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Address of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

John Harvard Society, Cambridge, Mass.

I would like to thank everyone here for what you have done for Harvard and for the plans you have made to help Harvard in the future. Believe me, your faith in the institution, your confidence in the students and faculty here, reflected in the way you have planned your estates, is a major source of confidence for all of us, and a real source of strength for Harvard University.

Let me say a few words about Harvard and where it stands today. We are blessed. We are blessed in our faculty. We’re blessed in a student body, which is the envy of colleges and universities around the world. We are blessed in the resources that have been accumulated over the last decade. We are blessed in the property that the University has acquired in Allston, some three Harvard Yards’ worth of academic space that will enable us to be the only urban university in the United States with substantial capacity for expansion in the decades ahead. So, we are blessed.

But if Harvard’s history teaches us anything, if the things that Harvard has done in order to remain preeminent among American universities for a century now teach us anything, it is that we cannot stand still. We cannot focus on counting our blessings. We cannot rest satisfied with Harvard as it is today. We must build the Harvard of tomorrow.

When I think about that task, as I have listened to many, many people, to students, to faculty, to Harvard alumni, there are a number of themes that emerge. The importance of bringing Harvard together. The importance of taking maximum advantage of the space in Allston. The importance of making sure that Harvard is able to keep pace with the technological revolution in which the world is engaged. The importance of making sure that Harvard engages with the challenge of public service.

But, I want to speak about one very common theme in so much of what I have heard, one very common theme in so much of what the search committee that chose me heard. And one very common theme that I have heard from so many of our alumni. And that is the renewal and strengthening, from a position of very great strength, of the center of Harvard University, Harvard College. Of putting our focus on making sure that the University center, the College, is everything that it can possibly be for the students who will go forth from here to positions of leadership in our society.

I’ve reflected on the ways in which the world has changed since I was a student in college, nearly 30 years ago. Some things are constant, but there are at least three things that, I think, are very different, and that we will need to reflect on in the years ahead.

First, we live in a truly global world. If I had asked you eight months ago to name a place so backwards and so remote that it did not matter importantly to the United States, quite likely you would have mentioned Afghanistan. The reason the United States government did not get warning of the attack was not that we did not have the intercepts of communications. It was that we did not have the people who could translate those intercepts into English.

If you think about the century ahead, opportunities for human betterment through literacy, opportunities to reduce hunger, opportunities for human emancipation are in the less developed world where billions of people live. If you think about the risks to the global system, whether in the form of nuclear conflagration, whether in the form of terrorism, whether in the form of contribution to global environmental problems, those two are concentrated in the developing world.

We cannot any longer afford to be just a national university. We will, and we must, re-double our efforts to be a global institution. That means bringing the best students from all over the world to study at Harvard College, regardless of their financial position. That means enabling and encouraging every Harvard student to have some kind of international experience. That means that recognizing international experience is not just about a trip to Europe, but about understanding the more remote societies in this world that are no longer so remote.

That means using the formidable convening power of the University to be a place where experts and the best thinkers and the best actors from all over the world come. And it means making sure that all of that is accessible not just to the students in our graduate programs, but to the students in Harvard College.

The second great difference between the world as it was when I was a student, and the world of today, is the centrality of science and technology to our current moment. If you think about it, going to the doctor and listening carefully to what the doctor says now requires some understanding of things biological. Managing your finances requires some understanding of things quantitative. Being an informed participant in the new economy requires comprehension of things computational. And I could go on and on.

In part, this is because all of us are going to have to interact with science increasingly in our lives. In part this is because science is going to interact with all of us. We are, as a society, going to need to make rules governing privacy in an era when it won’t be difficult to have a database that knows every phone number I ever dialed, and who was at the other end. We are going to have to make rules that speak to what it means to be human in a world where cloning will become possible.

All of this will require that the definition of what it means to be educated is going to increasingly embrace an understanding of science and its social consequences. And that too will need to inform what our undergraduate programs are all about in the years ahead.

And there is a third difference, or a third evolution that I would stress. And it’s perhaps a large point, perhaps a diffuse point. But no less profoundly important. And that is, I believe, that the demands on the character of those who lead our society are going to be greater than they ever have been before.

Relationships are now more complicated than they once were. Companies are not just partners or competitors, but partners in some spheres, and competitors in others. Leaders are called on to balance interests that conflict in more complex ways than ever before.

We are reminded too often, and by Enron only most recently, of the adverse consequences to our society of ethical lapses, of a failure to think in a serious and systematic moral way.

If education is about intellectual development, it is also about character development. And that is one reason why I am here to tell you, that if there is one thing that is crucial to strengthening the education provided by Harvard College, it is making sure that there is more contact between Harvard students and Harvard faculty. Whether in the common room or the classroom, whether in the library or the laboratory, if our students are going to develop as they should, there is nothing more important than personal contact between student and teacher.

Students and teachers engaged together in intellectual activity is one crucial component of character development. But, it is only one. Character is also developed by the range of university experiences. That’s why I am proud to be able to tell you that there are now 41 varsity sports in which a quarter of a class participated last year; that half the class participated as performers in performing arts events; that 75 percent of the class was engaged in a volunteer social service activity; that large fractions of the class were involved in journalistic or political activities. Making sure that these experiences are as strong and as excellent and as character-forming as they can be is a crucial priority for all of us concerned with the future of Harvard College.

These are not easy priorities — character, science, globalization, greater contact between students and faculty. In many cases they are concrete. More faculty, for example, is crucial to achieving all of these objectives.

In other cases, they go to the broad culture, the attitudes that permeate an institution. And here too, things will change over time. But, one thing is, I think, very certain. We are reminded in many ways of the strength of Harvard. Frankly, I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the strength of Harvard as we were undefeated in my first football season. (laughter)

We are strong, and we have so much to be proud of. And those of us working on the campus today can thank you for what we are proud of. But, what we are most proud of is that, as I said in my installation speech, our longest tradition is that we are forever young. That we are forever committed to renewing this great institution for generations to come. With the help of all of you that is possible. And I know I speak for all the students, and all the faculty, in expressing my profoundest gratitude. Thank you very much.