Skip to main content

Remarks at the President’s Associates Dinner

Harvard Club of New York

Before we do anything else tonight, I want to say a word about Nathan Pusey and ask for a moment of silence in his memory. Nathan Pusey served as the 24th president of Harvard University. For eighteen years, he gave all his energy to an institution that he loved. Academic history will long remember his courage in fighting the scourge of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Those who study Harvard’s history closely will know that it was under President Pusey’s watch that Harvard became the truly national, truly merit-based institution that it is today.

As you all know, President Pusey died this week, at the age of 94. Let us have a moment of silence in his honor. Thank you.


Everyone here does so much for Harvard. I would like, though, to single out a few key leaders of the Harvard College Fund and ask that they stand to be recognized. First, one of the two energetic and productive co-chairs of the Harvard College Fund, a person of singular energy and dedication to Harvard University, Diana Nelson, of the Class of 1984, could you please stand. Co-chair Carl Martignetti, of the Class of 1981, is disappointed that he could not be here this evening, but his co-chair of the associate program, Mike Collins, of the Class of 1966, is here. Mike, congratulations.


I want also to acknowledge a man who should be acknowledged at every Harvard alumni event at which he is present; a man who was making enormous contributions to Harvard University before I was born; a man to whom I owe a special debt of gratitude because he served as the chair of the search committee that selected me, and for at least a year, that will assure that I always acknowledge him. Bob, you are a Harvard legend, and let us all recognize Robert Stone, the Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation.


Let me also say a word about Jeremy Knowles. We are all remarkably fortunate to have had Jeremy Knowles’ leadership of the faculty over the last 10 years.


I have had a kind of Rip Van Winkle experience with Harvard. I was closely involved with Harvard until 1991; I went to Washington and Jeremy Knowles became the Dean. Having returned only recently, I can tell you that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the educational experience is very different than it was when I left. Thank you, Jeremy Knowles.

I want to recognize one other person who is here tonight. A new leader, new administration, an 8 and 0 football team that is soon going to be 9 and 0. Thank you, Bob Scalise.


For those of you who don’t know him, Bob is our new athletic director. He comes to that position with remarkably high expectations. Why? Because he was an all-American lacrosse player and a stellar lacrosse coach. Why? Because he, as much as anyone, spread women’s sports at Harvard by leading the women’s soccer team from club status to team status. And when it comes to looking at the bottom line from the athletic department, a former executive dean of the business school surely ought to be able to do the job. The football team’s success is just one example of the difference that Bob Scalise is making.

Let me also, before I say anything else, say thank you to all of the other Harvard staff who are present at this event. I know I speak for Dean Knowles and everyone else in saying that we would not be able to do our jobs without all of you and the support you provide. And we would also not be able to do our jobs without all our colleagues and everything they do. I want to take this occasion to thank them publicly.


There are only three dates where if you say the date you instantly know what is meant. If you say December 7th, you are referring to Pearl Harbor; if you say November 22nd, you are referring to the Kennedy assassination; and now if you say September 11th, you are referring to a terrorist attack on the United States. I believe that this attack will in many ways be a watershed moment for our country, for the world, and, in important respects, for our University. And therefore tonight I want to talk about September 11th and its meaning and what has followed.

I want to talk first about some of the specific steps that the University has taken in its wake, then speak a little bit about what I make of some of the major intellectual thrusts to which Dean Knowles referred that have come out in the symposia. Then finally, I’ll talk about some of the broader issues for our society and for Harvard that I believe are implicated in these events.

Our first priority in the wake of these events was to come together, and we did, with a vigil that was perhaps the largest unhappy event ever to take place in the Tercentenary Theatre. The first priority for Dean Knowles and I also was to review the University’s security procedures in every respect, and to make sure that we were doing everything we could to assure the safety of our students and the safety of members of our community, regardless of what happened.

One crucial element in looking after our students was assuring, as we did on September 11th and are continuing to do, that appropriate counseling and mental health services were available for all who were affected in any way by this event, and I should tell you that the mental services of the University have, perhaps unsurprisingly, had more contacts in recent weeks than in any previous time when records were kept.

So first we looked after the members of our community. We also took steps as a University to support the victims at this difficult time. Harvard made a contribution of a million dollars, and we were the first such university, many others followed, to provide scholarships for the children of the victims of this tragedy.

