Having now been the president of Harvard for two-and-a-half years and having as one of my central responsibilities the task of guiding the University’s expansion into a several- hundred-acre plot of land just across the Charles River from our main campus, I have come to have an even greater respect for the tasks in which you are all engaged. Planning a real estate development is as complex and multifaceted a task as any that I have encountered or could contemplate. And those of you who do it well and do it successfully do something that is very important for our society. And when you train students to be the next generation of people who shape our places, before those places shape our people, you do something that is profoundly important.
What I thought I would do tonight was to reflect for a few minutes on three central challenges and opportunities that are before us as a country and in which I believe universities like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania can play a central role, and that more generally all of us as citizens need to think about. Those challenges are: taking advantage of the promise of the revolutions underway in science, fostering effective American understanding in an increasingly complex world, and providing real opportunity to all here at home. Let me say a little bit about each of those challenges.
The pace of scientific progress has never been more rapid. I could choose a number of different examples, but here’s the one that Eric Lander, who directs our Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT, directly harnessing the promise of genomics, likes to use.
If you think about sequencing the genome, what it really means is that you have three billion base pairs. For each one of them you can write in “A,” a “T,” a “C” or a “G.” So you’ve got a three-billion-letter book. Five letters to a word, that’s 600 million words. Six hundred words to a page, that’s a one-million-page book. Here’s the level of understanding we now have. If on page 774,229 you go to the 13th line and you go nine spaces over, and a “C” and a “T” are missing, then you have cystic fibrosis. That’s a kind of understanding of disease that we have never had before. It is happening while we are alive. And you know what? It took 10 years and the expenditure of $2 billion to sequence the human genome, but actually something even faster than Moore’s Law works in genomic sequencing. And four years from now it will be possible to do the functional equivalent of sequencing the genome of every person in this room at $2,000 a person. That has staggering potential for increasing our understanding of disease, for making it possible to find scientifically based cures for disease.
If you look at the history of medical research, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve come a long way in ways that are almost completely empirical. You try a hundred thousand compounds and one of them works and it’s a great drug. And then you use it. Now we actually can understand the underlying processes. And that is likely over the next quarter century to lead to profound progress. My guess, after talking to a number of experts in this, is that the life expectancy of my daughters is probably 100, and it’s going to keep rising.
If you think about that, it is a staggering opportunity for mankind. But it is a staggering opportunity for mankind that is going to come with all kinds of problems, all kinds of challenges. Think about those genetic tests. They’ll tell you how long you’re likely to live. How will that affect the market for life insurance? How about the market for health insurance? How about the way people hire people into career jobs? How about the way people choose their spouses?
These are complex and important problems that require the best thinking. And in important ways, the United States is way ahead and is doing wonderful. The United States spends far more on basic biological research than all the other countries in the world combined. Our universities are at the cutting edge of leadership. And they have to be. Because if you want that basic research to be there and you want it to be available to everyone, it has to come from universities.
But it’s not all so favorable. Think about this: genetics and evolution are making more difference in the world than they ever have before. And there’s more creationism taught as truth in American public schools than any time in the last century. Think about this: the central mechanism that we now understand for developmental biology comes from stem cells. And the cutting edge research techniques cannot be carried out in the United States with federal support. We at Harvard have made a commitment to make the kind of resources that the federal government would normally make available for scientists who are doing that research because we think it’s that profoundly important. But not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to afford to do that. And we are in danger of falling behind in this crucial area of research.
And much more generally, our competitiveness as a country is going to depend upon our ability to grapple with these issues, to grapple with parallel issues in information technology, and to grapple with parallel issues in materials science. And a culture that is all too present in American universities, where if you do not know the name of five plays by Shakespeare you would never admit it, but if you don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, it’s OK to regard that as a technical subject that can be left to others. That’s something in which universities can make a very big difference. Supporting this kind of research in the life sciences and elsewhere will make a very large difference in the way we all live.
