Skip to main content

Remarks at Junior Parents Weekend

Sanders Theater, Cambridge, Mass.

What I want to say on behalf of all the members of the faculty and all the members of the administration to all the parents here is “thank you.” Thank you for everything you’ve done that gives us a chance to work with your wonderful daughters and sons.

The best part of my job as president of the University is the opportunity to work with the students who come to Harvard College. I’m convinced that there is not a more remarkable group of students who come together anywhere, anytime, than the 1,650 students who enter our class each year.

What I thought I would do for just a few minutes is tell you some stories about students I’ve met. And then I’ll leave a few minutes – since you may have heard I’ve got a little bit of a reputation for being provocative – I’ll leave a few minutes to respond to anybody’s provocative question or comment that they want to ask.

Last year, I had a chance to teach a freshman seminar, and the topic of my freshman seminar was globalization. And it was really an incredibly exciting experience for me. There are various memories that I have, but here’s one that’s particularly vivid because it says something about what’s special at universities.

Around about the fifth class, we were discussing the set of issues around capital flows and the flow of capital to developing countries and globalization. That was a set of issues that I had been rather extensively involved with when I was secretary of the Treasury. And so I assigned one of my articles as one of a half-dozen readings for that class. And as I do each time, I asked a couple of the students to give their reactions to the readings.

And one young man, in an utterly un-self-conscious way, said, “And then I got to the article by President Summers. The data really do not come close to supporting his conclusions.” And, you know, it was in many ways a special moment that says something about our country and says something about our universities because I said to the class, you know, “I’m going to argue in a minute or two that I kind of think the data may support the conclusions. You may not be completely right. At least I don’t think you’re completely right.”

But you know, it’s a remarkable thing, and it’s a special feature of places like our university, that you can feel completely free to say that the guy who’s got the title of president is all wrong, and that if you win the argument, I’ll change my mind and everybody will think it’s a terrific thing. Well, you know that man went on to – I don’t know that he completely won the argument that day though he made some very powerful points – but he went on to write a paper that I suspect will be published after it’s revised in a significant scholarly journal.

I had a chance to spend some time a few months ago with a young woman who spent her summer working with a new initiative we started last summer at Harvard, the Crimson Summer Academy. The basic idea is that we as a country have a great stake in making sure that everyone has an opportunity to come to places like Harvard. That’s why we were so pleased to be able to extend financial aid last year to eliminate the parental contribution for families with incomes below $40,000. That’s why I thought it was a wonderful thing when Yale copied us yesterday. But that’s only part of the story.

Part of what we have to do is give everyone a chance to be ready to come to places like Harvard. And that’s why with the energy of our colleagues in the Harvard Summer School and with the terrific help of a great group of undergraduates, we were able to establish this program for students from the Boston area where they will come after their ninth-grade summer. They’ll come back after their 10th-grade summer. They’ll come back after their 11th-grade summer. And Harvard students will work with them during the school year to make sure they’re in as strong a position as they possibly can be when it comes time for them to apply to Harvard or another college. And what was interesting to me was not just how much a difference this made in the high school students’ lives, but how much a difference it made in the lives of the Harvard undergraduates who worked with them and how attached they became to those students and what a difference they were making.

Last fall, I hosted a reception as I do each year for students who had made Phi Beta Kappa as juniors. And I asked them about what they were doing for their senior theses. And it was a remarkable collection of studies. From one young woman who was integrating approaches from literature and from economics to try to understand the empowerment of women in the 19th century, to another student who said that he was doing a study of two-photon microscopy to see an individual neuron fire in a mouse’s brain.

And I sort of absorbed that, and I could only think of two questions. The first was, “Is two-photon microscopy better than one-photon microscopy?” I was assured that the answer was yes. And the second, which I asked with some trepidation, was how do you keep a mouse still enough to be able to take a picture of an individual micron firing? And I was relieved to hear that that was actually a fairly substantial problem that they had had to give a great deal of thought to.

Almost a quarter of our students at any moment are doing important research in a laboratory or in the library for one of our faculty colleagues. And it’s something that I know as a former member of the faculty is incredibly valuable for members of the faculty, and I think it’s a terrific experience for our students as well.

Our students also do remarkable things in the extracurricular area. I’ve had more than my fair share, I think it’s fair to say, of attention from the press over the last few years, and I think it’s a real comment that while I certainly haven’t liked everything that they have written, that the young women and young men who work at The Harvard Crimson are every bit as fair and as honest and as diligent as any reporter at The New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal who covered the Treasury Department.

And what can be said of those student journalists can also be said of the 90 percent of our student body who do some kind of public-service volunteer activity during their four years at Harvard or the near infinity of remarkable musical groups like the group that you just had a chance to hear.

So we are very, very fortunate as members of the faculty here to have the chance to teach your students. After three-and-a-half years here, I understand even better than I did before the old cliché that Harvard students learn more from each other than they do from anybody else, because our student body is a remarkable group.

And we are thankful to you parents for sharing them with us. And we are very committed to supporting them as they go forward to lead lives that I believe are going to be enormously significant at a time when the world has never been more in need of enlightened leadership, thought, and action, because rarely, if ever, has there been as much challenge or as much opportunity.