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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Harvard College Fund Assembly, Boston, MA

It has been a wonderful year being President of this University. It is, I am convinced, the most remarkable community in this world. I have to say, however, that it has been a very trying last week. I am no longer able to say that Harvard has not lost a football game since I became President. And I will never again be able to make that claim. However, I am confident that the longest winning streak of my presidency lies in the future. And I look forward to it starting today. Go Harvard!

You know, one of the most important things that I do in my position is carry out the trust that’s been placed in me to select key leaders within the University. There is no more important position within the University than dean of the Faculty. There was nothing I did last year that is likely to be more important over time than selecting a new dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

I was convinced when I chose Bill Kirby that I had chosen well. And watching him over these last few months, I am far more convinced of that proposition. We have a remarkable dean to lead the faculty, to lead all of us — in renewing the faculty, in strengthening the curriculum, and in moving this University forward. Bill, thank you for everything that you do.

I want to reflect for just a couple minutes on three things that are major themes at this moment and as we look at what’s going on in the world, and bring them back to the challenges that we face as a university, and then just reflect for a moment on the University’s deepest values. September 11th is a date like December 7th, and it will have meaning for a very long time.

It reminds us that America is not alone in the world, that it cannot be entirely safe in a world that remains very dangerous. If we are to make our way in that world we must make it with an understanding of the rest of the world and with an understanding of ourselves that can come only from comparison — and this has historically been a challenge for Americans.

There is a prominent member of Congress who was asked not long ago whether he had plans during the Congressional recess to go abroad. His answer: “No. I’ve been there.” That is an extreme case, though nearly half of his Congressional colleagues do not have passports. It speaks, though, to an imperative of education in the 21st century: preparing people for a broad international understanding.

If you had been asked a year-and-a-half ago to name an example of a country so remote and so distant that it wouldn’t really be very important to study and understand because it wasn’t going to be important for all of our lives, Afghanistan would have been as good an example as you could imagine. And think of where we are today. And think of that always, as you think about the University as a repository for knowledge, for study, and for thinking.

Let me take a second example. I read recently of how, within a few years, there is going to be a computer chip that can look at a human blood cell, read the genome within that cell, and predict what diseases that individual is likely to come up with, and when that individual is likely to come up with them. On the one hand, it carries with it enormous potential for improving health. On the other hand, it raises enormous questions as to whether that’s going to be accessible to everyone or to just some in our society. It raises important questions of what it’s going to mean to have insurance markets when that information is available in advance. How will there be life insurance? It raises enormous questions of what the ethics will be as society thinks about how to use and how not to use this information. It raises enormous questions about what rules we will put in place that will govern this new form of property. It will, in short, engage almost every area, not just of Bill Kirby’s faculty, but almost every area of the University.

I chose that as a particular example, but I could have chosen half a dozen others involving privacy and computer technology, involving other aspects of progress in the life sciences. There is no question that the changes wrought by technology are going to transform our world.

And if, as we have always said, you need a basic understanding of history and of literature to move forward into this world, we can also say far more today that you need a basic understanding of science and technology to function in the modern world — and that is a crucial challenge for liberal education. It is a crucial challenge of completing a liberal education and it is also a crucial challenge for building a healthier society.

Because, let me tell you, if war is too important to leave just to generals, science and technology are too important to leave just to scientists and technologists. And, though it gives me great pain to say, I will also concede that the economy is too important to leave just to economists.

Let me say, third, that we have all witnessed in the last number of years and in the last months especially, a very troubling de-legitimizing of many institutions of our society because of their perceived, and often their real, ethical failings. Think about the scandals that seem a pervasive feature of government. Think about the series of revelations of secrecy, of bribery, of self-dealing, of destroying documents, that we have seen in significant parts of the business sector in recent months. We have always had at this University — and in universities in general — a most precious asset: our reputation, our standing, and a most important obligation to recognize, as Theodore Roosevelt did, that an education of the mind without an education of the moral sense is a very dangerous thing.