There has never been a moment, probably ever, certainly not since I have been old enough to remember, when the understanding of the United States and by the United States of the world has been lower and when the degree of tension in foreign attitudes toward the United States and in American attitudes toward foreign countries has been greater. This kind of thing has been with us for a long time. I remember when I was in Washington, a very senior congressional leader was asked what his plan was for the congressional recess and would he be going abroad, and he replied with absolute confidence, no, he would not be going abroad because he had already been there.
If you think about it, that says something very serious and all too true. George Washington, when he stepped down from the presidency, wanted to devote his farewell address after being the first president of the United States to a proposal for a national university. Alexander Hamilton, who was his speechwriter at the time, talked him out of it because he thought – probably correctly – that it wasn’t a very appropriate topic for a farewell address of the president of the United States. So in his farewell address, there were only two sentences directed to the proposal for a national university. But Alexander Hamilton didn’t get to write George Washington’s will, and so George Washington’s will goes into the proposal in very substantial detail. It’s probably the greatest existential threat to its leadership that Harvard has ever faced in its 360-year history- George Washington’s proposal, for which he willed $25 million for a national university.
That national university never happened, but Washington’s words are very interesting. His argument was that it would knit the new nation together because the bonds of friendship formed during youth were unlike the bonds formed at any other time and that the opportunity for people to come together from different states and different societies would promote the kind of understanding that would strengthen the union. That was his first argument for a national university. I have to confess that his second argument for a national university reads rather less well in light of the argument I’m making. And that was that if America didn’t have a national university the students would go abroad and they would learn all sorts of crazy ideas abroad and that would be very dangerous to the new country.
Surely today the challenge is much like it was at that time. The challenge is to promote international understanding. I think it is a very serious problem that applications to American graduate schools across the country are down more than a third because of a variety of visa problems, that applications from China, not a known source of terrorist threats, are down more than 50 percent, and that the greatest competitive opportunity ever has been presented to the universities of Britain, Australia, and Canada, who are taking advantage of it at a very rapid rate. That our foreign exchange programs that finance American students and American faculty going abroad are substantially below the levels they were at 20 years ago has to be a very serious thing as well.
We’re completing a curriculum review at Harvard and one element of that review will be an expectation that our students, before they graduate, have some kind of international experience, whether it’s during the term or whether it’s taking a job over the summer, because we think that’s a prerequisite to understanding the kind of world that they are going to be living in.
Fostering these kinds of connections, which is done better by universities than any other institution in our society, seems to me to be profoundly important as part of the educational process. That’s an agenda for universities. It’s also an agenda for our government in terms of the rules it makes and in terms of the financing that it provides.
There’s another aspect of international understanding that I would suggest to you is equally important, and that is the hard and serious and scholarly work of truly understanding other societies. If you study the experience of the United States in a topic that’s very much on all our minds – nation-building – what I think you’ll learn if you at least follow most of the experts who have studied this is that the most surprising success the United States ever had in nation-building was Douglas MacArthur’s experience in post-war Japan. Starting from a situation with almost no democracy, democratic history, the most bitter enmity, and a society in ruins and demoralization, within a relatively limited period of time the basis was laid for a non-aggressive, functioning, democratic, and prosperous society.
There are many, many aspects of that story. One of them is that the U.S. military, not an organization usually known for its high regard for humanistic scholarship, commissioned a prominent anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, to write an anthropological study of the Japanese people, understanding Japanese culture, thinking about how it was likely to be affected by the wartime experience, and how that affected the strategy that our country should pursue. That document was enormously influential in shaping the strategy of the U.S. occupation. It was what led to judgments that proved to be right but were far from obvious at the time, such as the handling of the Japanese emperor. That came out of universities and the kind of expertise that they have and it came out of the serious and thoughtful study of other cultures. And I’d suggest to you that whatever you may think of the precise wisdom of U.S. foreign policy right now, you cannot look at the situation in the Middle East and not believe that we need as a nation to invest substantially more in that kind of international understanding and that kind of knowledge of other cultures.
