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Remarks of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, Financial Aid Initiative Kickoff Event

Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

I want to say three things tonight. The first is: I want to thank Bill Graham for his leadership of the Harvard Divinity School. And I want to thank his wife for helping him do it. This is a school with great traditions, really the longest traditions there are at Harvard. And a school with great traditions needs to maintain those traditions and at the same time renew itself. And Bill is doing a wonderful job of working with the faculty on that objective. He is taking on challenges. He is asking the right questions. He is bringing people together. He is, despite being – and this is a word I confess I never knew before I encountered the Harvard Divinity School – an irenic personality. He is also a strong leader and the University is very, very lucky to have Bill Graham in this position.

The second thing I want to say tonight is how important I think the Divinity School is to the mission of our University. Now, I have to say that one of the things that goes with my job is you are called upon quite frequently to stand up and talk to different people. Within the last week I’ve been talking about the definition of intellectual property and the role of human rights and the future prospects of genomics. And these different things actually have very little to do with one another. There’s actually only one common element in all the places I’m supposed to talk, and that is that in every single one of them, all the people who I’m talking to know much more about the subject I am talking about than I do. And so I hesitate to say very much about the Harvard Divinity School, but I will say this. I think that when we think about the mission of education, it is about learning facts. It is about comprehending concepts. It is about developing new ideas, and it needs also to be about doing the right thing.

And when we think about education, we think too little about doing the right thing. Because if you think about what it is that goes wrong, if you think about what happens at a place like Enron, it is not that you need a Harvard education to know that you should not destroy a material document. It is not that you need to go to the Harvard Business School to know that you need to report your losses as well as report your profits. It is a matter of people learning to do the right thing. And in a very deep and profound sense that most of you understand much better than I, is for each of us in our own ways, and with different traditions, to, in our faiths, try to find the strength to do the right thing.

And as we develop leaders for communities of faith, as we understand communities of faith, as we think within our great religious traditions, we are creating an environment in which more people in this world will do the right thing. That – whether it is in questions of just war, whether it is in questions of comforting the afflicted, whether it is finding inner solace with respect to the loneliness we all feel at sometimes, whether it is in our lives with our families, whether it is in the agonizing choices that must be made in our hospitals – that moral, ethical element which has always been so central to the Harvard Divinity School, will, I am convinced, be even more important in the next century than it has in the last three-and-one-half centuries. So I am here to tell you that the work you support is very, very important.

I want to say a third thing, and it goes to the specific initiative that we’re all here to talk about tonight and to which Karen Vickers Budney and Diana W. Phillips have lent their very generous support and leadership. And that is the set of questions around financial aid. One of the first realizations that I came to when I became President of Harvard and walked around, talking to people in different parts of the University, was that the “every tub on its own bottom” system has many great virtues. It really does in terms of setting standards, in terms of pushing for excellence, in terms of creating accountability. It has many, many great virtues. But it does lead to a problem. And that problem is this: the value and importance of an academic activity is not and should not be proportional to the average income of the people who complete that academic activity.

Indeed, in many ways the activities – whether it’s in teaching kids, leading communities of faith, working as a civil servant in our government, dealing with AIDS in the less developed world – that most come close to touching our hearts are often the ones that, perhaps because they touch our hearts and people are prepared to do them even without great pecuniary rewards, are the ones where the pecuniary rewards are least and therefore the challenges of achieving excellence are all the greater. And so it is with Divinity. I made the judgment that one of the most important things I could do as President was to seek to support and reinforce and reward students who choose to go into these careers of service rather than careers characterized or sought on the basis of remuneration.

Because it seems to me that the principles that we set as a University – when we talk about Harvard College, we talk constantly about how proud we are that there is need-blind financial aid and that anyone can come regardless of their family’s financial position and we do not deny ourselves any excellence no matter what because of a person’s financial position. And I asked myself why that should not be true if you are preparing to be a teacher or a minister or a public health professional or a doctor working in an AIDS clinic. I don’t think that question has a good answer, and I think it is a worthy goal for a great university to provide the same kinds of financial aid for students who aren’t going to make a lot of money as we do for the students who are going to make a lot of money. It seems a rather obvious principle.

We’ve taken important steps in that regard. For the first time in the University’s history and for the first time in higher education anywhere, the University now has a program in which any student, any graduate student at the University, can borrow the entire cost of their education, including room and board, at a sub-prime interest rate and pay it back over the next 15 years. That’s something we have never had before and we have been able to do it with the power of the University’s guarantee. But, you know that ability to take on $60,000 of debt is more comforting to those taking on careers at McKinsey rather than those looking forward to careers in the ministry. And so we also need to strengthen our commitment to financial aid and to grant financial aid. And I’ve created in the time I’ve been here the Presidential Scholars Program, which provides funds to the Divinity School and other schools to enhance their capacity for grant financial aid. And on a university-wide basis that is a major object of our fundraising efforts.

But that’s why I was so glad when I learned of this initiative. Archie Epps, who in his 35 years at Harvard, had so many creative ideas, so many ways of bringing people together to serve an objective larger than himself and larger than themselves, always calm, always thinking, but always looking both backwards to great tradition and forwards to great accomplishment – when Archie had the idea of focusing on the idea of financial aid at the Divinity School, it was not long before Peter Gomes saw its importance and saw its potential and saw another remarkable opportunity. The opportunity to honor one of the greatest of my predecessors, Nathan Pusey. To honor a man whose presidency of Harvard, and whose period of presidency, looks better and better with each passing year, and whose moral strength of purpose has been an inspiration to his successors. And whose willingness to really take a leadership role in rejuvenating the Divinity School, at what I think can fairly be called a perilous moment in its history, is really a model for his successors in how presidential leadership can make a great difference within an individual academic institution. And so Peter saw an opportunity, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Nate’s ascension to the presidency of Harvard, to honor that great man by making it possible for more of the most outstanding people to get the kind of training that was closest to his heart.

And so this financial aid initiative is on one level a program to help the Divinity School do what it does, and on another level, it touches Harvard’s greatest traditions, honors one of its greatest leaders, and does something that is profoundly important to our purpose as a University. And that’s why I’m very glad to have been able to be here to support him.

Thank you very much.