, who have mental agility across domains, who will apply deep lessons from culture and history even if they go into science or into finance.  Our cultural institutions are exciting and important and make Harvard stronger.

GAZETTE: There has also been growth in Harvard’s international presence. And in addition to A.R.T. and the museums, the leadership of almost all of the affiliates, including the Arboretum and the Nieman Foundation, have changed during your tenure, right?

HYMAN: The key thing about all of these changes is that I really wanted to maximize opportunities for our community to be excited, engaged, challenged, and taken out of their comfort zones. When it came time for transitions, I looked for leaders who were outstanding in their fields but who also really wanted their units to be part of Harvard.  The affiliates benefit from being part of Harvard, but we benefit from having these museums, cultural facilities, foundations, and so forth connected with us.

GAZETTE: Another significant area of change is the transition under way in the library system. Five years from now, what do you hope the libraries look like?  What will be the result of the process that you set in motion?

HYMAN: The library reformation is fundamentally an exercise in thinking about the future, and in recognizing that if the more than two score existing libraries had a distributed veto, we were never going to be able to do interesting experiments about the technological future, and then implement the successes across the University.  When the transition is complete, there will still be a great deal of local intellectual control. Scholars within the Schools and departments know what materials they need. By the same token, I hope that those local libraries won’t have walls between them, but will be part of clusters that can talk sensibly about shared collection policies and think strategically about how we choose to buy this or gain access to that, and how we collaborate.

But above all, I hope the Harvard Library is a place where we’re serving the pedagogical needs of our students, the research needs of our faculty, for the present and the future. The whole notion, to me, of the library is that it should become not only the repository of books and journals and electronic information, but also an active interlocutor in pedagogy, because one of the enormous challenges of the present and of the future is: How do we select among all of the objects we have when we have a question to pose?  How do we encourage people to explore them?  And how do we turn information into understanding?

GAZETTE: So, if in polite cocktail conversation, somebody asks you what it was like being provost of Harvard, what’s the anecdote that you’ll pull out? You’ve met a lot of interesting people; you’ve been involved in all these initiatives.  What are the two or three greatest moments of your time here?

HYMAN: I don’t really think in terms of moments, but in terms of the journey.  I think that the most wonderful thing for me was the remarkable intellectual diversity here.  It’s a lot of work to chair the ad hoc committees on tenure, for example. But I learned so much.  And not just about people’s individual work but about disciplines and departments and the trajectory of Harvard.

I learned so much through the affiliates, too. To go to almost every play of the American Repertory Theater and spend more time in the art museums — what a privilege.  What a remarkable intellectual stretch. No job is fun every day, and this job certainly has its lumps and bumps.  But the rewards come if you’re curious and you’re hungry to learn what’s going on across this amazing institution.

The ancient Greeks thought of happiness in terms of effectiveness in a life of scope.  From that perspective I can certainly say that the scope of my life has widened enormously — even from the privileged positions I had of being a successful academic scientist or leading a federal research agency. That part has been fantastic.

GAZETTE: So, I have to ask.  What was the roughest patch of the past 10 years?

HYMAN: Well, there was all the turbulence.  There were dark days here.  I mean, between the times when there was turmoil surrounding one president, and then, after an interim year, we welcomed a new president, who shortly after she arrived ran into the teeth of a historic global financial meltdown.

But you know what?  We’ve come out stronger.  We have a terrific president who is fully in command.  Yes, the endowment is smaller, and I think it’s glib to say that has a silver lining.  I do miss the resources. But I would say compared to where we were 10  years ago, despite the turmoil and despite the endowment decline, we are undoubtedly a far stronger and more interesting University than we were. I’m proud and lucky to have had a role in that, to have performed acts of midwifery for many wonderful innovations.  It has taken many hands to overcome our bureaucratic traditions and inertia at times. Our successes have resulted from the efforts of many, many wonderful people.

GAZETTE: Now you have a chance to return to your academic roots. What exactly will you be doing during your sabbatical at the Broad?

HYMAN: I decided that if I thought these interdisciplinary initiatives were important for Harvard to participate in, I should participate in them as well.  It feels both exciting and risky.  I haven’t had a lab in 10  years, and I don’t really know whether I can be a useful contributor in some way in science. But I am really very excited about returning to science, for several reasons.

The first is there are some problems that I always cared about that are becoming tractable because of modern technologies and new ways of organizing science.  When I was director of the National Institute of Mental Health, I made substantial interventions in the way we organized and funded research on the genetics of serious mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.  But the technologies in the late 1990s were simply not up to the job.  Now we’re at the edge of getting genetic clues into ways in which things can go terribly wrong in the brain. I would love to have the opportunity to help transform genomic information into biological experiments and even into treatments.

Given my undergraduate humanities background, given my policy engagement in Washington, and given, above all, the things I’ve learned over the last 10  years, I’m also very interested in the interface between neuroscience, ethics, and policy. I have tried to fit undergraduate teaching on these topics into my life.  I look forward to more opportunities to engage undergraduates and graduate students on such topics.

There is an enormous nexus of really interesting ideas and issues that I would like to have the time to think about deeply, rather than in spare moments, at the edge of exhaustion and in hypnagogic states.

GAZETTE: You couldn’t fit that into your 14-hour days on the provost’s job?

HYMAN: I wish they were only 14.  (laughter)  I have a lot of confidence in the future.  I don’t think you can step down in bad times. But I have enormous confidence in Drew Faust, in Katie Lapp and her colleagues, and in the current group of deans.  It is clear that the 10-year mark is a very good time for me to make a transition.  But I think it’s also a good time for the University to bring in somebody with fresh eyes who can engage with the current talented leadership and take this endeavor to the next level.