And through the formal symposia, and the countless informal conversations among members of our faculty in discussions across this country and indeed around the world, we sought to promote understanding of what had happened. Not, as I suggested in my Installation speech, a soft understanding that would encourage resignation or acceptance, but the hard comprehension that a threat like this demands.

And indeed, if one thinks about this event and all that has followed, it has implicated so many parts of the University, the research and thinking of so many of our faculty. Let me give you some examples. The book brought to mind most readily by this event is Samuel Huntington’s classic work, “The Clash of Civilizations.” Written in 1994, it contemplates culture clash as a major source of conflict.

Whether you agree or disagree — and you can certainly find both views in the Harvard community — with Professor Huntington’s thesis, his book has become a starting point for much of the discussion of what this means for the new world that we live in.

The security of our country and indeed of the global system has become a crucial issue, and the work of Kennedy School Professor Graham Allison and many of his colleagues, which some of you may have seen summarized in the recent magazine, had a rather sad kind of credibility. I say sad because Professor Allison and his colleagues had issued repeated warnings of the dangers of possible terrorism and the lack of preparation on the part of the United States and other nations.

A question of this kind implicates issues of basic values. Harvard is privileged to host each year the Tanner Lectures, which are given by an eminent scholar, concerned with values and issues. This year’s lecturer, Professor Kathleen Sullivan, now the Dean of the Stanford Law School, directed her lecture at the philosophical issues raised by the question of how should the Constitution be applied during periods of emergency. Should it be applied in the same way as before? Should it be suspended on an emergency basis, as with President Lincoln, in the Civil War? Or should it be stretched, as was done, through certain Supreme Court decisions, during the Second World War? Professor Sullivan advocated the second, but that is not what is important; what is important is that she spoke to 500 members of the Harvard community, who thought very hard about this kind of question.

Let me give you some other examples. What will we do when we apprehend some of those who perpetrated these deeds? There are those who think they should be tried in U.S. courts, those who think they should be tried in military courses, and there are those who believe — and Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of our Law School has made this case and has shaped important parts of the debate — that international tribunals are appropriate, on the Nuremberg model, to give maximum legitimacy to whatever decisions are taken.

What about this new threat of biological weapons and biological terrorism? The symposium at which the nation’s leading experts came together, that the media looked to for information on this important question, took place at Harvard’s School of Public Health. It brought together principally professors from the Medical School and the School of Public Health, but also from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where there’s very considerable experience in this area.

I could go on and on, speaking of work in languages, speaking of work in the Middle Eastern studies that is directly informing the national debate. Can one synthesize this at all? I think that’s probably not possible.

I would offer one personal reflection that has come to me as I have listened to all this discussion in Harvard’s community, and it is this. I think that a significant part of what seems to be the argument about the meaning of these events, their moral significance and what should be done, reflects a certain conflation of different levels of the argument.

Consider the Second World War. I would suggest that these three propositions are probably all valid, with respect to the Second World War in Europe. First, the conflict, to an important extent, had its roots in the errors of the Versailles Treaty, the painful reparations imposed on Germany, and the depression, economic distress and frustration that took place in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Second, when the conflict was engaged it was a conflict between wrong and right, between hope and fear, between good and evil, and there was no substitute for victory. Third, it was as important to win the peace as it was to win the war, and that meant an emphasis on an enlightened and broad response, after victory, that allowed the vanquished nations to transform themselves and join the community of civilized nations.

Those three propositions, when we look back at the Second World War, do not stand in opposition to one another. Indeed, they complement one another. And I emphasize that because it seems to me that much of the popular discussion, though much less of the discussion at Harvard, has missed that point. One can simultaneously see roots of this conflict in economic frustration and distress, believe that it is a conflict between hope and fear that is essential to win, and can believe that it is important to win the peace as well as to win the war. Careful thought and historical study suggests that ideas that initially appear to be strongly opposed can actually be complementary.

That interpretation may be right; it may be wrong. What is important is that people at Harvard are discussing these issues, thinking about them, and there is no better place to learn what is happening, and there is no place, I am convinced, from where more ideas that will shape our response to these events will come from.

