Several months after “The Social Network” pushed Facebook’s Harvard origins into the national spotlight, Harvard President Drew Faust visited the company’s headquarters in California to discuss how social networking could and should shape the future of higher education.
Faust spoke at Facebook’s Palo Alto campus on June 16 at an event hosted by Elliot Schrage ’81, J.D. ’86, M.P.P. ’86, Facebook’s vice president of global communications, marketing, and public policy. In a candid dialogue with the company’s staff and interns — many of them Harvard alumni or current students — Faust fielded questions on an array of topics, from the state of public schools to the “Harvard brand” to the value of a liberal arts education.
Although some critics see social networking as a distraction from the classroom, Faust argued that Facebook and the University share a similar focus in the age of information overload.
“In a sense, Harvard and Facebook both serve as filters of information,” Faust said. “You filter information through social graphs. We try to teach people to be interpreters [and] critical evaluators of information, to identify how to use information.”
Harvard has embraced tools of online learning, she said. Harvard students use Facebook to form study groups and learn from one another outside the classroom. Michael Sandel, Harvard’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, has become an intellectual rock star in Asia in no small part because the University broadcasts his popular Justice course for free online.
“Universities don’t have walls anymore,” she said. “Knowledge is global and the way it is reaching out is global.”
Social networks like Facebook play a large role in breaking down those barriers. “Virtual information and interchange builds on and encourages face-to-face” interactions, she said.
What Harvard must do, Faust said, is adapt to the new culture of openness and flexibility brought about by the Internet. Gap years and international travel, both of which the University encourages, have become more popular options for undergraduates, she said. Taking a year off from Harvard — to start a company or follow an opportunity abroad, for example — no longer carries the stigma it once did.
“I really believe universities should not have fixed ideas about what students should do or where they should go,” Faust said. “Instead we should give them the intellectual and other resources of advice and support and information that enable them to make the choices that are best for them and best for the world in which they’re going to live.”
Still, Faust said, a liberal arts education is ideally suited for a rapidly changing world. “That’s the education that provides the foundation for being an improviser,” she said. And the door remains open for those who would like to return to finish their degrees — including Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who left Harvard in 2004 after his sophomore year to work on the site.
“When I talked to Mark in January he said he still has his Harvard email, so he’s still on leave,” Faust joked.