Skip to main content

Remarks to the Harvard College Fund Assembly

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Thank you very much. It is a mixed blessing to follow Bill Kirby, given the quality of his humor and the quality of his material. Bill, thank you for that kind introduction, and for the remarkable job that you are doing as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Thank you to all of you, and thank you especially to the leaders who are on this stage for all the remarkable work that you do for Harvard. When I was a professor here, I had no idea of how absolutely central the work of dedicated alumni is to everything the University does. So, thank you very much for everything that you do.

2005 is the middle of a decade, so it seems right on this occasion for me to talk to you about where Harvard College has come in this decade so far and where Harvard College is going over the remainder of this decade.

This is, believe me, an inflection point in the history of the College. An inflection point because we live in an environment, in every sphere, whether it is industry or whether it is higher education, of unprecedented competition and competitiveness, and where we need to be at the highest level if we are to maintain Harvard’s leadership for the next generation. We are at an inflection point, also, because there is no moment in history when leaders, when the education of the people who are going to lead our society, the new ideas that come out of a university like this, have been of such transcendent import.

What, after all, is a college? What are the determinants of how well a college does? I would suggest that at root, there are five – the students, the faculty, the facilities, the programs and the ways in which they interact, and the life that’s created and the sense of community that’s created for the students. Let me talk about what we are doing in each of those five areas and what I hope, with all of your help, we will be able to do over the next years.

The students. Our students are the envy of every other college and university in this country. That is because Harvard has had a consistent philosophy going back 150 years that the bigger the lake in which you fish, the larger and better will be the fish you catch. That is why the central theme has been expanding the circle of opportunity.

We took a hugely important step a year ago when we eliminated tuition contributions from parents for any family with an income below $40,000.

The result was a 25 percent increase in the number of applications from disadvantaged students and a class that has 22 percent more students with families below the median income of the United States than Harvard has ever had before this year.

Caroline Hoxby, a brilliant economist in our Economics Department, has done an extensive statistical evaluation of our efforts, and there is one clear conclusion, and that is, there is a lot more room to make further progress with extensive recruiting efforts, particularly in rural areas. And we can make that progress in a way that raises the standards of our class. It does not reduce the standards of our class at a time when we are promoting more equal opportunity in America, and that is something very important for us to do in the future.

Let us vow that by the end of this decade we will have, by all reasonable measures, the most generous programs of financial aid anywhere in higher education as an example for others to follow, and that it can truly be said that there is no one on this planet who thinks that Harvard is not for them.

We have made other changes. We have, with Bill’s terrific leadership, and that of Peter Ellison, and now with our new dean in the Graduate School, Theda Skocpol, we have invested in the Graduate School. Four years ago, less than half of the students who were admitted to a Harvard Ph.D. program chose to come. Today, that number is approaching two-thirds. Two years ago, the Biology Department only got a quarter of the students that it most wanted. Last year, because the program was integrated across the entire University, they got 60 percent of the people they wanted. That was because we have invested in assuring that we are doing what is necessary to attract the best graduate students.

That is important. It is central if Harvard is to attract the best faculty. And believe me, it is essential for teaching in Harvard College. Let us assure by the end of this decade that no one is teaching at Harvard College in order to pay for their graduate education, that people are teaching at Harvard College only because they want to teach at Harvard College, to be with Harvard students, and to develop their future career experience. And if we do that, we, too, will have a much stronger educational experience for our students.

The faculty. Bill was modest in talking about some of his accomplishments. Because of his charm and recruiting ability, because of the excellence of what we have at Harvard, but frankly, above all, in my view, because we have been willing to pay what it takes, for the last two years we have had the highest rate of acceptance of Harvard tenure offers in the last 20 years. The acceptance rate for those who are offered professorships at Harvard is now as high – 78 percent – as the acceptance rate among students who are offered positions in the College, and that is something that is new.

The Harvard faculty did not grow from 1971 until 1999, even through three remarkable decades for the University. Since 1999, the faculty has grown from 600 members to 700 members, and we are committed to growing it to 750 by 2010 and to 800 by 2015.

Why? To expand the range of knowledge. If we are going to take on issues like African studies and South Asian studies at a time when those regions of the world are much more important, if we are going to take on the interdisciplinary combinations – there didn’t used to be a field called bioinformatics that brought together biology and computer science, but today that is a major field – if we are going to meet all the demands, we need more faculty. But above all, we need more faculty if we are to have the kind of faculty-student contact that our students are right to expect.

Harvard today, even after this substantial investment to get to 700 faculty, lags by nearly 20 percent behind Princeton and Yale in terms of the number of faculty we have per undergraduate student. I say to you that our students deserve better than that, and that we need to make the necessary investments to keep growing our faculty so that we can maintain our position of absolute leadership.

