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Harvard College Fund Assembly Speech

Harvard Business School

Jeremy, thank you very much for that kind introduction. You have demonstrated once again a principle that I learned from Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton said, “Whenever possible, be introduced by someone who works in an organization that you lead.” [laughter/applause]. I’m not used to being introduced in a way that refers to my parents, but when Lyndon Johnson was introduced in a flattering way, he said, “I wish my parents had been here for that. My father would have appreciated it, and my mother would have believed it.”

Jeremy, on behalf of everyone here, thank you for everything you have done over many years for this university. There may be more furrows on Jeremy’s brow than there were 10 years ago, but Harvard’s students are getting a better education than they were 10 years ago, and the Harvard faculty is contributing more to human progress and the advance of knowledge than it was ten years ago. And those things do not come easy — there are some things that are a lot harder than currency crises and tax reform. Thank you, Jeremy Knowles.


Thank you also to those whom we have honored this morning. As we have recognized their efforts, we have recognized through them the efforts of everyone in this room and, might I say, everyone who is listening by simulcast in Spangler Hall, on behalf of Harvard University.

You know, I undertake this trust with great excitement, with great exhilaration, with a great sense of Harvard’s promise, but also with a little bit of a sense of being daunted. Why daunted? Daunted in part because it occurred to me, as I stood in Tercentenary Theatre on that beautiful day a couple of weeks ago, that in a world where much is very transient, I was only the 7th person to receive this trust since the end of the Civil War. That, where I had been the 71st Secretary of the Treasury since 1789, I was but the 27th president of Harvard University since 1636.

And I was daunted in a different respect, and it was the magnitude of the trust — in part, the magnitude of the trust because of the importance of what Harvard does — but in part, the magnitude of the trust because, as the size of the crowd there that day demonstrates, Harvard has so much meaning for so many people. And there are so many people who, throughout their lives, go forth from this campus but always think of it as a kind of home, who care deeply about what it does, who are prepared to be critical when they should, but who always retain a deep sense of loyalty to Harvard and to its mission.

You know, it is common in moments like this, and I think inevitable and appropriate, to place whatever one says in the context of what I believe was a world changing event, on September 11th. Changing in a security sense for the United States, changing in a foreign policy sense for the United States. It was a tragedy of extraordinary proportions for those involved, for the City of New York.

But I believe, most fundamentally, an event which puts in question the things we took for granted: the notions of hope for the future, optimism about the future, construction of a better world for the future, and building stronger, better, and wiser communities. That was what was challenged on September 11th; that is what is at stake in the struggle in which we are all engaged.

And that is Harvard’s struggle. It is Harvard’s struggle because what is called into question are the very things that Harvard is all about. The reason I was so excited to have the opportunity to hold the position I now hold is that I believe that Harvard’s two missions of teaching young people, preparing them to lead in our society, and developing and implementing new ideas, are the two most fundamental things that will shape the century into which we are now heading.

For if you think about what a history book written 100 years from now will have to say about this period, it will be about ideas and about the people who brought them forth and implemented them. It will be about what came forth from this campus and campuses like this one. And so, maintaining and strengthening our work to build a better world has always been profoundly important, and it is, today, more important because of what happened on September 11th.

And that is why it is so gratifying to me that, in the face of an environment for travel that is more difficult, in the face of a mood that is more jittery, so many of you have been prepared to come to this campus and to be together with each other on this occasion.

What is Harvard’s work? I think before looking forward it is a good idea to look backward and think about one way in which Harvard is very special. We live in a world that is defined by what statisticians call “regression to the mean.” Regression to the mean is the proposition that things go back to normal, that Einstein’s children will not be as smart as he was, that the stock which does best over the last decade is unlikely to do best over the next decade.

But every law has a counter-example, and Harvard is that counter-example. Harvard was preeminent a century ago, and it is preeminent today, and probably more preeminent now than it was a century ago.

And if you think about preeminence in almost any other sphere, in 1900, you will not find that it could be maintained for a full century. Why has Harvard been able to do that? In his otherwise graceful introduction, Dean Knowles committed a cardinal sin, which was stealing his leader’s line [laughter]. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is he’s demonstrated that he’s learned the right lessons. I will prefer to adopt the latter view.

Jeremy talked about Harvard never being complacent, Harvard never being prepared to settle for things the way they are. That’s been the Harvard story for a century. A century ago, Harvard was a university where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen humanistic subjects. That was what happened at Harvard a century ago, and it was great, it was the best place that did it.

