Skip to main content

Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Harvard Business School Board of Directors of Associates, Allston, Mass.

Kim (Clark), thank you very much for that very kind introduction. Kim didn’t describe the nature of our collaboration in those days — it was very close, but it was somewhat unusual in a sense vis-à-vis the calendar and the clock, in a way that was a little bit complicated for our research assistants. I was the slightly bohemian graduate student and Kim was already the father of several, quite established. We had a very simple working procedure. We both worked very hard. Kim rolled into the computer center to start work at about 6 in the morning and carried through until the end of the day and went home to his family. I rolled out of the computer center about 6:15 in the morning at the completion of my all-nighter and rolled back into the computer center in the late afternoon to check in with Kim.

So, between the two of us we had our work going for 24 hours day and it was a tad challenging for our research assistants. We had a very good time together and those were very good days. One of the things that I was very pleased about in coming back to the University was that I would have the opportunity to work with Kim at the Business School.

I want to thank Dick Spangler for everything he does for the Business School and for the very strong support that he and Meredith have provided in many ways — perhaps most substantially through the beautiful building in which we have gathered.

I want to thank Ray and Gladie Gilmartin for their leadership over this group for the past few years. Ray and I got to know each other in Washington and at least from my point of view the periodic dialogues that we had on tropical disease, vaccines and pharmaceutical pricing were among the most pleasurable public-private interactions that I had a chance to have. Thank you very much for what you are doing.

And I want to thank Rajat and Anita Gupta who are taking up the role of leadership in this group. But mostly I want to thank the faculty, the staff and the students of the Harvard Business School who are what make this such a very special institution and who really, I think, in so many ways are examples to business schools and business everywhere and as I will indicate in a few moments also to higher education in a whole set of very important respects.

In the first long conversation that Kim (Clark) and I had after I was named President of the University he used a phrase that very much stuck with me. He said that it is terribly important that we let down the drawbridges across the Charles River, between the Business School and the remainder of the University. And I think that that is a very, very important thing both for the Business School and for the University. It’s something that we will have to work on over time and it will be a continuing issue for a long time in a number of areas.

What I thought that I would remark on today is a number of areas where I’ve observed what Kim and his colleagues have been doing. I have been struck by what the Business School does and how it really is a powerful example that I think can find application very widely in higher education. And then I will say a word or two on its impact on the broader world outside education.

First, the Business School has a culture that treats teaching as fundamentally important. That is not something that happens by accident. It happens through constant reinforcement. It happens through the manipulation of rewards and the opposite of rewards, in very direct ways. It happens through teamwork in planning and managing of instruction. It happens through dialogue with individual faculty members. And yes, it happens through allowing teaching to influence central decisions about promotion and career development. That has been part of the Harvard Business School for a long time and it is increasingly part of other parts of the University. And I believe if higher education is going to be successful in the years ahead, in its fundamental mission of teaching students, it needs to be something that is much more pervasive in all that we do.

Secondly, the Business School has been a leader in recognizing the importance of active learning rather than passive learning. There is an enormous amount of controversy in educational psychology at all levels in the study of what helps people learn and what makes people learn better and what makes people learn worse. But I would suggest one consistent regularity, and that is the large podium, small chair model of instruction is about the least convincing way and least effective way of transferring knowledge to students. And the Business School with its emphasis on the case method, with its emphasis on discussion, has really been at the forefront on this issue for many years. Today, in its various uses of technology, it is at the forefront of emphasizing the importance of active learning rather than passive learning. And I think that the emphasis on active learning is something I believe needs to be spread through the University and higher education in the years ahead.

A third thing that has impressed me so much about the Business School is its emphasis on managing the University as an institution, as a culture, as a team. And that is something frankly that is all too rare in higher education. It is an enormous credit to Kim and to his predecessors and to your culture, that while issues of faculty who spend too much time off the campus are from time to time issues here, they are in my judgment less serious issues across the board at the Harvard Business School than they are at many other parts of the University. And that is because of a culture that is established, of the wise management of rewards, and of an establishment and a commitment to teamwork.

Every assistant professor here receives feedback every year. Every member of the senior faculty has the development of their career discussed with them on a periodic basis. To those of you who are associated with large private sector organizations, these may seem like obvious and natural steps. But I can tell you in the world of higher education they exist almost nowhere else, besides what takes place here at the Business School.

The Business School has been at the forefront — and this is the fourth aspect that I will emphasize — in managing something that I believe is a crucial issue for the University as a whole. And that is extending its excellence in every way possible, without diluting that excellence. Whether it’s in admitting the third of all students who come from abroad. Whether it’s the establishment of research centers in a number of major foreign cities. Whether it is the collaborations it enters into with foreign institutions. The Business School has been working to extend its excellence, but it has also been very careful with the Harvard name, with the Harvard Business School’s reputation. All of this has been to our very great advantage.

