Skip to main content

Address of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Peking University, Peking, China

President Min, President Xu, thank you for all those kind words. Thank you for the hospitality you have shown me and for the hospitality you have shown the visiting delegation from Harvard University.

I believe we have gathered these few days in Beijing the largest delegation of faculty from Harvard University that has ever come to China. That is, I believe, a reflection of the importance of China to the world of the 21st Century. It is a reflection of our common endeavor — the pursuit of knowledge and the teaching of students.

I am very excited to be here at one of China’s great universities, one of the world’s great universities, and am especially glad to have the chance to talk to so many of your students about the world they are going to inherit.

You know, if think about what we do in universities, if you think about the phenomenon of globalization, I believe that our special role today and the phenomenon of globalization are manifestations of a yet deeper transformation that is going on throughout the world. And that is this: knowledge is becoming more central to every aspect of human activity than it ever has been before.

Think about some examples. I am convinced that when the history of this period is written two centuries from now, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War will be the second story that is written in those history books. The first story that will be written about the last fifth of the 20th century will be the rise of societies where close to 2 billion people live to modernity. It will be the doubling of standards of living that will take place within a decade, and then take place within a decade again for literally billions of people. I believe that is an event in the history of the second millennium that has the potential to rank with the Renaissance and with the Industrial Revolution in importance.

And what is at the center of this transformation? China is at its center with the dramatic transformation that China has seen over the last two decades. And knowledge and the spread and dissemination of knowledge is at its center as well. No country in Europe, no country in North America, has ever grown nearly as rapidly in a decade as China has grown in the last decade and in the decade before. And that is a reflection of the enormous opportunities that modern technology provides for convergence — it is a reflection of knowledge and the increasing spread of knowledge.

Think about something else. We are alive in the one period in human history when science has the potential to understand disease processes — when science has the potential during the period in which the people in this room will be alive — to understand at the level of individual molecules what it is that goes wrong and causes human beings to suffer and to die. And we will be able to find that understanding in ways that can be made operational to bring about remedies.

We have the potential to see more progress against disease in the period in which we are alive than in any other period in human history. And what is that about? That is about the growth of knowledge as well.

We know some things today about the growth of knowledge of research and the process of knowledge finding application that are not obvious at all. We know some things about the role of serendipity. We know some things about the role of organizations. But let me make one general observation about what we don’t know about knowledge: you can never tell where the most useful knowledge is going to come from. You cannot predict where it is going to come from — you cannot direct programs to find the most useful forms of knowledge.

Let me give you two very different kinds of examples. Perhaps the most abstract subject we teach in the university in certain respects is mathematics. Perhaps the least applied area of mathematics is number theory — the study of numbers. Every one of you who has sent an e-mail has benefited from discoveries in number theory during the past 25 years. This is because research on prime numbers forms the basis for encryption algorithms, which forms the basis for every aspect of electronic communication and electronic exchange today. These are practical innovations that come from the most abstract type of knowledge we have.

Let me give you a very different kind of example. It’s an example from a part of the world where things are very difficult and in some ways it seems a strange example to cite today. One of the most important contributions that the United States has been able to make to world peace was the agreement that was negotiated at Camp David in 1978 between Israel and Egypt. We obviously are not all the way to peace in the Middle East, but that agreement was an important step towards stability.

Those who were there report that President Carter’s ability to speak of each of the locations that were at issue in terms of their Biblical name and Biblical role was essential to his ability to reach that peace between Israel and Egypt. The study of ancient religions, the study of events that occurred two thousand years ago, seems abstract and intellectual. Yet that knowledge was central to a crucial, practical human achievement.

One could go on and on from almost every field of knowledge in a university. But I think the one kind of knowledge that will always elude our grasp is the ability to predict which types of research, which types of pure inquiry, will make the greatest contributions to the future of our society. But equally, if we will not be able to predict which types of knowledge will make the greatest contributions to our society, we can confidently predict that new knowledge, new ideas, new approaches, and clear thinking will be central to our future.