Today, Harvard is open to gentlemen and women from around the world. Today, Harvard is open to students of all faiths, students of all ethnic classes, students of all states, students of all nations, students of all financial backgrounds. They do not pursue single lines of prescribed inquiry but they are free to sample from the widest intellectual array that I believe has ever been available to students anywhere.

Harvard today is asking, always, how it can be better for the years ahead. I had a chance to speak, at my installation, about what seemed to me to be the most crucial issues for the University in the years ahead. I highlighted four as being most important. The first, to which I’ll return in a few moments, is strengthening the undergraduate experience at Harvard College, because Harvard College is the center and will always be the center of this University.

The second was the importance of bringing the University together in support of common University values. In part, that’s a matter of more intellectual initiatives that knit together traditional disciplines; in part, that goes to what is a historic opportunity now available for the University with our new campus in Allston. We have several Harvard Yards’ worth of academic space potentially available to us in — just across the Charles River. We are the only urban university in the United States that has capacity for significant expansion.

We will need to choose how to use that space wisely, and choose as a community. There will be controversy. But I would just say this. The people who decided, 75 years ago, to move the Business School from a couple of small buildings near where Eliot House is today to a swamp in what appeared to be a remote area of Boston, made an enormous contribution to the development of American capitalism.

The people who, a quarter century ago, decided that yes, it was worth moving out of the second floor of the Littauer Building to what was then a very — and believe me, I was there — a very ugly train yard by the river, and created the Kennedy School, left behind an enormously vital institution that makes a great contribution to American government and American public service.

I can’t tell you yet what the right way to use this space for the University is. But I do know that it will define what Harvard is like, not just three decades from now, but what Harvard is like when people come back in 2101 to think about this University and its future.

There is another University-wide value that I think we need to increasingly think about in University-wide terms. There are enormous complexities, and we’ll have plenty of time to talk about them. But sometimes simple principles are helpful. We are very proud that any student can come to Harvard College regardless of their financial need. Harvard University cannot say the same thing. There are students who want to come to Harvard to learn to be scholars or teachers or public health professionals or doctors, who are not able to come because their families do not have enough money. That is a University-wide issue and it is one we will need to find ways to address in years ahead.

Science. Because of Jeremy’s leadership the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the curriculum in science, is much stronger than it was a decade ago. But I say to you that, in this room — and I believe too much among our student body — it would be unacceptable and embarrassing to admit to total ignorance of Shakespeare, but not knowing the difference between a gene and chromosome, or not knowing the meaning of exponential growth — well, those are considered technical subjects and it is OK not to fully understand them.

That might have been all right a half century ago. It might even have been all right when I went to college a quarter century ago. But at a time when you have to understand the life sciences to go to a doctor; at a time when you have to understand cognitive science and the nature of intelligence to function effectively on computers and with the Internet; at a time when the very conception of what it means to be a human is at issue with the development of cloning technologies; at a time when we are so fortunate to be alive, when mankind is able to sit on this planet, in buildings, people who live for a human life span, and understand what happened in the first billionth of a second — in detail — of the cosmos six billion years ago. We are indeed fortunate enough to be alive when all of that is happening.

We have to expect more, develop more, and do more to promote a general understanding of science. And, as was always true at a university like this one, what happens in teaching has to be linked and connected with what happens in research. And the nature of science is changing very profoundly in some areas. There are academic papers now published in particle physics that have 350 co-authors. Progress in the life sciences is coming, in substantial part, from projects that cost over a billion dollars.

We don’t know where things are going to go, exactly. What I think we do know is that the traditional apprenticeship system — professor who teaches and works with six graduate students, graduate students become post-docs, post-docs work in the lab, eventually they leave to a separate laboratory — that apprenticeship model of science will always have its place, but it will not be the whole story of science in the years ahead.

Part of that is accommodating the scale of science; part of that is finding the right ways to cooperate with the private sector in the scientific arena; part of that is finding ways of promoting combinations across all parts of our University.

This is particularly important in the life sciences. You know, life expectancy in 1900 for an American was to live to the same age that I am right now. My daughters can plausibly hope to live to more than 100, if science continues its progress. And the 20th was the century of physics, the 21st century is going to be the century of biology. And we will need to make sure that our Medical School, that our Faculty of Arts and Sciences, are cooperating as effectively as they can in those areas.

We will need also to embrace what are the twin phenomena that are changing the global system: information technology and globalization. You know one is never sure about how and when to use clichés. On the one hand, clichés are clichés. On the other hand, they become clichés because they’re true. And I believe the proposition that the Internet is the most fundamental change in the way knowledge is created and disseminated since the printing press is both a cliché and a truth.