You know, sometimes when people talk about international understanding and the role of universities, it feels like it’s just about everybody coming together and singing “Kumbaya.” That’s not what Ruth Benedict’s work was about. That’s not what the study of other cultures is all about. And we are going to have very little chance of succeeding in leading the world if we cannot succeed in understanding the rest of the world, and that, too, is an important agenda item for our country and for our universities.
If you look at the performance of our economy in the last 15 years, if you step back from the current problems and the risks of deflation and so forth, you have to think it’s terrific. It was a cliché – it was the kind of thing people said all the time at gatherings like this in 1990 or 1991 – that the Cold War was over and Germany and Japan had won. After four-and-a-half decades when the story in the global economy was convergence, in the last 15 years, the United States has started ahead and has pulled ahead, has grown more rapidly than other countries, has seen much more rapid growth in both employment and productivity than other countries. And that’s something from which we can all derive great satisfaction.
But there is an aspect of U.S. economic performance that has to be disturbing, and that is that amidst all of this prosperity, the degree of inequality in our country has gone way up. The income of the top 1 percent has grown 10 times as rapidly as the income of average Americans. The number of people without health insurance has gone up by a third. A child born in the city of New York is less likely to live to the age of 5, less likely to successfully learn to read, than a child born in Shanghai.
And here’s what appears to be emerging in some recent research and I think ultimately has to be most troubling for us. After 180 years when what happened in the United States was that we became a more mobile society, that the tendency for the top of the heap in the next generation to be the descendants of the people who were at the top of the heap in the previous generation kept going down and the opportunity to move from rags to riches kept going up. The best available evidence suggests that that trend has stopped and that trend may even have reversed in the last quarter century. And so if you take rising inequality and you take an increasing transmission of inequality, you are looking at a widening set of gaps between the children of the fortunate and the children of the less fortunate, and that cannot be right.
And here’s what’s even more disturbing to me as the president of a university. You look at the fraction of the students in selected higher education who come from families in the upper quarter of the income distribution; it’s not one quarter. It’s not two quarters. It’s actually closer to three quarters, and that number has gone up over the last quarter century. Less than 10 percent of the students in selective institutions come from families in the lower half of the American income distribution, an 80 percent under-representation.
Of course it’s true that poorer students do less well on tests than richer students do. That’s in part, by the way, because they don’t get to go to the Princeton Review and such. But that’s not the main reason. But even if you hold constant levels of ability, grades, anything, the weakest students of the top of the income distribution are more likely to go to a good college than the strongest students from the low quarter of the income distribution. Whether you believe in big public programs of redistribution or not, I would say to you that that cannot be right. I think the agenda for higher education in the next quarter century has to turn critically on the promotion of equal opportunity for all income and social classes in just the same way that the agenda for the last quarter century and the continuing agenda has to be focused on racial inclusion.
We’ve tried to take some significant steps at Harvard. We have eliminated the parental contribution expected for any family with an income below $40 thousand completely. We have sought to very substantially increase our networking and recruiting efforts at the kinds of high schools that are not traditionally feeders for Harvard. Our admissions process is going to be recognizing very clearly the advantages and disadvantages that a student has had in coming to the application stage. And we’re starting programs over the summer for disadvantaged students in ninth, 10th, and 11th grades to give them a chance to prepare for selective institutions. I hope and expect that these kinds of efforts will be one example of many that other institutions will undertake. But they point to the importance for us as a country of an expanded commitment to opportunity in higher education and of course even more to making our public schools work yet more effectively.
There are many more challenges and opportunities that I could discuss, but I’m convinced that if you look back and think about what will be in a history book a hundred and fifty years from now about what happened in this quarter century, it’ll come down very much to whether we took full advantage of the scientific revolutions that are now open to us, whether we engaged effectively, and with understanding, with the world given our remarkable power, and whether we fostered at home a society that was legitimate – not legitimate because everyone ended up equal but legitimate because everyone had a fair chance.
These are responsibilities for all of us as citizens. But because I believe that education is the ultimate act of faith in the future, I believe that these are particularly great challenges for America’s great universities.
Thank you very much.