Skip to main content

Remarks of President Lawrence H. Summers, Black Alumni Weekend

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

I’m really glad that we’re having an event like this at Harvard. I did a certain amount of reading about the history of African-Americans at Harvard, and I learned that in the year of my birth, we had a rather different kind of discussion about the African-American experience at Harvard than the one we’re having today.

It seems that that year, the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C., one of our most important Harvard clubs in our nation’s capital, had a meeting. The subject of the meeting was whether Harvard’s African-American alumni would be admitted to the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C. That was within my lifetime, and Skip Gates’ lifetime, and the lifetime of many people in this room. And it was surely not the last time that there was, despite the goodwill of many, many people, a manifest sense of exclusion and a failure to belong that could only be felt by many members of this African-American community.

And so what is, I think, most important about this gathering is not anything I’m going to say, or even anything Buddy Fletcher’s going to give! By the way, Skip and I have it all worked out – we figured a thing or two out – Skip’s the one who makes the asks! What’s most important about it is that it is a very powerful reminder of something that I very much know has not always been true.

This is your University. This is your Science Center. It was your art museum that you were in last night. It is your stadium that you will visit this afternoon. And let me tell you, we are a far greater university for it, and in ways that many of you may not appreciate.

The things that an individual person says, the comments that a student makes in class, the influence that comes out of a conversation that leads to a suggestion. We are a far better university for the presence of everyone in this room, and the thousands of people who could have been in this room, but just didn’t happen to be able to do it this weekend.

I want to thank especially Charles Moore and Anne Morris and Brandon Gale for their chairmanship of this event. When Charles and Anne came to my office with this idea that they thought was important last December, I immediately recognized that this would be a wonderful time to bring our African-American alumni community together and with the help of a lot of people – and I want to single out Buddy Fletcher, and I want to single out Jack Reardon and all of his colleagues in the Harvard Alumni Association – I think we’ve been able to put together a historic event at a very, very important time. I also want to thank Chris-Tia Donaldson, who served as event co-chair, the entire Black Alumni Event Planning Committee, members of the Black Students Association, members of the Harvard Black Alumni Society, the honorary alumni hosting committee, and above all, everyone who is here speaking on the panels and participating in the discussions that we’re going to have. We are a better university for the fact that we are having this gathering.

I want, before I say anything else, to just pause for a moment and reflect on someone who might have derived more meaning from this event than anyone else – Dean Archie Epps. I didn’t get a chance to know Archie well – we spoke a number of times about issues on this campus. Many of you knew him far, far better than I, and so it would be presumptuous for me to talk about him at any length.

What I think we can all agree is that a time when any kind of African-American anything at Harvard could have been held – not at this lecture hall, but in a fairly small seminar room – Archie Epps played an absolutely crucial role in making this a more open and inclusive campus. And I have no doubt that when somebody like the Kellers writes the history of Harvard a century from now – and I hope that these kinds of histories will always be written of Harvard – that the name Archie Epps, and the things he did, will be much more prominent in that history than many who held positions that were higher up on some organizational chart. Because his is really an example of the slow, steady, calm, determined leverage that Buddy talked about.

There’s one other milestone that I want to acknowledge on this occasion, and that is that this is the 100th anniversary of Ralph Bunche’s birth. The first African-American professor at Harvard – a man whose contribution was yes, to the world of ideas, but equally and with close connection to the world of affairs. Whose service in the United Nations, in the idea of inclusion, in the idea of a single world in which rich countries and poor countries came together for human betterment in both. That ideal is in many ways something that anticipated things that are absolutely central to us today. We are prouder of no son of Harvard more than we are of Ralph Bunche, and Harvard looks forward to being a lead sponsor for the conference that will be held several weeks from now in Boston to commemorate the United Nations, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Any of you who have not had the occasion, as I have in recent weeks, to learn about and study his life, I commend it to you, because it is a real inspiration to the kinds of things that we are trying to do here.

As President, it’s my task at any alumni event to talk about some of the main things that are going on on our campus, and some of the things that we are trying to do in the University. And there are good things, I think, that are happening on many dimensions, starting with the football team. Harvard has not lost an Ivy League football game at home since I have been President. It’s actually been a narrowing band of claims that I’ve been able to make. I used to say “Harvard hasn’t lost a football game since I’ve been President,” then it was Harvard hasn’t lost a football game at home since I was President, then it was Harvard hasn’t lost an Ivy League football game at home since I’ve been President. I imagine that a few years from now I’m going to be saying in as sonorous a tone as I can muster, “Harvard has not lost to Columbia at home since I was President.” But we all do our best.

We now have close to half a square mile of Boston that we are going to be able to use to build the Harvard of the 21st century. And make no mistake, just because you can’t imagine what contemporary Harvard would be like without Tercentenary Theatre, those buildings framed by Memorial Church and Widener – just as for most of us, but not all of us, Jack, in this room – it’s hard to imagine what Harvard was like without the Science Center, and without the underpass that goes right near here.