One of the methods of extending excellence that Kim described to me that made a particularly strong impression are the seeding partnerships the Business School has entered into with a variety of foreign institutions. The first year the Business School would teach 100 percent of the course. The second year the Business School would teach 80 percent of the course. The third year it would teach 60 percent of the course and so forth, and the sixth year it would be gone. That approach had, it seems to me, two huge virtues, which we can think about in other contexts. One was that it was catalytic; we are not committing our resources indefinitely. The second was that it was precautionary. In year 10, when it was no longer at the cutting edge, that program was no longer going to be owned in a reputational sense by Harvard University. And that seemed prudently precautionary.

One could go through other examples in the application of technology. But it seems to me that the Business School is very careful about the consideration of the extension of its excellence, with an enormous reflection also on its reputational assets. It is an example for other large parts of higher education.

I think that it has behooved me as Harvard’s president, and which should behoove all who have been associated with the Harvard Business School, to step back, to take stock in and reflect on an institution that has really done a set of things remarkably well in higher education that are basically done very infrequently well in higher education. It seems to me that if Harvard University can learn from its Business School, perhaps other institutions can learn as well.

Thinking about the Business School and the things it does well very much influences me as I think about the future of Harvard as a University. The good news is that we are very much a leader. If you think about institutions that were preeminent in their sphere in 1900, very few are preeminent in their sphere today, if any. And yet Harvard can lay that claim. Part of the reason is undoubtedly good luck. Part of the reason is that here, as in the Treasury Department, I am fortunate in my predecessors. I am only the seventh person to become president of Harvard since the Civil War, and it is an institution that has been well-led. But an important part of that leadership has been a willingness never to relax and sit still and accept things as they are, but always a determination to question whether things can be made better.

It seems to me as we look at the University and the years ahead, there will be a number of issues that I will be particularly focused on. One is Harvard College, where we provide an extraordinary education, but where I think it is time to take a look at the undergraduate experience in a comprehensive way. Emphasizing above all what is a very important issue for Harvard College students, and where we lag a bit, which is the set of issues surrounding active learning, direct contact between students, and faculty members. The personal element, which I believe is becoming ever more important to education, even as technology makes a larger contribution, is an area where we will have to focus.

Second, I believe, influencing every part of the University and its work, has to be a recognition of the increasing centrality of science to what we all do. It was probably reasonable for educated people a quarter century ago to feel that they weren’t really educated, and it was embarrassing, if they didn’t know the name of five plays by Shakespeare. But the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or the meaning of exponential growth, was a technical subject that you could leave to others. Anyone who has been to a doctor lately, or tried to manage their portfolio, knows that these kinds of concepts are much more central to the way that we are all going to live in the future.

If it is essential for educated citizens to have some basic understanding of science, it is also going to be important for us to recognize that scientific issues are too important to leave to scientists, just as war is too important to leave to generals. And to make sure that we equip people who are going to make business decisions, who are going to make legal decisions, who are going to be making political decisions, with the kind of understanding of science that will enable them to be able to be involved in making those decisions in an informed and substantial way.

We have a particular issue at Harvard that is going to be very important to us for over the next 50 years. Harvard is privileged to own several hundred acres of space in Allston with potential academic space equal to that contained in three Harvard Yards. That makes Harvard the only urban university in the United States with the capacity for substantial expansion in the years ahead. Frankly, we need that capacity to expand because whether it is lab space for biologists working on genomics, office space for law professors who will bring international law to Harvard Law School, space for experts on education as the Education School magnifies it contribution to schooling in America, we will be needing more space in the years ahead. And it is also the case, I believe, that academic space is a little bit like houses. If you buy a new house, the rooms are better configured to the way American families live today, than if you buy a house that is 75 years old. The den is the right size; the master bathroom is the right size, and so forth. And just the same way, new academic space can be configured right to the way today’s University functions. So we have an historic opportunity in the years ahead. Just how we take advantage of it is the subject right now of an active planning process, but it is a very big choice.

We will need also to grapple at a University-wide level in the way that the Business School has with what I think are the trinity of forces that are going to reshape higher education over the next 50 years. Globalization, information technology, and a third phenomenon that I think is at least equally important, which is the rising demand for mid-career education. Universities have traditionally been premised on what one might call the “fuel tank” theory of learning. You fill up your fuel tank with knowledge when you are young, then you go forth and you work, and eventually your tank runs out, and you retire. And that has basically been the way that the education system has existed.

Harvard Business School has been way ahead of the curve for many years with the AMP program and other programs in providing for refreshing education. But in a world where people are going to live much longer than they have in the past, where more and more people are going to have multiple careers, where whatever you knew is going to obsolesce more rapidly, the business of mid-career education is going to increasingly need to be, not an adjunct, but a central part of higher education.

Finally, we are going to need in the years ahead to bring our schools ever closer together. Whether it is in achieving the commitment that we need to have as a University to diversity, or whether it is in pursuing many of the great intellectual opportunities which lie not within a single discipline or a single area, but across sectors, bringing our schools together will be a final major challenge for the years ahead.

But if I leave you with one thought, it is this one: This is really a remarkable institution, Harvard Business School, in ways that many of it friends do not fully appreciate. And if it sends leaders forth, and it surely does, it also leads in important ways by its example. And I believe that we at Harvard can learn from that example ever more powerfully in the future. Thank you.