Increasingly, this is evident in not just universities, but in the ways in which business organizations, organizations that are intensely practical and motivated by profit, organize themselves in our society. I had occasion to speak with a professor of astrophysics at one of America’s leading universities not long ago. He asked me who I thought was their largest employer of Ph.D. graduate students. I responded by saying I thought possibly it might be Harvard, or possibly it might be some observatory. The answer he gave me was that it was Morgan Stanley, one of the largest investment banks in the United States. They were hiring astrophysicists because they were reaching out and looking to get those with the greatest quantitative aptitude, the greatest capacity to do quantitative research, because of the contribution that made to their role in the financial markets.

Indeed if one looks at the best business organizations, they are increasingly looking for the people that are the most creative, who are best schooled, who are most intellectually able. Indeed if you look at the best organizations around the world, they are increasingly taking on some of the attributes of the best universities.

What is it that is most distinctive about the best universities? One thing is this: ideas are judged by the quality they possess, and not by the status of their presenter. Professors at Harvard want their students to do what is new. When students do research testing a hypothesis or a theory of one of their professors, the professor would prefer it if the research came out to confirm the professor’s hypothesis, than if the research came out to deny that hypothesis. Professors are human.

But the professors would be absolutely insistent that that research was important to do, to point out, and to publish, no matter what the results were. We have professors at Harvard that are very committed to particular beliefs about the nature of evolution, about environmental issues, about economic issues. But every one of them would insist that it was the obligation of the university to hire the best and most promising scholars to join their department, regardless of whether they agreed or whether they disagreed with their research.

This emphasis on judging ideas by their quality is finding its way throughout the world. People in business speak of the death of hierarchy. They speak of the rising importance of teamwork. They speak of the importance of emphasizing creativity. And dare I say this approach of judging ideas by their quality rather than their source has been something very important to the enormous progress Chinese society has made over the last 20 years.

A second deep commitment of universities that is also being emulated throughout the broader world is a commitment to a diversity of perspective and a willingness to draw individuals from any background if it contributes to our excellence. This has been a continuing quest for us at Harvard University. A century ago, our university was a place where gentlemen from rich families taught other younger gentlemen from rich families in New England. It was not open to students who were women. It was not open to students who were born in large parts of the United States. It was open only to people of certain races and faiths and there were limits placed on specific groups because they would otherwise be too numerous and make people uncomfortable.

Today, Harvard is a university that is far more open and inclusive to men and to women, to persons of all faiths, to persons of all races, to persons from every state in our country, to persons from every country in the world. We still have a long way to go if we are going to be more inclusive and open, if we are going to get the benefits that diverse perspectives provide. But even more, if we are going to bring the best learners and teachers to our campus, we must cast our net for excellence as widely as we possibly can.

As universities have evolved, so too have the best and most sophisticated business organizations, and so too have the governments of the best-led countries. They have evolved away from choosing a narrow elite based on personal connection towards finding the people who are most able and can make the greatest contribution. The United States has a long way to go here, too, but we are making progress, and we are making progress in no small part based on a model that has come from universities.

There is a third difference that is very real, very special about universities, and it is something that is increasingly important in all kinds of organizations. And that is an emphasis on taking the long view. This is a place where perhaps universities and China have something in common.

When we think about a work of scholarship, we are not just seeking to judge what its impact will be tomorrow, what its impact will be next week, next month, or next year. When we think about a work of scholarship, we are seeking to understand its contributions to knowledge over the longest run and we hold highest those ideas that, in the end, will make the biggest difference.

And increasingly, the best business organizations, the best institutions in any society, are those who not only try to move rapidly to take advantage of any opportunity, but also pay attention to the very long run — those who also invest in the ideas that are going to make the biggest differences not tomorrow, but a decade and a century from now.

Let me give you a simple example of something that could not have happened in the United States thirty years ago. The biotechnology industry in the United States has a market value of several hundred billion dollars. And yet there has not been a single year in American history that this industry as a whole has made a profit. How has this happened?

