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Remarks to the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

It is great to be in Washington. It is great to have a chance to see so many friends. It is great to be at the Harvard Club of Washington, which has been recognized among all the Harvard clubs for its extraordinary efforts in the last year. And it’s wonderful to be with all of you, and it means a great deal to me. It means a great deal to many, many people in Cambridge that there are so many in Harvard’s alumni base who care so much about what’s happening at the University. And so I thank you all very, very much for being here.

Could everyone who is a parent of a current Harvard student or a recent alumnus please stand up?

You know, I just want to say first that while we do a tremendous number of things at the University, ultimately the most important thing we do is educate the next generation of leaders of this country and this world in Harvard College. And we have no more important responsibility than to do that in an extraordinary way. That means first doing everything we can to recruit the best possible students and to make sure that Harvard is a vehicle of opportunity. That’s a more important issue now than it’s ever been in our country.

If you look at elite higher education, only 10 percent of the students come from the lower half of the family income distribution. And for the first time in our country’s history the correlation between the incomes of fathers and sons, or between mothers and daughters, is going up. And that’s why I’m so proud that Harvard, thanks to the support of its alumni over many years, was able to be the first university to eliminate any parental contribution at all for students with an income below $40,000.

And as a consequence of that, the number of students who applied in that category and the number of students who we admitted rose by more than 25 percent over the last year. Harvard is doing its part to provide equal opportunity in this country. We will have the most representative class, with over 10 percent of the class African American, that we have ever had in the history of Harvard College, in 2009.

And we owe these students the best education that we can possibly give them. That’s why probably the single most important thing that determines what happens in the University over time is the faculty we recruit and the ways in which they teach undergraduates. We are embarked on a historic effort to increase the size of the Harvard faculty. The Harvard faculty will have increased by nearly 10 percent – from 630 in the College to over 700 – by the end of this year.

And we’re recruiting the faculty in a way that ensures – in a way Harvard has not always done in the past – that they are going to be focused and dedicated teachers. You know, when I was recruited to be a professor at Harvard in 1983, no one to my knowledge asked me for a single bit of evidence on whether I had or had not been an effective teacher at MIT, where I was then. Today, no one becomes a member of the senior faculty at Harvard without a careful review of their record as a teacher and as a mentor of students.

And we are assuring as we do that that we recruit in a different way than Harvard has traditionally in the past. We will always want the giant of a field, at the peak of their powers, an extraordinary star who we can recruit from another university. We will always want that. But we must, if we are going to meet the challenges of this moment, also be prepared, as Harvard sometimes has not in the past, to recruit the best people out of graduate school, to develop them at Harvard, to give them a chance to get tenure at Harvard, to develop their teaching and their research skills at Harvard, and to build their careers at Harvard. Because if we do, if we hire the people who have their best work ahead of them, rather than their best work behind them, we will best serve our students.

That’s why I’m so pleased that over the last three years – to take one example – we have tenured two extraordinary young philosophers from within the Philosophy Department. That is twice as many people as Harvard tenured from within the Philosophy Department during the entirety of the 20th century. That’s why I’m so excited that we were able to promote an extraordinary young woman, the first woman who had ever been promoted from within the English Department, a year or two ago.

And there’s another reason why this is so very, very important. Whatever you may think about all the theories about why all the differentials exist, we do know one thing: that if we are going to recruit the most extraordinary faculty that we possibly can, we need to make sure that we are looking for extraordinary faculty who are men and who are women, who are of every race, every ethnicity, and from every part of this world. And we know that if we are looking at the people as they come out of graduate school, we are looking at the best possible pipeline of the people who can be role models for all of our students. And that is a critical priority as well.

And with the aid of the task forces that we have established – as you may have noticed, some of these issues of diversity have rather come into focus in recent months – we believe in taking advantage of opportunities, even if we might wish those opportunities had not presented themselves in quite the same form that they did. With the aid of those task forces we are going to address some of the crucial issues.

You know, it’s a remarkable thing about universities. Every university in the United States provides an enormous benefit to faculty members with children between the ages of 18 and 22 in the form of very large tuition assistance for students who are going to college. Why shouldn’t we also do things for people with much younger children, at much more crucial stages of their career, where the help can make a much larger difference? That’s just one of the things we’re going to start to do at Harvard. And believe me, this is not just a women’s issue. It is an issue for all of our faculty, and it’s going to let us develop the careers of extraordinary people who would otherwise be lost to academic life.

But you know, we can recruit the most remarkable faculty, and we can have the best students. We also need the right kind of curriculum. And I believe that almost nobody would argue with this proposition: there is no innovation, and certainly not the Harvard curriculum, that is so good, so special, and so unique, that it should not be reviewed at least every quarter century. And that is why the faculty is now engaged in a crucial review of the Harvard curriculum.