But what about the broader themes, the broader questions, that are implicated by this? This is more than a crisis to which our country has to respond. It seems to me that there are three important respects in which these events will be transforming. First, they point up the overwhelming importance of what many expected: that the challenge of the next half century will be the integration between the limited number of relatively well-off countries in this world and the places where 6 billion people live, where all the world’s population growth, historically most of the world’s conflicts, a substantial part of the world’s economic opportunities will be.

Whether that challenge of integration, of contact, of modernization, of convergence, is managed well or managed poorly, will shape the world in which we all live. And if we learned anything on September 11th, it is that we cannot be sure that the only question is how much progress there will be. There is the prospect of regress, as well as progress; there is no certainty that the progress of knowledge will translate into a better world everywhere. And there is the prospect that our increasing success and the frustrations it engenders will be sources of conflict, rather than sources of convergence.

These are issues that will require us to address globalization at every level. Whether it is making sure that more of our students have the opportunity to study abroad, to be in developing countries, and experience and see cultures very different from our own — or whether it is the research that is done at Harvard about these challenges by looking to history, by looking to the impacts of technology, by looking to explore these interactions in every way, whether environmental, economic, political, or anything else.

And I would also suggest that Harvard will be able to use its unique convening power to help address some of these questions. You know, I was overwhelmed during the time that I was at the Treasury by the fact that I would travel all over the world and I would meet the deputy finance minister of this country or the foreign minister of that country, and half the time his reaction would be, “Well, it’s nice you’re here from the U.S. Treasury Department, Mr. Summers, but you were a professor at Harvard, weren’t you?” And I’d say, “Yes, I was.” And then the person would say, in 1977 I spent a year as a fellow at Harvard University and it was the most important year of my life, because of what I learned, the connections I made, the experience that I had.

We have had a staggering influence that we do not even know that we have had. The network of people who have been through our campus and have become leaders around the world is something that I could not have conceived of when I was a professor here, and would not have believed if I had not met these people through my travels. We will need to make sure that we do a better job in the future staying in touch with those people, in a way that we have not before.

Recognizing the challenge of interdependence and making our contribution to it, that is, I think, the first thing we learn from these events.

The second thing that I think we are reminded of is how essential it is to be part of things that are larger than ourselves. Many of the things that preoccupied so many of us, so much of the time, before September 11th, now seem much smaller. Two generations of students, actually, now, have lived in a very different world, after Vietnam. There has been a reduction in idealism, a skepticism about government and authority, a tendency to look out for one’s self. What idealistic energy there is has been channeled into direct pursuits, rather than broad social pursuits or through government service.

This has had its strengths and its weaknesses, but it is surely a consequence of the Vietnam and Watergate periods of disillusionment. Now, when, for the first time in 50 years, our country is engaged in a struggle with very little moral ambiguity, one can already see that changing, through the increased respect our students are showing for those in the armed forces; through the increased interest in pursuing careers in government and seeking training for careers in government; and through the greater respect that is shown, at all levels, as more and more students seek to find ways of serving the larger society.

This type of moment does not come often. And one of our crucial challenges will be to take advantage of the opportunity that lies behind this tragedy. It will be to try to provide every opportunity to awaken the idealism in our students and to encourage and to call them to serve the broader society in whatever way they may choose.

There is another deep resonance in what has happened, I believe, and it is this. You know, soon after September 11th, students asked me, “Does it matter if I go to field hockey practice? Does it matter if I do my calculus problem set? With planes crashing into buildings, with our society at risk, why do these tasks matter? What should I do?” And I thought that question deserved an answer. And I took the occasion to speak at Memorial Church, several weeks after the tragic events, and to try to answer the question.

And what I said was that, to allow ourselves to be diverted from the good and constructive work in which we are engaged would be to hand a victory to those who perpetrated this evil deed; that, most fundamentally, this was not a struggle between civilizations, this was not a struggle between the United States and other groups. This was a struggle between destruction and construction, between nihilism and hope, between fear and possibility.

When students carried on what they were proud of, when they learned and prepared themselves for careers contributing to society, they were doing what was most important for them to do at this crucial moment. And that is why, as important as I believed the work of the University — teaching, studying, thinking — was when I took on the presidency of Harvard on July 1st, after everything that has happened, I believe that work is far, far more important today. And I would say to you that the help and support of the people in this room, who have enabled us to do our work, to strengthen our community, to be as Harvard always has been, better in the future than it was in the past, your help is more important than it ever has been before. Thank you very much.