Skip to main content

President Lawrence H. Summers’ remarks at Harvard Club of Southern California

Pasadena, California

Something that’s very striking about Harvard that you can say of almost no other institution in this world: Harvard was the best university in the United States, perhaps even the best university in the world, a century ago. And it still is today. If you think about the best steel company, the best food company, the best — though we didn’t have car companies a century ago — the best anything company, the best newspaper, the biggest city, anything.

There’s a general law that we have in social science called regression to the mean. It basically says that Einstein’s kids aren’t going to be as smart as he was, and that Napoleon’s kids are going to be taller than he was. And basically, Harvard has defied that law of regression to the mean for a century. And that is an enormous challenge, because Harvard has defied that law of regression to the mean by always changing, by always evolving, by always meeting the challenge of new eras. And that’s what we have to do today.

We’re embarked, in Harvard College, on the first comprehensive review of the Harvard College experience in a quarter century. Harvard has done that only three times in the last century: when President Lowell led a review that produced the system of general education and concentrations that we still live with today; when President Conant designed a curriculum for general education in a free society; when Dean Rosovsky and President Bok introduced the core curriculum, which had very wide implications throughout higher education.

And now, because every human institution should be reviewed at least once a quarter century, because the challenge of maintaining our leadership requires it, the faculty is again engaged in thinking through the parameters of a Harvard undergraduate education. I don’t know where it’s all going to go. There is a great deal of discussion and dialogue going on between faculty and students, as we think through the design of this new curriculum. But I thought I would share with you tonight some hopes that I have for where that curriculum will go, and where Harvard will be five and 10 years from now.

First, I hope we will be engaged with the world in a way that American universities have not traditionally been. A very prominent leader in the U.S. Congress was asked a couple of years ago whether he planned to go abroad during the congressional recess. His answer: “No, I’ve been there.” You know, you laugh, but it says something about our society, and it says something about some of the problems we’re having, if that’s what a very powerful congressional leader said.

Well, my hope is that every Harvard student will have an international experience. Perhaps studying abroad during the term, perhaps a summer internship in a developing country, perhaps doing undergraduate thesis research. It’s going to be part of their lives, and it’s very important they begin to understand the rest of the world while they are at Harvard.

Second, I hope that we will provide for every Harvard student a small group experience with a member of the faculty in their freshman year, and in their senior year, and in between. This year, I did one of the most satisfying things I’ve done since I became president of the University: I taught a freshman seminar. My seminar was on globalization, and we read a range of works by economists, by other social scientists, taking different views on the phenomenon of globalization.

It was a fantastic thing. And it says something really remarkable about Harvard and our country, it really does, that in that seminar, this 17-year-old student who read the readings for one class, had to give a little presentation giving his views of the readings. And the kid sits there, and he goes, “I really felt the article by President Summers didn’t come close to proving its point. I just couldn’t understand why he said” — and then the guy went through the argument. And I mean he sort of had a point in his way. I did argue back with modest success.

But you know, if you think about the whole sweep of human history, think about all the institutions in the world, the fact that that 17-year-old kid could come, read the article, and tell the president of his university, writing about his experiences as secretary of the Treasury of the United States, that he was all wrong … it does say something about the humility for which Harvard students are famous. But much more importantly, it says something about a culture, and a willingness to debate ideas and engage in argument, that is really the center of what education is about. And that’s something we should want for every one of our students.

We’ve increased by 50 percent in the last two years the number of students who are studying abroad, and we’ve tripled the number of students who have access to freshman seminars. And we’re going to get to the point where every student is going to have a chance to have that kind of a freshman seminar experience.

Science: you know, we live in a culture — it’s true at Harvard; I daresay it’s true in this room — that if you didn’t know the name of five plays by Shakespeare, you would be embarrassed to admit it. But if you didn’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, that’s a technical subject. Your doctor knows, so it’s OK. I don’t think that’s going to work for the next 50 years. I don’t think it’s going to work. I think science is too important to leave to scientists.

We are within a decade of having blood tests where we will know with some accuracy how long people are going to live. Think about what that will mean for the life insurance industry, for the health insurance industry. For people thinking about hiring people, for people choosing spouses. This is just one example of the kind of profound question that our students are going to be called on to grapple with. And if they’re going to grapple successfully, we’re going to have to do a much better job with science education than we have in the past.

Here’s another challenge. It’s a different kind of challenge, but it’s one that I think is profoundly important for us as a university. You know, universities today have a central role in whether there is equality of opportunity in our country, or whether there isn’t equality of opportunity in our country. For a long time, we’ve had need-blind admissions. And that is a wonderful thing for which we should be very proud of our need-blind admissions. But you know, if you look at elite higher education, 90 percent of the students in elite higher education come from families in the upper half of the income distribution, and only 3 percent of students come from families in the lower quarter of the income distribution. I hope that we will get to a point where any family that has an income below the median income in the United States can send their child to Harvard without a burden on the parents. Because if we are going to make the kind of contribution that we should make to assuring that every child has a chance to fulfill all their potential, that is something that an institution like ours must do.

And here’s a final challenge for us. And it is a challenge to our culture, it is a challenge to our budget, but it is something that I am convinced is profoundly important. And that is, that we must make the teaching of undergraduates ever more central to the life of the modern research university. That means we will need to substantially expand the size of our faculty if we are to assure small class experiences for all of our undergraduates.

That means that as we select faculty, we will need increasingly to select, yes, those who are brilliant scholars, but also those who are superb teachers. That means that as we select faculty, we will need not to hire those who have done the best work in the past, and for whom coming to Harvard will be a culmination and a capstone on a great career, but rather hire those promising people whose best work lies ahead of them. If we can do that, we can make our faculty ever more remarkable.

You know, the people, the appointments that I have a chance to review — every faculty appointment, I review for several hours. And I question the people who are advocating the appointment in some detail. Some have compared it to cross-examination of a fairly rough sort. You probably read a little bit about that. But we really hire remarkable people.

We hired a woman in archeology who had devised a technique that could take a fingernail clipping and draw inferences about your diet over the last three months. Apart from helping enforce people’s diets, think about what that means for archeology research, and understanding what happens in ancient civilizations.

I reviewed an appointment just last week of a young scholar in our Chemistry Department who measures the electric conductivity, not of a wire, not of a material, but of a single molecule with a very delicate apparatus, and that creates a transistor out of a single molecule.

We’re trying to hire an economist who had done a survey of employers across the United States by sending out multiple resumes. And the resumes were the same, except sometimes the resume was for “John,” and sometimes the resume was for “Jamal.” “John” was 40 percent more likely to get hired. It’s a very powerful, empirical test; it says something very important about our society. It’s research that makes a very big difference.

I could go on talking about the faculty we’ve hired. I could tell you more about some of the students in that seminar. My guess is that of the 16 students in my seminar, three of them wrote papers that are publishable. This is at the end of the fall semester of their freshman year. And I guess, if I’m honest about it, 14 of them wrote papers that were probably much better than I could have written when I was a freshman.

It is a remarkable place that we all love. And I am very grateful to all of you for being here tonight to support it. Thank you very much.