I don’t know just where that review is going to lead. And by the way, one thing is very clear to me, looking at that curriculum review and a variety of other things. I may have left Washington, but I have not left politics. But there are some things that I think we do know. We know that our students are remarkably qualified, that they come with backgrounds very different than the backgrounds that students did when I was an undergraduate, and that we need to give them a curriculum that never stops them – as frankly our current curriculum sometimes does – from taking a course that they want to take, that is harder, better taught, and in a smaller group, than the course that we are requiring them to take. That’s a start.

We need to assure them that they have the opportunities – and this has been Harvard’s Achilles heel for half a century – for substantial student-faculty contact. That’s why we’re growing the faculty. That’s why we’ve achieved a milestone for next year: there will be a freshman seminar available for every Harvard undergraduate who wants one. That represents a four-fold increase from the number that we had four years ago.

We need also, at a time when the United States has never been so misunderstood by the rest of the world- – and I would suggest has never so misunderstood the rest of the world – we need to assure that an understanding of some part of the rest of the world, indeed an international experience, is a part of the Harvard experience for all of our students. Not for some of our students, for all of our students. For some it will be a semester abroad. For some, because of how exciting Harvard is for them and the various activities they’re engaged in, a semester abroad is not the right solution and so it should be a summer abroad, or a January abroad, or something. But we need to assure a meaningful international experience for all our students.

If anyone doubts that this matters for an institution that is directed at training future leaders, contemplate this: one of the top half dozen leaders in the United States Congress was asked a few years ago whether he would be going abroad during the Congressional recess. He said, “No, I’ve already been there.” You laugh, but it’s actually a very serious issue for our country. I know my life was changed, my career was redirected, by a summer that I spent on a Harvard project when I was a graduate student giving economic advice in Indonesia, in 1978.

We need to provide that kind of experience for all our students. The number of students who are studying abroad has increased significantly in the last couple of years. We need to make sure that that number continues to increase, and so they all go abroad within the next three or four years. And that’s a crucial part of our curriculum review as well.

There’s another part that will be important in that curriculum review. And it’s something that is not easy. But it’s something that I at least am convinced is very, very important. We do a much better job at Harvard – and I think this is probably true in higher education everywhere – at teaching people in the humanities, and in some of the social sciences, who are not going to be professionals in those fields, than we do in the sciences. It will be a source of great embarrassment to anyone in this room to say that they’d never read a play by Shakespeare, or that they could not name five plays by Shakespeare. And yet we live in a culture where for many, if you don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, well, that’s a technical subject that you can leave to somebody else.

I am here to tell you that with all that is coming, if war is too important to leave to generals, science is too important to leave to scientists. Take just one example, at the Broad Institute, a collaboration of Harvard and MIT and the Harvard teaching hospitals, to harness the promise of genomics.

Here’s what they’re going to be able to do. Remember the Human Genome Project? It cost two billion dollars. But they’ve been working away at doing it better. And in two years they will be able to do the functional equivalent of sequencing Jon Ledecky’s genome for a thousand – [laughter] – the reason I chose Jon Ledecky is because it would elicit a remark like that.

They will be able to sequence Jon Ledecky’s genome, or anyone else here’s genome, for a thousand dollars. Think about what that will mean for our ability to diagnose and address disease. But think about what it will also mean for the life insurance market, for the health insurance market, for the way in which employers, who now sometimes ask for medical exams before they hire people, think about investing in a person’s career, and for what it will mean for people as they choose their spouses and their partners.

This is just one of a hundred issues with profound implications that we as a society are going to confront. And we are not going to confront it well if we are not successful in conveying a basic sense of scientific literacy for all our students. But ultimately the test of whether this curriculum review succeeds will not be whether we define new categories and structures. It will be whether we are successful in bringing much closer contact between a growing Harvard faculty and a remarkable student body, in the most important enterprise in which they are engaged, the thing that is oldest and yet most important: the basic contact between teacher and student.

Harvard has Harvard College at its center. And that teaching experience is what it is at its center. But Harvard is much, much more. Harvard is also perhaps the greatest single institution that is a source of ideas that can guide us forward. And the ideas that come from research at Harvard deepen our conception of humanity. And over time, again and again, they make a profound difference in the world. Whether it is the kind of Pulitzer Prize winning work that came from Samantha Power on our project at the Kennedy School on genocides, “A Problem from Hell,” that has helped to assure that as imperfect as it is, the world’s response to Darfur is a lot more active than its response to Rwanda was – a response that I believe was very much supported by Harvard’s decision to divest PetroChina stock because of what it was doing in Darfur a week ago; or whether it was and is Harvard’s decision to open an institute for stem cells because we feel that while the federal government may decide to abdicate from funding this potential life saving research, Harvard has an obligation to step up and provide the funding.

And it is a remarkable story. Some of you may have seen my faculty colleague Doug Melton. Doug was perhaps the world’s leading developmental biologist working on frogs until he learned that his two children have diabetes, and turned his research program to stem cells. And his laboratory has provided more stem cell research lines for researchers around the country, and around the world, than all of the other research labs in the United States combined. And your University is making that possible, and your University is making it possible for him in collaboration with colleagues at the Mass. General Hospital and the other Harvard teaching hospitals, to convene 200 scientists to harness the promise of this stem cell research, to increase human understanding, and ultimately to conquer disease.