People are able to see the potential of what is going to come, they take the long view, and they invest. Just as universities do when they bring the best scholars, let them follow their imaginations, don’t try to direct them, in reliance on the idea that in the long run it is their knowledge and new ideas that will pay off.

This is the faith on which universities are supremely based. It is a faith that has paid off in the United States, and I believe it has paid off for all who have sought to follow it. Some 75 percent of major patents granted in the United States draw their inspiration in important respects from university-based research. Students from all over the world want to come to American universities — universities who don’t try to profit, who don’t naturally focus on the bottom line. And yet, universities have been as successful as any export activity that the United States possesses.

What is it that has enabled American universities to be successful, and what is the best thinking that we have right now about how universities can excel? I’d like to reflect on a few aspects of that, and then I’d like to reflect on what seem to me to be some of the challenges for universities in the years ahead.

First, a separation from politics and external control. At Harvard University, the governor of Massachusetts or the president of the United States can have absolutely no sway over who is appointed as a professor of economics, or professor of engineering, or professor of medicine. They cannot appoint their friends, and they cannot appoint people who will support their causes.

Let me tell you something else that is important — I think is an important part of why universities succeed. We have alumni and other individuals who have been very successful, who make very great contributions to our university in a financial sense. Sometimes we name buildings after them, sometimes we name programs after them, sometimes we name professorships after them. When my colleagues were introduced this morning you will have noticed that most of them were identified by their professorship — the Graustein Professor of Mathematics, the Stimson Professor. Other professorships were mentioned.

I can tell you one thing for certain — you can come to Harvard University, and you can make a commitment of resources for a professor of mathematics or a professor of politics or a professor of law. But you cannot tell the university who that professor should be or what that professor must believe. And if you do, we will say, and we have said, “Take your money to a different university. Take your money somewhere else.” I belabor this point because I think in understanding the sources of intellectual excellence it is something that is absolutely fundamental to the best universities.

There is a second thing that is essential to the best universities. And that is that they compete ruthlessly for the most able people. I was asked at a gathering earlier in China what advice I would give to someone who was trying to create the best possible university. And I said there was really in the long run only one thing that mattered to having the best possible university. And that was having the most creative, the most intellectually engaged, and the smartest faculty. If a university was successful in finding the best young scholars and attracting them to spend their careers at that university, the best students would find their way to the best scholars, the most research funding would find their way to the best scholars, the best creative programs would emerge from the best scholars and in the end, very little else mattered than making an absolute commitment to having the best.

Having the best means understanding that not everyone can be treated in precisely the same way. Having the best means having the idea that those with the newest ideas will also be those with the most threatening ideas. Having the best means accepting the best, and understanding the best will not always be the people who are easiest to get along with. Indeed it will often be true that the very same features that make individuals most creative, most challenging, and most exciting will make them the people who don’t fit in the smoothest ways. The best universities understand that.

There is a third important part of how the best universities stay best. They are constantly looking for ways to measure themselves, for ways to pressure themselves to be excellent. In business, in the for-profit sector of the economy, which is after all where most organizations take place, there is a ready way to measure whether you are the best or not. It’s called the bottom line — it’s profits.

Universities have no such measure they can look at. So they need to find other ways to assure they are always pushing to be the best. What are some of those ways? One way is to encourage scholars to seek external funding for research. At Harvard, we do not fund a large part of the research of our scientists. In part, that is because our resources are scarce and we want to be sure to channel those resources to areas of research where no one else will provide funds if the university does not provide funds.

But there is a second very important reason. Organizations and individuals who provide their own funds for research do their own investigations, do their own monitoring, make their own judgments as to what is the best kind of research. When they make those judgments, resources tend to flow to those who are being more productive and they tend to flow away from those who are being less productive.

We do something else that is very important to the success of our university, and we are going to be doing it more vigorously in the years ahead. And that is with respect to every part of the university, we ask experts from around the world to come in, to evaluate our program, to tell us in the administration how well it is working, how well it is functioning, and we use these evaluations as one basis for setting our future course.

