Skip to main content

Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Harvard Club Annual Dinner, New York City

Let me just begin by saying how excited and humbled I am to be the President of your University. I am daunted by the knowledge that I am only the University’s seventh President since the Civil War, and excited and exhilarated by the enormous potential that our University has.

If you stop for a moment to think about what is going to be most important in the next century, I believe it is two things: it is great individuals who will lead our society forward in every sphere and it is the new ideas and new thinking that they will bring to fruition. And it is those two things — the preparation of future leaders and the development of new ideas — that are the work of our great University.

And those two things — people and ideas — have never ever been more important. And in the world of ideas, in the world of education, we can be very proud of our University. If you think about the world of 1900, and you think about all the institutions that were pre-eminent at that time — companies in particular industries, particular media, particular modes of transportation — almost everything that was the best then is no longer the best.

Harvard was the best then and it is the best today, and that is a tradition we must all carry on. Let me just give you an example or two of that by saying something you might not like. You all here are terrific. But the students who are comprising our classes today are even better.

If we wanted to we could fill the class with students who got an 800 on their Math S.A.T., or we could fill the class with students who got 800 on the Verbal S.A.T. Or we could take half the high school valedictorians who apply to us, and that would fill the class, as well.

Now, we don’t fill the class in any of those ways because we understand how important it is to have a well-rounded group of future leaders who can contribute to society in every sphere. But it is a remarkable group of young people we assemble.

One other fact. Look at those who are Intel Science Prize winners or who are U.S.A. Today Academic All-Americans or who are Merit Scholars. Look at any group of outstanding high school students and you’ll find a very common pattern: about half of the best come to Harvard and about half go to the remainder of America’s universities.

We can be very proud of where we are. But much of the reason we have been pre-eminent for so long is that Harvard has never stood still. Harvard has always looked outwards to the challenges of the big world out there, and responded to those challenges. And Harvard has always maintained the values necessary for a great university.

So what I’d like to do tonight is reflect on three of the things that seem to me most important globally at this point in our history, and Harvard’s contribution to them; and then especially in light of recent events that you may have read about, make a few observations on the values on which our University rests.

We live first in an unprecedented age of science. A century ago an American could expect to live to be as old as I am now: 47. My daughters, and certainly their granddaughters, can expect to live as long as Al Gordon has: to over a century. And there is one reason, and that is the application of what is happening in the life sciences.

In all of human history, past and future, we are fortunate enough to be alive at the time when human life spans are being dramatically extended. We are fortunate enough to be alive at the time when we are at last understanding the biological processes behind disease and understanding how to intervene and halt those processes.

We are alive at a time when we actually understand what happened within the first tenth of a second of the cosmos billions of years ago. We are alive at a time when we are beginning to understand what it means to be conscious and what consciousness is all about.

This renaissance of science in which we are fortunate to live will test and challenge our University. It will mean that we will need to create a culture in which it is as embarrassing to not know the difference between a gene and a chromosome as to not know the names of five plays by Shakespeare.

It will mean that we will need to adapt the ways in which the University does its research to an era when scientific progress in high energy physics comes from papers with 300 co-authors; to an era when biology makes progress through projects like sequencing the human genome — an effort that involves the efforts of hundreds and thousands of people; to an era in which bringing ideas from the laboratory to application requires close collaboration with the private sector.

This will be a different, but it will be a better, University than the one that we have known.

There will be another challenge that a university like Harvard will face in the years ahead with regards to the sciences. In a world where a database will soon know every phone number that I have ever dialed; in a world where cloning is changing what it means to be human, we are going to need people who understand that science is too important to leave to scientists — who can think through the social problems and challenges posed by science with a scientific and technical understanding — yes — but also a grounding in the deepest human values.

And if those people do not come from universities like Harvard, I do not know where they will come from. Education in the sciences, adapting our modes of research and faculty hiring to an era of large science, thinking about the interactions between science and society, if we are to meet the challenge of the moment, that is the first thing we must do.

Second, the great challenge for society in the next 50 years will be the coming together, on a scale never before seen, of people in rich countries and poor countries. Of the billion people who live in countries like ours that are relatively affluent, and the five billion people who live in countries that are not — of the two billion people who live in countries where standards of living are little greater than a dollar a day.

If I had asked you, four months ago, six months ago, to name a single country that was so backward, so confused, so remote, that it did not have an important impact on United States interests, there would have been no more plausible example of such a country than Afghanistan.

Why did we miss some of the key intelligence as to what was happening? Not because we didn’t have the intercepts, not even because we didn’t understand that that was a dangerous part of the world. But because we didn’t have enough people who spoke the language to understand the intercepts.

Harvard University, all American universities, have a profound obligation to promote peaceful and harmonious and opportunity-creating globalization. This will have many elements. Right now, only nine percent of students at Harvard go abroad during their course of study. That means 91 percent do not. That is something we will change. The Faculty is considering it right now.