The decisions that we are going to make in Allston are going to shape Harvard College and Harvard University for the remainder of this century, and beyond. We’ve got a tremendous challenge in the years ahead in the sciences. You know, we are at a moment in human history when science has the unprecedented potential to change the way in which we all live. I’m convinced that for any of you who haven’t yet had children, when you have children, their life expectancy is likely to be very close to 100, given the progress that we are making in genomics – and that is coming from an understanding of the biological roots of disease of a kind that we’ve never had before. This place, within five miles of this point, has the greatest collection of talent in the life sciences and in science that exists anywhere in the world. And the ways in which we harness it and mobilize it at Harvard will be transforming of not just what a university is able to contribute, but I believe there is the possibility, the way in which human beings live and die all over the world.

We have a profound challenge at Harvard, it’s one that I had the chance to speak about in my inaugural speech, and it’s one whose importance I have become more convinced of with the passage of time. And that is the challenge of strengthening the schools whose graduates have public service as their primary mission. Let me say something that’s very important to me. The value of the job that a graduate of this University does to our society is not proportional to the salary that she or he earns. We are so enormously proud, and we have a right to be proud, of the fact that every student who is admitted to Harvard College is able to come regardless of their family’s financial position – that we do not deny ourselves any person of excellence because of economics.

Shouldn’t that be true for people who want to be doctors working in an urban area? Shouldn’t it be true for people who want to work on the diseases of the poorest countries? Shouldn’t that be true for the ones who want to come to Harvard to study to be ministers, or to study to be teachers? I think it should, and that’s going to require a very special effort on all our parts.

We have made significant progress in the last several years. It is now possible for any student who is admitted to any graduate school at Harvard to borrow the entire cost of their graduate education at a sub-prime interest rate. Room and board, tuition, everything – you’re admitted to Harvard, you can borrow that money. That’s a very important step. But you know something, if you’re headed for a career teaching in a school, the news that you can borrow $75,000 is worth only so much. That’s why we’ve committed increased funding for scholarships, new fellowships that go across the University in support of public service. But we are going to have to do much more in support of public service in the years ahead if we are going to meet Harvard’s challenge of drawing people of excellence into public service and maximizing their contribution to society. We are going to have to commit ourselves to doing all the things that are necessary in terms of excellence to help provide the leaders in every sphere of what our country does.

But there’s a fourth key priority, and it’s one that I want to talk about at slightly greater length, because it is one that I think is probably most important to the members of this group who are graduates of Harvard College. And that is renewing our undergraduate experience. You know, it is a great triumph of Harvard, and it’s actually a rather remarkable thing, that Harvard was the leading university in this country in 1900. It is still today the leading university in this country. There is a term in the social sciences and in finance – Buddy makes money trading off of it from time to time – called regression to the mean. It’s the idea that things have a way of going back to normal. Einstein’s children weren’t as smart as he was, Napoleon’s children were taller than he was. And it is a ubiquitous phenomenon in human affairs. And if you think about the corporate leaders of three decades ago, if you think about the cities that were leaders three decades ago, it’s ubiquitous. And Harvard has defied that law of regression to the mean for the last century. And there are many reasons for it. But one of them has been a constant commitment to challenging, to questioning, and to renewal. And that’s why this review of the undergraduate experience is something that I believe is so terribly important to the University’s future.

It has been a quarter-century since we had the last such review – the one that led to the core curriculum. And let me tell you, there is nothing created by man that is so good that it should not be reviewed once every generation. And there’s a lot that we need to think about in this review, and I can’t predict for you where it will go. There are some places where I think we need to improve, but there are some places where I think we do very good things. Our admissions policies have been revolutionized in the time that Jack Reardon has been at Harvard, and fortunately, thanks to the Michigan decision this summer, we’re going to be able to maintain or commitment to classes that are diverse, and excellent, and excellent because they are diverse. And that is something that we can all be very grateful for.

At the same time, and we know this is true, when you can, by taking the right SAT prep courses, or getting the right kind of training in high school that some people have and some people don’t have access to, get a substantial leg up – and by the way, I haven’t seen the studies, but I have this sneaking suspicion that when you rank all the educational institutions in America in terms of the diversity of their classes, neither Princeton Review nor Stanley Kaplan will be especially prominent among the list of those who are most diverse.

We need to double and redouble our efforts to make sure that we are reaching into every high school in every city in this country to find the most extraordinary people. The most moving experience I’ve had in many ways in the two years I’ve been President was the chance I had to visit Hialeah High School, outside of Miami.