We do not allow those who are carrying on a given program to choose who will evaluate that program. Instead we look for tough-minded judgments from the outside. This applies not just to programs, but applies to individuals. Before an individual can be appointed as a professor at Harvard University, they must have not just the endorsement of the people who will be their colleagues in a given area of knowledge, but there must also be letters sent to the leading experts in every aspect of their field. They are asked to compare the individual under consideration with many other individuals who work in the same field. And then those evaluations are carefully considered before anyone is appointed to the university.

Compare, compete — those are the ways of holding yourself to the pressure of always reaching for the best.

A fourth aspect of universities is a very delicate and complex one. That is that universities are committed, ironically, to strong leadership in the name of communal values. I emphasized that the president of the United States can’t appoint someone to be a professor at Harvard University. But at the same time the design of the best universities in the United States is calculated to produce strong leadership.

Imagine that one of the schools at Harvard University had a vacancy for a new dean. What would the procedure be for finding a suitable replacement? In many universities all over the world the new dean would be selected by a vote of the faculty of the school. Or the new dean would be selected on the basis of a consensus of the professors who were in a given school.

When a group of professors are doing extraordinarily well, they will choose the one among their number who will be most effective in bringing about a continuation of their success. But such a procedure can also perpetuate mediocrity, and lock in weakness. When an organization is not functioning well and is asked to select a new leader, it is likely to select a new leader who is unthreatening, rather than a new leader who is committed to the greatest excellence.

That is why at Harvard we ask the president to take the responsibility for appointing each of those who will lead schools. And that is why in the best universities, university trustees choose presidents of the university rather than allowing that process to reflect a consensus of students and faculty.

If I have been remarkably fortunate to take on my position as President of Harvard at a time when Harvard University is a leading university, I’m convinced that one of the important reasons for that strength is that I’m only the seventh person to become President of Harvard University since the end of the Civil War in the 1860s. A tradition of strong leaders who serve a long time has enabled, and indeed has forced, the university to continually renew itself for changing times.

I emphasize each of these aspects, separation from politics, competition and external scrutiny, ruthless competition for talent, and strong leadership because each is not easy — they are hard to achieve, each in their own way. But at a time when knowledge is becoming more and more important, when those things that make the university strong are becoming more and more common throughout the broad society, it is especially important that universities renew their commitment to their core values.

What are the main challenges that lie ahead for my university, and universities around the world? I would highlight five large challenges — five large questions that I think we can identify as important. I think we know some of the answers to these questions, but we certainly don’t know all of the answers.

First, grappling with globalization and spreading our excellence. The world is much smaller in many ways than it used to be. The opportunities for communication are much more and much greater than they were 20 years ago. If people in the United States had been asked a year ago to identify a single place in the whole world so remote and so backward that it didn’t really matter for the United States, quite likely they would have chosen Afghanistan. That proved to be the base for Bin Ladin’s terror attacks on the United States.

We will need to adapt universities, to promote understanding not just of the communities and nations they reside in, but of the entire world. And we will need to do that while maintaining a sense of community that contributes profoundly to the success of the university. This is not an easy balance to strike. It is essential that Harvard cooperate ever more closely with China. But if that cooperation is taking place in China, it will be harder for it to benefit Harvard students who are in Cambridge. Promoting our involvement with globalization, our understanding of globalization, while maintaining our sense of community will be a first crucial challenge.

A second crucial challenge will be maintaining universities’ sense of community and universities’ sense of autonomy as their knowledge becomes so much more useful, practical, and demanded by the wider society. I, a professor of economics, someone who did what was thought of as abstract research, had the opportunity to serve as Secretary of the Treasury of my country. As I traveled around the world in that capacity, I met with a number of other ex-professors who were in similar positions in their countries. That kind of thing very rarely happened even a quarter century ago.

