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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Harvard Club of Boston Annual Dinner, Boston, Mass.

One of the great joys of this job has been getting to know Harvard alumni and seeing the kind of devotion that Harvard gets from its alumni. It is an enormous source of strength for all who study and teach at the University and we are all grateful to the Harvard alumni.

Thanks above all to the students that are here with us. Thank you to the Harvard scholars who remind all of us why we do so much for Harvard.

Thank you, Fong, for your example. Your example, a student, a young person born in a refugee camp. Eighteen years later, majoring in English at Harvard and training the next generation. That is what this is all about and that is the kind of way in which Harvard University serves society. [applause]

You know, it was one of the great thrills of my life when I was offered the trust of serving as your President. I am only the seventh person to become the President of Harvard University since the end of the Civil War. And that is a tribute to the strength and to the longevity of my predecessors and it is a reflection of what they have done for Harvard over many years.

I was prepared to take on this trust because when I think about the next century, it seems to me that the two most important things that will shape the next century are the ways in which young people are prepared to lead and the new ideas and the way they are carried forth that will shape that century. And if you think about what Harvard University is all about, those are the two things it is all about — teaching and learning, researching, developing new ideas. It seems to me that there is no mission more important in the 21st century and no institution better prepared to lead than Harvard University.

What I thought I would do tonight was to give you a sense of the variety of issues and variety of challenges that confront the University. Rather than by giving you a laundry list of priorities, just by talking about five experiences that I’ve had in the last couple of weeks that point to the excitement of my position, but more importantly point to the importance and excitement of what is going on at the University.

Ten days ago, I had a chance to welcome Mexico’s President Zedillo to Harvard and to introduce him as he spoke in The Forum at the Kennedy School of Government. President Zedillo’s topic that day was a question that is of profound importance for all of us and for the University: How the world will manage the great challenge for the 21st century of the coming together of traditionally industrialized affluent societies, like our own and those of Europe, with the vast majority of humanity that lives in countries that are far poorer and less developed.

Anyone who doubted the relevance of that challenge should consider this. If I had asked you eight months ago to name a place so remote and so backwards and it did not matter much for the United States, quite likely you would have named Afghanistan. Our failure to anticipate as a nation what happened reflected in no small part the lack of capacity in our government and intelligence agencies to translate the electronic communications intercepts that were available to us.

If we are going to succeed in taking advantage of the opportunities for human betterment that globalization creates, be it the creation of prosperity, be it enabling more humans to live in freedom, be it the opportunities to reduce hunger and to improve health in the less developed world, if we are to avoid the challenges of nuclear conflict, of mass slaughter, of large-scale environmental degradation that may have their roots in the developing world, we are going to need a much greater understanding of what goes on there than ever before. And here the University is prepared to lead.

This year we are modifying our programs for undergraduates to study abroad, to make that something that is possible for many more undergraduates to do during the term time and for many other undergraduates to do in the summer as part of summer internships. We are expanding our financial aid policies to enable more students from abroad to come and have the opportunity to study at Harvard College. We are taking advantage of the convening power that Harvard uniquely has, as evidenced by President Zedillo’s presence, as evidenced by the fact that he was the seventh former head of state to visit Harvard within just this year, to make the University increasingly a place for dialogue and thinking on these crucial global issues.

We are debating and we are discussing challenges that were before September 11th morally central, are more morally central today, and are directly pragmatically important for how all of us will live in the next century.

Two nights later I had a rather different experience. I hosted a dinner at my home. This is something that since serving as President I have started to do periodically, hosting a dinner for a group of faculty in all parts of the University concerned with a particular set of intellectual questions. The one I held most recently happened to be on brain science in all of its manifestations from the Psychology Department to the Biology Department to the Medical School to work that was going on in the Public Health School.

And I learned that we are at a remarkable point in life sciences and biology, as professors described to me the transition that we are in from half a century of reductionist science, from the organism to the cell to the nucleus to the chromosome to the gene to the DNA, back to a period we are now in of putting the pieces back together and understanding disease processes at their root.

I spoke with a researcher who was finding keys to Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases. How, in a way that would have been unthinkable even seven years ago, first by looking at different families and isolating which gene linked most closely to certain degenerative diseases, taking that gene, reading it to see which proteins that gene synthesized, observing that those proteins were central to the disease process, using the tools of modern organic chemistry to synthesize the proteins that could block the catalysis of those proteins that were so damaging, ultimately engaging in translational research to take that chemical discovery and develop drugs that could cure diseases.

That was one disease. We are now, for the first time in human history, at a place where that kind of potential exists in the next several decades with respect to most of the major diseases. And we here in Boston live at what can be ground zero of this biomedical revolution. Of the five institutions that receive the most funds from NIH peer-reviewed competitions, five are in Boston. The potential of Harvard, of MIT, of the great teaching hospitals to come together, to build the necessary infrastructure, to at last understand these disease processes, is unprecedented.

And that will be a central priority for the University in the years ahead, not for any single component of the University, not just for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, not just for the Medical School, not just for any single school given all that is involved. Our faculty is at the brink of discoveries in the biomedical area that will make much of what has happened over periods of several decades look quite small.

I had a third experience just last week. Eliot House has an annual dinner in honor of President Eliot’s birthday and they were kind enough to invite me to speak. I began by doing what I frequently do and should have done already, taking credit for the football team’s 9-0 season. [laughter] I hasten to observe that I don’t deserve credit for the football team’s 9-0 season. But one of the things I learned during eight years in Washington is that since you’ll get blamed for all sorts of things you didn’t do, you might as well take credit for all kinds of things you don’t deserve credit for. [applause]

At Eliot House I spoke with the students about what I think is the center of the University and is one of our most urgent challenges for the years ahead. And that is renewal and rededication to strengthening the Harvard College experience. Those of you who are Harvard parents and those of you who are sitting at a table with one of the Harvard scholars tonight know how special our student body is. We owe it to them as members of the faculty to make sure that they get the best education they possibly can.