We do not yet know how it will change the work of the University. What we’ve always found in the past with disruptive technologies is that the first and less successful stage is when they are used to do things that were being done before a bit better, and that the real change comes when different things are invented and when different things can be done because of the new technology.

I had the highly “cautionary” experience over the summer, of reading President Pusey’s 1958 address to the Harvard College Fund, at which he stressed the fact that the world was going to be transformed by educational television [laughter]. So one does need to be cautious and one does need to insist on standards, and I have observed, by the way, that those who have accents like those of Dean Knowles tend to be extraordinarily resistant to the dropping of standards in favor of new innovation. And on behalf of all of us, we are very glad that it is so.

So I don’t know the answers and that’s why I’m not trying to give you any answers. What I do know is that universities are going to be very different places 50 years from now, from now than they are today, and that is going to have something to do with the development of this technology, and thinking about this and staying with it and making the right decisions will have a great deal to do with Harvard’s preeminence.

But let me come back to where I started, and that is with Harvard College. I want to tell you about my freshman advisee. He is probably not an entirely average student, but he’s not a totally atypical student. Well, the first thing to say about him is that he got 5’s on 14 AP tests. Now, silly me, I didn’t know there were 14 AP tests. And, you know, when I was at the Treasury Department, one of the things the Treasury Department was involved in was, through its office of foreign assets control, the enforcing of the embargo with respect to Cuba. So I knew a certain amount about U.S.-Cuba relations and the set of issues around the embargo. I, unlike my freshman advisee, however, had never written a 200-page paper analyzing my own approach to U.S. relations with Cuba.

I’ve done a certain amount of research, and I had even done a certain amount of research before I was 21, but I had not been invited to Singapore to present my research results when I was 16. And I was captain of my high school debate team and he was captain of his high school debate team, but that was kind of it for me. And his main activity, apart from all of this, was his Internet startup.

He is a remarkable young man and obviously, even among our remarkable group of students, he stands out. But I highlight his accomplishments to really highlight the incredible character of the students that we are able to draw together. And I would say to you that the most important thing we can do for the Harvard College experience is, in many ways, the most traditional and most basic thing.

Whether it is in the classroom or the common room, whether it is in the library or the laboratory, we need to bring together much more frequently, much more intensively, Harvard students and their teachers, the Harvard faculty.

When we come back, five years from now, we need to be coming back to a University where we haven’t just talked about more contact between students and faculty; we need to have brought about far more contact between students and faculty.

There are many ways to do this — whether it is undergraduate research programs, whether it is reviewing the curricula, whether it is the very substantial changes that have already come and will come further through the freshman seminar program, whether it is the nature of relations between students and their advisors, whether it is honoring and recognizing those who do the most for their students as teachers. And there are other ideas as well.

We can do more, and we must do more, to bring students and faculty together. Some of these are matters of culture. Some of these are matters of influencing patterns that have become entrenched. But these are also matters of numbers and matters of resources. Because if we are successful in increasing the size of the faculty, we will also be effective in increasing their ability to interact with students. Part of that is just about numbers. Part of that is just if there are more faculty and the same number of students — and by the way, the number of faculty per student is only two-thirds of what it was at Harvard in 1971 — if we are able to do that, there will be more natural contact.

But it goes far beyond that. I had dinner with a group of faculty the other night, talking about the issues in their lives. One woman of about my age, in one of our humanities departments, said, you know, the reason we’re here is to do our scholarship and to do our teaching. And we’re not going to stay the kind of great teachers you want us to be if we don’t have the time, amongst all our responsibilities, to carry on our scholarship. And as long as there are so many students, as long as obligations make it difficult for faculty to get leave time, it is very hard to meet those obligations.

And so, part of more faculty is that it will enable us to spread the responsibilities of the faculty more widely and, by doing that, enable them to spend more time doing what many of them most want to do, which is spending time with undergraduate students.

If we can do this here at Harvard, I believe that the great education that we provide our undergraduates will be even greater in the years ahead.

Let me come back to a very broad point and conclude where I began. It is an awesome and frightening trust that I have received. I have become convinced that the best way to discharge that trust, to make sure that we avoid complacency, is to be prepared to take risks; to know that we will be judged not by what we have, but by what we do; not by what we accumulate, but by what we contribute. To know that by taking risks we will sometimes make mistakes, we will sometimes fail. Indeed, if we never fail, we will not be taking enough risks, and we will not be fully participating in the adventure of our times.

And our ability to do those things — to push, to take chances, to make a great institution even greater — is only there because of the loyal, unwavering, and generous support of Harvard’s alumni, and, most especially, of those who lead them, the people who are here today. Thank you very much for your past support and everything you’re going to do for Harvard.