And that is a part of what we are able to do in the life science area. If you draw a circle with a five-mile radius around the statue of John Harvard, inside that circle is more life science research talent as measured by number of MDs, Ph.Ds, as measured by number of articles published, as measured by number of citations given, as measured by number of Nobel Prizes won – you choose your measure. There’s 50 percent more talent in that circle than in any other single location on the planet.

And we are at a moment when there aren’t many things that are going to be remembered 200 years from now. But the progress in the life sciences may well be one of them. And that is a historic opportunity for Harvard and for the city of Boston.

We have the possibility of being to this era, through what we are able to do in the life sciences, what Florence was to an earlier era through what it was able to do in the arts, a center of a central intellectual activity of mankind. That is going to depend very crucially on what Harvard does.

But you know, even as Harvard advances and embraces and moves forward, as we surely will in the sciences, we need to always remember that if great universities don’t do research on cures for diseases, someone else will. If great universities don’t think about problems of national security and maintaining peace, someone else will. Pains me as it does, if great universities do not think about optimal exchange rate schemes for international trade, someone else will.

But if great universities do not pass on the great heritage of mankind in terms of remarkable works of literature, of art, of music, of culture from generation to generation, there is no other institution in our society that will do that. That is why that, too, is a central responsibility of our University. That is why any of you who have not had a chance to do it should come see the new and beautiful Widener Library, a spectacular, much more open and brightly lit structure than you ever remember, that is by a factor of two, the largest open stacks library collection on this planet.

It is going to be open in a much more profound sense in the future because we have entered into a partnership with Google, which we are now piloting, that has the prospect of scanning the entirety of the 15 million volumes in the Harvard libraries and having them be available, and having them be searchable with content available to anyone who has access to the Internet. That is your University.

That is your University making a difference to humanity. We’ve moved on Widener Library. Let me tell you something else that’s going to happen in the next few years. The first report written that said that the Fogg Art Museum needed to be renovated to properly preserve its remarkable art collection, the best university art museum in the world, was written when I was 2 years old.

We’re not going to have any more reports after I’m 52 years old because we’re actually going to do it with a lot of people’s help. It is going to be a great educational opportunity for our students.

We teach. We advance the frontiers of knowledge. We preserve works of culture and of beauty. We also have the potential and we do many things that directly serve our society. You know, at a moment when a child born in Shanghai is more likely to live to the age of five and is more likely to learn to read successfully than a child born in New York City, we have an obligation to invest, to study the public health and education systems of our country.

Harvard’s every-tub-on-its-own-bottom system is a wonderful system. It has a tremendous logic to it. It produces accountability. It builds loyalty. It has a lot to recommend it. And we’re going to keep it. But it is also true that the people who do some of the most important work of our society, whether as foreign service officers or employees of the Justice Department, or public health officials working in Africa, or teachers and administrators working in urban schools, do not have a chance to live in the biggest houses or to take the fanciest vacations.

That’s why we can’t rely on the alumni of an education school to assure that there’s enough financial aid for students going into education, or the alumni of a public health school to ensure that there’s enough financial aid for students going into public health. That’s why we’ve made that a major University responsibility over the last several years.

We cut the central administration budget by 10 percent through tight management, and we’re using that money to support our students going into public service. We are asking Harvard alumni who share this commitment, not just to good ideas but to good deeds, to think about supporting financial aid for students who are already making a great commitment to our society. I can tell you we’re starting to get a very positive response. I can tell you that my life was changed because the government offered me 300 bucks a month to get a Ph.D. in economics rather than to go to law school. That 300 bucks a month changed my life. By providing financial aid for students who want to serve society, we can have a very large impact on this society, and those schools can make the world a much better place. I’ll give you just one example.

Our public health school has received a grant for over $100 million to provide AIDS treatment in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Botswana. It is a high-risk venture that needs to be monitored very carefully. But it is a spectacular opportunity for us to learn what works and to learn what doesn’t work. It is a spectacular opportunity for us to provide the kind of experiences to our students that will nurture their idealism and fire their passions. There are opportunities like this in education, in public service, and in other spheres as well.

So I am here to tell you that your University is moving forward. I’m trying to help, but it’s moving forward because it is a remarkable collection of extraordinarily talented students and an extraordinary faculty with a great commitment to both ideas and to ideals.

And it is my job – and I would humbly suggest that it is the job of all of us who love the University – to assure that they are not limited by lack of land, as they will not be without Allston, that they are not limited by arbitrary bureaucratic rules, that they are not limited by lack of resources, but that they are only limited by their imaginations, because those aren’t going to be very substantial limitations at all.

Your University has made great contributions to this world over its 369-year history. But I am convinced that its greatest contributions and the greatest contributions of its graduates lie in the future, in a world where Veritas has never been more important.

Thank you very much.