David Evans is nodding knowingly because he knows the record of that high school. The vast majority of kids in that high school didn’t speak English when they were 9 years old because they didn’t live in the United States when they were 9 years old, or if they did, they lived in a family where neither parent spoke English. Harvard took three students the year before last at that high school, took four students this year. And it wasn’t hard to see why. They were remarkable students, and that was a school with remarkable, dedicated teachers who were encouraging, and pushing, and supporting those kids in every way.

I remember one young man who we took, who now pitches for our baseball team. As impressive as that was, I was even more struck, given some of the habits that I have, by the kid who, at age 11, spoke not a word of English, and at the age of 17 had come in third at the Florida State Debate Championship. And who is now here and doing very, very well. We forged a connection with that school, and it make a very big difference to us, and you could just see talking to people that for the three or four kids who came to Harvard each year, we were touching the lives and raising the sights of dozens, if not hundreds of other kids in that school, and we were making a difference. And we can do much, much more of that to help all people of disadvantaged backgrounds in the years ahead.

The student body, the faculty. You know, if you look at the statistics, and I tried to review them pretty carefully before coming here this morning, there are twice as many African American members of the faculty of Harvard College today as there were in 1994. Now, Archimedes had some smart things to say, Buddy, about if you double something every 10 years, you soon get something pretty spectacular going. And so, doubling is pretty good. On the other hand, if you look at the absolute numbers, it’s not what it ought to be. It’s not what we would all, as a society, like it to be. There are 18 members of the regular ladder Arts and Sciences faculty, and that’s not enough. We crossed an important milestone this year; at one level I am very glad that we crossed it, but at another, the fact that it’s still a milestone to cross is saying something. Scott Edwards, who joined our department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, is the first African-American tenured professor in the natural sciences at Harvard. That is a very important step, and we can all want the day, look forward to the day, and work towards the day when there will be many more.

The opportunity that we have, as we focus on one of what has to be our priorities – all of you who’ve been at Harvard know it, everyone who’s been at Harvard knows it – that one of our priorities for the years ahead has to be strengthening the contact between faculty and students. Making sure that more of our students feel that they have really been mentored by a member of our faculty and fewer feel a sense of isolation.

That’s got many elements; some of them are matters of academic culture, some of them are matters of the way in which we review appointments, but some of them are matters of numbers, and if we’re going to meet that objective, we’re going to have to grow the faculty substantially more rapidly in the future than we have in the past. You know, today’s Harvard faculty is essentially the same size as the faculty was in the early 1970s, and it is difficult to imagine another institution as successful as Harvard that hasn’t grown its capacity to do the basic thing that it does. These years of faculty growth that lie ahead are important educationally, but they also provide a once-a-half-century opportunity to strengthen and build the diversity of our faculty. If we are able to work to recruit and identify persons of excellence, then that’s a great challenge as we think about the review of the undergraduate experience.

There’s another great challenge of the undergraduate experience, and that is to recognize that in many, many ways, the world has changed since the last time that we reviewed the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard. The whole world impinges on the lives of our students, and our students will live lives in the whole world and affected by the whole world in ways that didn’t seem likely to be true 30 years ago. And that’s why the change that Professor Gates mentioned, to take on board as a subject in a Department of African Studies is such an important step, even as we broaden the ways in which we think about all of our instruction at Harvard to take on board the challenge of globalization and to prepare people to live in a world in which Western civilization is a profoundly important civilization, but it is not the only part of the heritage of mankind that is important for them to understand.

At the same time, we’re also learning something else. I think about what I do in my job, I think about what most of you do in your jobs. You work with other people. You try to figure complex things out. You try to influence other people to do things that you think are terribly, terribly important. You are embedded in a society that is far more diverse; you all know the statistics better than I – California, which is always a harbinger of things to come for the United States as a whole … Well … that was a statement one made with rather more confidence six months ago than one makes today, but in this respect it’s actually true … now less than half of the children entering California’s schools are white. And that tells you that we are going to be a very different country than we were.

We need to prepare people for that, prepare people by thinking very hard about the ways in which we teach. Emphasize active learning rather than passive learning, emphasize all kinds of activities, whether it’s debates or discussions or labs or team papers that bring people together and get people working in teams and get people to be actives. Because you know something, educational psychology confirms what common sense suggests: that in many cases, the large podium, small chair method of conveying information is one of the least effective known to mankind. And that’s an important aspect of thinking about this review as well.

We won’t succeed in everything we try. Indeed, I hope we don’t succeed in everything we try, because if everything we try is a success, we won’t have been creative enough and taken enough risks. But I’m convinced that the role of thought, the role of well-prepared and educated young people, has never been greater in the history of man. And that’s why the work of an institution like Harvard has never been more important, and that’s why I am so delighted this morning to welcome you back home to Harvard.

Thank you very much, it’s been great to be with you.

For more information, please contact the Harvard News Office: 617-495-1585.