And so we, too, will be challenged in the years ahead as we train leaders, to instill in them a commitment to the broader society, and to instill in them a sense of ethics and integrity. Part of that is providing instruction in ethics. But you know something? You don’t have to go to Harvard to know that you shouldn’t destroy a material document. You don’t have to go to Harvard to know that you shouldn’t pay a kickback.

No, I believe that the deeper standard of ethics that needs to be a crucial part of our culture, that needs to be an ever more important part of what we ask of our students, is a commitment to the highest standards in everything that they do and a commitment to stand up in the face of the crowd. Because if you try to understand those failings, whether it is Watergate or WorldCom — and I could go on — the root of the problem is people who knew and saw that the emperor had no clothes, and were afraid to ask the question. And that willingness to challenge, that skepticism, that commitment to do the right thing, needs to be a central part of liberal education. These are our three priorities that seem especially important to me.

I want to conclude with this reflection. It has always seemed to me that if one looks to the very long run, if one looks to the future of the world, the two most important things that will shape that future are new ideas and conceptions of how the world works and how it can be made better, and the people who, as leaders, carry out those conceptions.

Those two missions — developing new ideas and training the leaders of the future — are the two great missions of this University. The hardest thing that I did in my professional life was write Bill Kirby’s predecessor, Jeremy Knowles, a brief letter resigning my position as Professor of Harvard University, as I was required to do partway through my service in Washington.

It was hard because I believed that mission is so crucial to the future of the world. That was why I was so excited to accept the invitation to return to Harvard 18 months ago. Everything that I have seen since then — in the world and much more importantly, here at Harvard — tells me that with all of your help, as great as the contribution Harvard has made to our society in the past, its contribution can be even greater in the future.

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[In response to a question about the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences]

Let me say a few words about the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The Graduate School lies in a central position in the University because it’s the one group in the University that takes courses, teaches courses, and does research.

And it is essential to Harvard’s greatness that we attract the best graduate students. It is essential because they are the teaching fellows, the tutors in the houses, the ones who are on the front line of instruction for many undergraduates.

It is essential because it is the opportunity to work with the best scholars of the future that draws many faculty here.

And it is essential because it’s often the case that the most creative new discoveries occur from people who have just moved into fields rather than people who have been in them for a very long time.

So my goal for the Graduate School is to make Harvard the place of dominant choice for graduate students in every field in the same way that Harvard College is the dominant choice for undergraduates, in the same way that Harvard Business School is the dominant choice for business school graduates, in the same way that Harvard Medical School is the dominant choice for medical school graduates. And if you look at the yield figures, we have some significant way to go if we are going to achieve that. What are the key steps?

I think there are three.

First, we need to continue to renew and expand the Harvard faculty with the most exciting people who will attract the best scholars, and we need to make sure that just as Bill Kirby spoke about the faculty’s central role in mentoring our students, they are also mentoring our graduate students.

Second, we need to have the best and most focused graduate programs. One of the things that excites me most about what Dean Peter Ellison is doing is that he is putting enormous emphasis on the fact that part of your career as a professor, perhaps the largest part of your career as a professor, is as a teacher.

And so when Bill Kirby earned his Ph.D. here in the late 1970s, of all the instruction and advice and support he received on his way to his academic career — more than 99 percent of it was substantive about his field of Chinese history. Only minor amount of instruction and advice, relatively, was related to an area that was going to be crucial to his success in the future, which was teaching.

We have an opportunity to strengthen teaching and we are starting to through the Bok Center, through the requirements that Peter has put in place in other ways. And if we are successful in doing this, it will have ripples throughout higher education.

But let me say a third thing — something that is absolutely central to our ability to achieve the first two — and that is that we need to be able to compete for the best students. We are a great enough university that we do not need to bribe anyone to come here, but we should not be in the position of asking students to come here — the very best students to come here — at a substantial financial penalty relative to the financial aid that would be available to them at other great universities.

We do not do it in the College and we must not in the future do it in the Graduate School, and if we are to avoid doing that, we will need all of your help. Because frankly, it is not something that we are going to be able to achieve only with the support of those who have chosen to devote their lives to scholarship. And so I ask all of your support in the years ahead towards making the Graduate School as unique a pole of attraction as Harvard College has very long been.

Thank you for your support.