Our community at Harvard is, in many important respects, a model of open and tolerant exchange. One of the most moving experiences that I’ve had in the last few months was in late September. I went on a Friday afternoon to an Islamic prayer service to show my support and the University’s support for that group at a difficult time. What I was moved by was the hundred or so non-Islamic students who had gone there, too, to support their roommates, to support their friends, to show their tolerance. That is the kind of community we are.

And we are a community with enormous convening power, with an enormous impact on people’s lives. Again and again when I was at the Treasury, I was struck when I met with a finance minister or I met with a foreign minister or the head of a tax service of a country. We would have our conversation, we would talk about whatever we were going to talk about, and the person would be in a hurry.

And he’d say, “Mr. Summers, you were a professor at Harvard University, weren’t you?” I’d say, “Yes.” And he’d say, “I came to Harvard University in 1982 as a Mason or some other kind of fellow and it was the most important year of my life.”

This happened again and again. We need to integrate those people into our community; we need to follow them; and we need to build a network through which we can make and maximize our contribution to this process of global convergence. For if September 11th teaches us anything, it is that the world is still a very dangerous place, and it is one that the United States ignores at its peril.

And one of the central tasks of education has to be promoting the kind of global awareness that is going to be necessary to succeed in any walk of life in the years ahead, and promoting the kind of global awareness and global perspective that our country is going to need as it navigates the turbulent waters of the 21st century. And this, too, will be a priority for our University in the years ahead.

And there is a third challenge. The world is more difficult to lead than it ever has been before. Whether it is managing a business in an increasingly competitive world, whether it is keeping up with medical practice in a period when science is changing more rapidly than ever before, whether it is contributing to the leadership and the governance of cities or states or nations, all of this is more complex, more demanding, than it ever has been before.

And that means that our education programs must rise to that challenge. This too has a number of elements. We are very proud, as I’ve said before, that any student can come to Harvard College, regardless of their financial position. Should not the same be true for any student who wants to come to Harvard University to be an educator, to be a doctor working in a clinic, to be a public health professional?

This will be a challenge for us. It will require us to move beyond the ways in which we have traditionally raised funds. But if we are going to meet the challenge of preparing leaders for service, the University is no longer going to be able to deny itself any excellent student because of that student’s inability to afford a Harvard education. We have done it in the College. We must do it in the years ahead throughout the University.

And we have to do something else. As great as our students are, as successful as they are when they go forth, I believe that it is time to focus once again on the undergraduate education that Harvard College provides. This has many elements. Curriculum has a part, giving students the flexibility to pursue the interests they most want to. Developing new concentrations — the History and Literature and the Social Studies for the 21st century, concentrations that respond to new combinations of knowledge.

But above all, it requires this: it requires that we find the ways to assure that every student at Harvard University has regular and personal contact with the Harvard faculty. Part of that is more faculty for every student; part of that is change in the kind of faculty we hire and the attitudes they bring to the University. Part of that is a matter of our academic culture.

But make no mistake. The most important reason students should come to Harvard and do come to Harvard is to interact with the remarkable faculty. And the most important reason for our faculty to be at Harvard is to interact with our students. Whether it is in the library or the laboratory, the classroom or the common room, we need to have much more contact between our faculty and our students in the years ahead.

Strengthening undergraduate education, allowing all who want to serve to do that, will strengthen the University’s contribution to future leaders. What we do — knowledge and new thinking — is so crucial to meeting this challenge of globalization. We can be the leaders of the most profound transformation science has ever wrought in human society. These are great missions for a great university.

But if we are to meet these missions, in addition to setting the right priorities, we will also need to maintain the right values. And what are some of those values? A first value is diversity in every dimension. A generation ago, a century ago, Harvard was a place where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen.

Today it is open to people of all races, all faiths, all genders, all states of the Union, all nations of the world, all perspectives — and that is a change that has made us better. We must continue to be a place that promotes diversity in every dimension — diversity of opinion, diversity of background — because our commitment to excellence requires no less.

Second, we must have as a value the whole University. DNA is the same, whether you’re in the Biology Department or the Medical School. Competition is the same, whether you’re in the Economics Department or whether you’re in the Business School. Children learn in the same way, whether you’re in the Psychology Department or the Education School. We will need in the years ahead to continue what Neil Rudenstine so ably started, and bring our University together to the point where people think of themselves not as citizens of a single school, but as citizens of our University.

And last, and most importantly, we will need to maintain our commitment to veritas, to truth, to excellence, and to high standards. And that means that no idea and no one in our community is above being questioned. That means that we all need to ask of each other and to ask of all in our community the maximum contribution to teaching, the highest standards, and the greatest intellectual contribution that is possible.

And ultimately, that is what is most important to me. That whenever I finish doing this job, I will have maintained, strengthened and extended Harvard’s tradition of openness, of ever-higher standards of excellence in the pursuit of truth.

Thank you very much.