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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Annual Awards Dinner, Harvard Club of Chicago

Let me start by saying this. It was one of the great thrills of my lifetime when I was offered the position of the Presidency of Harvard University. A daunting thrill to be sure, since I knew that I would only be the seventh person to become President of Harvard University since the Civil War. I knew that I had been the 71st Secretary of the Treasury since 1798. And that I was going to be the 27th President of Harvard since 1636.

But I believe deeply that the two most important things that will shape the new century, that will shape the world in which my children will live, are new ideas and their application on the one hand, and the leaders who will carry those new ideas forward, and bring them into fruition on the other.

And if you think about the work of Harvard University, it is the work of new ideas, and it is the work of preparing young people who will bring them to fruition. I believe there is no more important work in this world than developing new ideas and engaging in education which is the ultimate act of faith in the future. I believe there is no institution in this world that does it better than the university we love, Harvard University. [Applause]

I also was prepared to take up this position because I believe that as strong as Harvard University is, it can continue to be better in the next generation than it was in the last. And I believe that of all of Harvard’s traditions, its most enduring tradition is that it is forever young, forever renewing itself, forever making itself better.

There are many, many issues that the University will face in the years ahead. Let me highlight five that seem most important to me.

First, strengthening Harvard College. The Harvard College experience is a terrific one. It attracts many of the best students across the country, and increasingly across the world. But it is time, a generation after the institution of the core curriculum, that we review that experience in its every aspect; that we review how the House system conceived 70 years ago can best meet the needs of today’s students; that we think about the curricular combinations that are most important for today’s students; for the kinds of programs that are, to a new world, what social studies, and history and literature were to the world of two generations ago; and that above all, at last, we commit ourselves to increased contact between Harvard students and Harvard faculty so that they have the interactions that are the most important reason why both are there.

Whether it is in the common room, or the classroom, the laboratory, or the library, it is time we stopped talking about having more faculty/student contact, and started doing the things that are necessary to make there be increased contact between students and faculty at Harvard University. The College is the center of the University. It is excellent. It can be better.

Second, science. The life sciences. We are fortunate to live in the one time in human history when there is a revolution in the extension of the human life span because of what science can do. A century ago, life expectancy in the United States was my current age of 47. Plausibly, my daughters, and certainly their children, can expect to live past 100. There is one reason. Science. Science is changing every aspect of the way we live.

There was a time when it was all right for an educated person to have to know the names of five plays by Shakespeare. But not knowing the difference between a gene and chromosome, or the meaning of exponential growth, that was a technical detail. That time is past. The University will need to adapt itself to science. Because of what science can contribute, but equally, because if war is too important to leave to generals, science is too important to leave to scientists in its social implications. And if we are to come to the right views on questions like cloning, questions like stem cells, questions like privacy in the era of the Internet, we will need thoughtful people, trained in a humanistic tradition, who understand these technologies, and can help us craft solutions that assure that they are used best.

Third, service to a broad world. Harvard is the site of some of the greatest professional schools in the world in profoundly important professions: law, business, medicine. I say to you, though, that we are proud that every student who wants to come to Harvard, who Harvard chooses as excellent, can come to Harvard College regardless of their financial position; can come to Harvard Business School regardless of their financial position; can come to Harvard Law School regardless of their financial position.

Should not the same thing be true for those who want to do the work of being a teacher; for those who want to do the work of improving the public health; for those who want to do the work of public service? If we are to maximize our contribution to an increasingly dangerous world, we must make sure that all the privileges, and all the strengths that have traditionally attended the Harvard professional schools that prepare people for a life in the private sector, also attend those schools that prepare people for a life in public service, whether in education, or health, or law, or any other sector. That is part of how we can maximize our contribution. [Applause]

Fourth. Harvard will make choices in the next decade that will shape the campus for, I would judge, at least a century and a half. Harvard has now obtained land with academic space equivalent to three Harvard Yards in Allston, in the area adjoining the Business School towards Boston. That makes Harvard the only urban university in the United States with substantial room for expansion. And that is a historic opportunity.

We have not yet made this choice. We do not know yet how this land will be used. But we do know this. When the Business School decided, in the 1920s, to cross the Charles River to what was seen as the hopeless swamp, an institution was created that changed the face of American capitalism. We know that what many of you remember as a singularly ugly bus and train yard is, today, the site of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

We know that what was once a set of very ugly dock lands is now the Harvard House system. I don’t know which components of the University will move to Allston. That is the subject of a complex planning process. But I do know this. Those who move will be thanked by their successors because we have an opportunity that no other great university has: to create brand new, 21st century, modern academic space.

And finally, we will grapple in the years ahead with a trinity of issues that coming together will redefine what it means to be a university: globalization, information technology, and continuing education.

Let me start with the last. For two centuries, higher education has operated on what one might call the “fuel tank model.” When you were young, you went to college, and graduate school, and you got filled up with knowledge. Then you gradually used the knowledge through your life, ran down the tank. Eventually, you didn’t know much that had anything to do with anything, and you retired.

That is the wrong model. The wrong model for a world in which people are going to live longer, work longer, have more careers, and confront more change than ever in the past. Learning is going to have to take place throughout your lifetime. And throughout your lifetime, you are not going to be able to come spend multiple years sitting in a campus in Cambridge.

And so, continuing education is going to lead us, inevitably, into a key role for technology and distance learning. And once we are led in those directions, the nature of geography is going to change very profoundly.

Tokyo is going to cease being further away from Cambridge than Chicago. Johannesburg is going to be no further from the Harvard Business School than New York. Because communication is going to take place in a very different way.

But, what will most fundamentally change the University over the long-term is this combination of continuing education, distance, and technology. And what we must do at Harvard is make sure that we extend our excellence in every way possible without ever diluting that excellence. And believe me, how successful we are in doing this will have a very profound impact on the world. Because if you think about it, there is no greater global challenge right now than the coming together of rich countries and poor countries; no greater opportunity, but also no greater risk, whether in military conflict, whether in environmental problems, whether in the spread of disease.

An institution, founded centrally on knowledge, on understanding, on communication, will not meet its obligation to these times if it does not grapple with this central challenge of our times.

Globalization, Allston, service, science, the College. This is a large and ambitious agenda for our university. But its continued greatness demands no less. And it will succeed. It will succeed because of the remarkable students we have. It will succeed because of the faculty who we are able to attract. And it will succeed because it is fortunate in having the loyal support of the remarkable network of 300,000 alumni in every part of this world.

Thank you very much.