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Remarks of Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers to the Harvard College Fund Assembly

Boston, Massachusetts

On occasions like this there are different kinds of talks that someone in my position can give. Sometimes one talks about what one hopes are soaring hopes and dreams for the future. But sometimes, what seems most important is to evoke what is ongoing and remarkable about this community. And that’s what I want to do today, by talking about some experiences that I have had within the last two weeks, just walking around and being part of our campus life.

Two days ago, I attended a lunch for the Weissman Fellows Program. The Weissman Fellows Program is something we introduced 10 years ago. It’s a program that enables about 20 undergraduates each year to spend the summer abroad in an internship and come back and draw on that internship in their studies here. We have undergraduates who’ve done that on every continent, who’ve helped to fight AIDS in India, and who’ve helped to fight inflation in Argentina, who’ve helped to preserve key archeological sites in the Middle East, and who have helped to assure profitable business growth in East Asia. And what is remarkable about those experiences when you hear the students talk about them is two things: one is, how remarkably different they are in the different cultures in which they are embedded. But the other is, the very striking common element in those experiences and, in every case, the opportunity not just to read about what was happening in a very different culture but to live as part of it changed the way they viewed the world, changed the way they viewed our country, and changed the way they viewed their future. And that is a truly important part of education. And that’s why the leadership that Dean Kirby has provided, as we think about international issues in reforming our curriculum, is so profoundly important and why I hope we’ll be able to look forward to the day when in one way or another, over the summer or during the term or between semesters, every Harvard student will have had a significant international experience.

I had a different kind of experience two weeks ago. We had in the Science Center the first African American alumni reunion that Harvard has had in 16 years. Six hundred people came back for that reunion. They had a mix of feelings about their time at Harvard, a mix, I think it’s fair to say, of feelings about Harvard. But the reason we had that reunion and the reason why we’re going to have reunions like it every three years now going forward is because it is profoundly important to what this university is about, that every student, every alumnus who passes through Harvard, feels that it is their university, their football stadium, their classroom, their House, their community. It was a remarkable sense of energy and it showed, and I think it was very much on everyone’s mind, on the one hand, how far we have come as a college and as a nation, and on the other, how far we have to go. It was within my lifetime that the Harvard Club of Washington met in a segregated hotel to decide whether African Americans were going to be admitted to that club. That tells you something about how far we have come.

But the recent research of scholars shows us how far we have to go. This was research in which they did a simple exercise. They created some resumes, created some want ads, created some resumes to use in responding to want ads. They created exactly the same resume with one difference: sometimes the resume said James and sometimes the resume said Jamal. That was the only difference. This is in America today and the response to James was 50 percent greater than the response to Jamal. Then they did something else. They changed the resumes and they varied the resumes and they saw how the response changed. And if your name was James and you had a higher grade point average in college, where you had an extra advanced degree, your attractiveness for those jobs changed very substantially. But if your name was Jamal there was very little change. That tells you something about how far as a society we have to go and Harvard can have a very, very important part in doing that, and we are going to, as we work to recruit the best and most excellent students from every possible background.

I had another experience. One of the things I try to do each year – I met and spent some time with Bill Fitzsimmons, talking about a class that’s applying now. We don’t have all the statistics yet but we’re able to predict these things pretty well. Let me tell you a little bit about it. We will have more than 2,000 people who will apply to us, who got an 800 on their SAT in mathematics. We will have more than 2,000 people who will apply to us who got an 800 on the verbal SAT. We will have 3,000 people apply to us who are high school valedictorians – and if you read the applications of the people who apply to us, what is most remarkable about them is actually not those 800s and those valedictorians. It is the things that our students have been able to do before they were 18 years old.

It is these applicants who have played in the major concert halls in the world. It is the applicants who have published papers in scientific journals. It is the applicants who are expected to make U.S. Olympic teams. It is the applicants who are world-class performers. It is the applicants who have, by themselves, raised their younger sisters and younger brothers because their homes were not the homes we would like for our children. It is the applicants who have brought new social concern to their communities. It is the applicants who are seen as people of remarkable character and leadership by everyone they touch in their school.

It is something that gives us who are privileged to work with these students a remarkable opportunity but also, I believe, a great responsibility because what will shape this world is the people who will come forth to lead it. And the group of 1,650 young people from every state, from dozens of countries, from every possible background, who come together in the Tercentenary Theater every year at Harvard are helping to build one of the most remarkably talented group of young people ever assembled in the history of the world. If you think about it in the context of a whole life, the years in which students are here at Harvard College are the years of tremendous malleability in their lives. The capacity to absorb values and to absorb complex ideas when you’re younger is greater and, by turn, more limited when you reach a greater maturity. And too many of us have our ideas pretty set by the time we’re 30.