The demand in field after field for the best thinking from practical sources creates a great opportunity for universities to maximize their contribution, but also a great challenge. When professors were not offered large speaking fees, when professors were not valuable as consultants, when professors were not on tours promoting their books, it was very easy to think about maintaining universities as communities. That professors have all of these opportunities is a wonderful sign of our success, but it is also a challenge to maintain ourselves as a community and maintain our focus on what is essential to the best universities: the preparation of the next generation of leaders and the next generation of scholars.

A very large challenge for us is maintaining our commitment to those areas of knowledge that do not appear instrumentally valuable in the very short run. I argued at the beginning of these remarks that you couldn’t predict what would turn out to be valuable. Proper instrumental thinking will lead to a broad range of inquiry. But there is the challenge as we rush to address the questions that are thrown up anew by each generation that we not lose sight of the eternal questions about the nature of human personality, about human conflict, about human families, about the dilemmas that are treated in the great works of literature in all of our traditions.

We must not, in our determination to be smart and relevant, sacrifice the opportunity to prepare our students to be wise. This is an especially important obligation for universities. If we do less cancer research, others in the society will do more cancer research. If universities do less management training, others in the society will do more management training. If universities do not think through the future of commercial codes, others will tend to want to think through commercial codes. But if universities do not study ancient manuscripts, if universities do not seek historical understanding, then it is more likely to be lost. That would be a tragic loss to humanity and a tragic sacrifice of the important contributions we can make.

Fourth, universities must adapt to the changing organization of knowledge. We have to organize our institutions in some way, and that’s why we have law schools, education schools, physics departments and chemistry departments. That’s why we have sociology departments and economics departments. But while there is a tradition of the human organization of knowledge, there is nothing immutable about that.

It used to be said that there were people who could learn all of what there was to learn. And then it came to be said that there were people who could learn all of what there was to learn in a discipline like physics or economics. But today it is becoming increasingly difficult to learn all there is to learn within a sub-discipline of a discipline like macroeconomics.

At the same time, many of the most important discoveries today occur across traditional boundaries, whether between chemistry and biology, whether in thinking about common themes that apply in the study of music and the study of literature, or whether in the pervasive application of mathematics to more and more areas of human inquiry. Universities will need increasingly to maintain their sense of organization and structure but also be prepared to exploit those areas of study that are most important at the boundaries of knowledge.

Finally, universities will need to adapt to the changing opportunities that the changing world brings. In the future, education is going to be much more of a lifelong demand. We are seeing already the end of what one might call the fuel tank model of education, where people fill themselves up with knowledge when they are young, gradually deplete their knowledge as they work through a lifetime, then retire. The opportunities to deliver knowledge to people who are thousands of miles away are greatly magnified by the Internet.

So the work of teaching — who we teach and how we teach them — will change. Major research papers that are written in important fields of science like particle physics now have 300 co-authors. Projects like the sequencing of the human genome cost over a billion dollars. This change in the scale of work and in the nature of cooperation will force us to change the individualistic tradition of the university. At the same time it’s that respect for the most creative individuals that drives the greatest progress.

So adapting the university to these new opportunities, but preserving what is most special about it, will be yet another challenge for our time.

I’ve tried to talk today about what I think are some of the crucial aspects of universities, some of the challenges that universities face. I hope I’ve expressed the right views. But even more, I hope I’ve raised the right questions.

I am firmly convinced that if in one era the wealth and success of a society depended on how well it grew food, and if in another era, the wealth and success of a society depended on how well it produced and used steel, in the world that we are headed into, the wealth and success of a society will depend on how it produces and how it uses knowledge. And I am firmly convinced there will be no more important institutions to this new world than universities.

That is why all of us who are privileged to spend our times in universities need to take what we do very, very seriously, and to think always about how we can do better.

As I said in my inauguration speech at Harvard, our most enduring tradition is that we are forever young, forever committed to renewing ourselves. That must be the work of universities around this world.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to share some thoughts about universities with all of you at this great center of Chinese learning.

Thank you very much.