That’s got a number of elements. It means taking a new and fresh look at our core curriculum, as strong as it is, to make sure that after a quarter-century it is renewed to meet the needs of students in the 21st century. It means thinking about new combinations of knowledge in which students may wish to concentrate, in the same way that those who created the Social Studies and History and Literature programs two generations ago made a great contribution to Harvard College.

But above all, it means this: It means making sure that whether in the common room or in the classroom, whether in the library or in the laboratory, that Harvard students and Harvard faculty come increasingly together to work together. Because in an era of technology, in an era of greater complexity, I am here to tell you that direct personal contact between student and teacher, between learner and mentor, has never ever been more important and we are going to have more of that at Harvard over the next decade. [applause]

Towards that end, and this brings me to the fourth of the experiences that I want to recount, I decided that in my first year as President that I would not be able to realistically try to teach a class in the University or offer a course. So what I’ve tried to do as an alternative is to visit as many classes as I can when classes in the University are engaged in some way with something that somebody at least thinks I may know something about.

So I’ve taught about a dozen classes over the course of the time that I’ve been at the University. And about 10 days ago I went to a seminar that was held at the Law School with many students from the Law School and many students from the Business School to talk about financial regulation. We talked about various aspects of financial regulation. The course was very focused on financial institutions, so I gave a talk about the issues involved in the repeal of Glass-Stegal, which had been a focal issue during my time as Treasury Secretary.

But what was much more interesting than my talk was the discussion we had afterwards which came very quickly to a question that is very much on many people’s minds, and that is what can we make of what happened at Enron? What are the lessons of it for our broader society? That was a question that was very much on the students’ minds.

One answer is the need for more ethics instruction, and this is an area where, because of that man right there, Derek Bok, Harvard is really a leader. But you know something, you don’t have to go to Harvard to learn not to shred material documents.

So the questions go deeper and go beyond the study of ethics. They go to something that is going to be very important in education in the years ahead, which is the recognition that education is not just about intellectual development but it is also about character development. It is about not just knowing the difference between right and wrong. That, I would suggest, is actually the easy part. It is about doing the right thing when the right thing is the hard thing, and the wrong thing is the easy thing.

And that is going to be an increasing part of what educational experiences prepare people for. Those are, I believe, going to be increasingly the dilemmas that our professional schools are going to have to deal with in an increasingly complex world.

And I believe that the emphasis and the energy that those students put on understanding what went wrong at Enron, on thinking about what kinds of things could have been different, is a kind of energy and creativity that will contribute to the intellectual and policy challenge of changing accounting rules, changing regulatory procedures that respond to this problem, but ultimately speak to what is a very important part of education: namely, character development.

The fifth and final activity I’ve been engaged in these last weeks that I want to mention, probably the one that has been most time-consuming for me. Harvard, as you know, is a decentralized institution that is comprised of eight major schools, and I’m now engaged in searches to select new deans for the Divinity School, for the Education School, and for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In each case, I need to find a successor to someone who has done an extraordinary job.

But searches are opportunities to think about the direction of schools and to think about how schools fit into the overall University. There’s one aspect of my thinking about the Education School and the Divinity School because I think it is a very important principle for the University in the years ahead.

You know, we are all very proud that one of the things that Harvard College has been able to do is to make it possible for anyone of sufficient excellence to come, regardless of their family background, regardless of their financial situation. We should be proud of that.

Shouldn’t the same thing be true for someone who wants to come to Harvard to be a religious leader, to be a public health leader, to be a teacher in America’s public schools? I think it should. It is not true today at any American university, it is not true today at Harvard. But we need to work towards that objective in the future.

If the University is to make the contribution that it can to building a better world, it needs to make sure that not just those of any income background can come to the College, but that those of excellence with any background can come to all of the University and can then go forward to do what they believe will make the greatest contribution to society. [applause.]

We will also, in the years ahead, build on the tremendous strength of our Faculty of Arts and Sciences. These are going to be crucial years for that faculty. It has not grown in a generation and it will now grow quite rapidly. It will face a wave of retirements as baby boom generation professors reach the retirement age. We will therefore hire more professors at Harvard in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in the next decade than in any decade in the University’s history. That is a crucial challenge.

Of all the University’s many resources, the one that is most important is its faculty. We will need a Dean who will lead a faculty to make those choices wisely, to ensure that those we bring to Harvard, those who build their careers at Harvard, are the individuals who can make the greatest contribution while they are at Harvard, to the development of new ideas and to the teaching of Harvard’s students.

The person who’s selected as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will have the awesome responsibility of nurturing and growing this precious faculty, this resource at the center of the University. And that, too, is a great challenge. I’ve talked to you about five of the experiences from the last two weeks that have had the most meaning for me. I could have spoken of many others. I could have spoken of the thrill of seeing the Harvard Hockey Team play at Worcester and the disappointment when they lost in sudden-death overtime.

I could have spoken of musical performances. I could have spoken of the kind of faculty I’ve worked to recruit to the University. I just want to leave you with this thought: I am so grateful to all of you and to the University for the chance to have this trust, to tell you that your University has made an enormous contribution to the world, and that I believe its greatest contributions are yet to come.