And in these years we have such a wonderful opportunity to shape and to prepare what these students do. And you know, I talk a lot to faculty who we’re successful in recruiting from other universities and I ask them, after they’ve been here a year or two, what surprises you about Harvard? And they almost always give one of two answers. One is the futility of the Red Sox and the other, the more serious answer that they give is: I had heard that the undergraduates were terrific. I had heard that they were remarkable. But they are much better than I thought they were. They are much more impressive than I thought they were. It is a really powerful thing.

There’s a fourth experience that I had that, really it’s a couple of experiences that speaks to what’s special about this place. Derek Bok, when he was president, said something very important about the job of being a dean of the university or president. He said that ultimately if when you leave there’s a stronger faculty than there was when you came you will almost certainly have succeeded, no matter what else you do. And if you build a lot of buildings and invent a lot of programs and do a lot of things but the faculty, the people who teach, the people who develop new knowledge, doesn’t gain in strength, you probably have not been successful.

That’s why in many ways, the most important part of my job is approving and reviewing every appointment to the senior faculty at Harvard. It’s a process that takes place over a four-hour hearing in which there’s discussion with experts from a range of other universities and a number of members of the Harvard faculty. And the dean and I ask a lot of questions and raise a lot of issues and review very carefully a person’s performance in teaching, review very carefully the quality of a person’s research. And we are able to recruit remarkable scholars here. I’m not going to name any names; it wouldn’t be fair. But I’ll tell you a little bit about a few of the people who we’ve recruited to Harvard in the last few years. A Pulitzer Prize-winning literary scholar whose work has redefined our understanding of pragmatism and the tremendous intellectual vitality of what took place in the Harvard community during the Civil War period. An anthropologist who is using the tools of modern science to advance archaeology. Archaeology, you know, used to be sort of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; you went out and you looked for things and you tried to figure out what was going on. This professor had her students chemically analyze their fingernail clippings and from those fingernail clippings was able to tell whether they had traveled in Europe in recent months because of the ways in which it would influence the diet which would in turn influence those fingernail clippings.

I met with a professor of psychology who came to the University recently who’s done something that, on the one hand is profoundly important, but on the other hand can sometimes be uncomfortable. We all know what our conscious attitudes are towards men and women, towards young people and old people, towards people of different races, towards people of different religions. It’s harder to know what our unconscious attitudes are. That’s probably more important for many aspects of our behavior. And she has devised a test; you can do it on the Internet, it takes about 10 minutes, that can tell you a lot about yourself. Three million people have taken that test on the Internet and learned a great deal about themselves and we now have a much greater understanding of prejudice than we did five years ago. And it’s a question and it’s a technique that can be applied in many, many different contexts because this basic idea of understanding unconscious attitudes is something that has pervasive applications. And there are more than a dozen Harvard undergraduates working in her laboratory who are applying that technique to a whole range of new questions and advancing understanding.

I could tell you more of these stories. You’ve got, those of you who had a chance to hear Steve Rosen talk this morning about American empire and the challenge of American foreign policy, or got to hear Dale Jorgenson describe the research that’s the center of this week’s Economist magazine that he has done, showing that some of the differences in productivity performance in the United States, in Europe, in Japan, aren’t actually differences in productivity performance but actually reflect the fact that we measure output differently, a sense of the excitement of the work that’s going on on this campus.

But you know something, the experience that has been most satisfying for me in the last week was the two hours that I spent teaching a globalization seminar. And I can only say that I wish that I was half as curious, half as mature, half as thoughtful as the students in that class were when I was 18 years old. We discussed a set of issues having to do with the fact, as an example, that The Harvard Crimson had decided a year or so ago to create an archive and did it by hiring a company that hired a whole set of workers in Cambodia to create that archive, working for $4 a day. And the question was, was that exploitation, was that selling America short, or was that part of a process that would accelerate convergence and economic growth? I can only tell you that the discussion that we had was more sophisticated and rigorous and thoughtful than any discussion of that type of issue that I had had a chance to have during my eight years in Washington. You can take that two different ways. I choose to take it as a tribute to our students.

You know, with all of this, it seems to me that my job, the task of all who care about this University as so many do so deeply is this: it is to make sure that as we make physical plans in Allston, as we make new academic structures and programs and review the curriculum and the rules for our students, as we think about our interaction with our alumni, there should only be one limit on what our students and our faculty are able to contribute through their learning, their creating, and their studying, to our world and that is the limit on their imagination. That is our challenge going forward. Thank you very much.