As we grow our faculty, we need to be very mindful of trends in higher education that are very troubling, the tendency of universities’ faculties too often to self-perpetuate with people who are doing the work of the last generation rather than the work of the next. That’s why in these years with Bill and with the terrific new divisional deans he’s created – Maria Tatar in the humanities, David Cutler in the social sciences, Doug Melton in the life sciences, and Dean Venky in engineering and the physical sciences – we have worked to create a real change in the culture of Harvard College. A change to a culture where every young faculty member believes and can rightly believe that if they do the most extraordinary work, they will have a chance to build an entire career at Harvard.

That has inspired the junior faculty. It has led them to devote much more effort to teaching. It has led us and helped us to recruit even stronger junior faculty than we have traditionally. And it has enabled us to promote to professor people who we have already seen as doing extraordinary work in teaching Harvard undergraduates.

The Philosophy Department promoted one person from within itself to tenure during the 20th century. Already, they have made three such offers in the 21st. These kinds of appointments are going to make a very big difference in the culture of Harvard College.

The facilities. Bill spoke a little bit about a number of the specific facilities. Maybe here’s a way of putting what’s going on. If you take our new nanotechnology building, if you take the research building in the north yard for science, if you take what we call the biological research infrastructure, but what Jeremy Knowles used to call the Mouse Hilton, because it houses all the research animals, if you take those three buildings together, they are 700,000 square feet of floor space. What does that mean? That is 15 football fields. Fifteen football fields for scientists to pursue their dreams, for undergraduates to do the research that they need to do. That is something that makes a difference.

At the same time, in the next years, we’re going to do something. People have been saying that it’s going to be done for a long time, but it actually is going to be done. In 1956, I was 2 years old, and that was the first time that a report was written that said that the renovation of the Fogg Art Museum was urgent. The Fogg Art Museum has not been renovated since then, and it is going to be renovated now. The changes in the Lamont Library as it becomes a 24-hour library with an important new student café.

All of this has costs, but all of this is essential if we are going to compete at the highest level in the decades ahead. The raw material, in a sense, are the students, the faculty, the facilities. How about the ways in which they come together to interact?

The single most important thing is to have more faculty-student contact. Bill already referred to what we’re doing. This year, with 140 freshman seminars, multiply 140 by 12, and you see that we have a seminar for every student in the freshman class who wants one. By next year, we will also have, in every one of the large concentrations where faculty-student contact is hard, a junior seminar for every student, where they will interact with a regular member of the faculty in a group less than 15. This will create something that we’ve never been able to say before. Every Harvard graduate will leave with a real relationship with members of the Harvard faculty.

At the same time, we must, as the core curriculum did a generation ago, regenerate the curriculum with the kinds of opportunities that our students find extraordinary. I already referred to Doug Melton, who does three jobs around here. He leads what we do in stem cells, he drives our rejuvenation in the life sciences, and he also has instituted this year a course in the life sciences that brings together from chemistry, from psychology, from anthropology, from biology, our leading faculty to teach students in their first year. The only problem has been that the fire marshal is quite unhappy with the ways in which the Science Center is being used for that course.

The great thing about that innovation is, as people have seen how effective it is, now the physical scientists, and now scholars in the social sciences and the humanities, want to create and to build similar courses.

We’re also reaching beyond the faculty of Harvard College to assure the best possible experience for our students. The University concluded an agreement a few weeks ago with the Silk Road Project, driven by Yo Yo Ma, where they will be in residence for several weeks each year. Yo Yo Ma will be a participant in a number of the introductory music courses, as he already has this past September, and in the famous First Nights course. A first night performance this year will be a new piece composed for the cello by Yo Yo Ma.

Larry Tribe from the Law School will be offering what I suspect will be a very large core course next year on love and death in American law. Michael Sandel and I made – I tried to keep up with Michael Sandel – we made a small effort by teaching a course in globalization this past spring, an experiment that we hope to repeat every couple of years.

The educational experience is expanding to the summer, as well. Last year, 950 undergraduates went abroad. By the end of this decade, I hope and trust that every Harvard undergraduate will have an international experience, whether it is taking a summer school course or working in a laboratory.

I got a sense of what a remarkable environment this is, more even than I had supposed, when I ran into a friend of mine from the Treasury, whose daughter is a freshman here. I ran into my friend and asked her how was her daughter’s orientation. She said it was really quite remarkable. Her daughter has had two interests. She studied Japanese in her high school and, because of some issue in the family, has a particular interest in neuroscience. During her freshman orientation, she told somebody that, and they said, “You know, we have a summer program that we’ve just created where there are two internships each year for students in a Japanese neurobiological institute, and would you like to participate in that program this summer after your freshman year?”

An institution that’s able to make that kind of connection for people during their freshman orientation is a remarkable institution.

New student life. This is an area where Harvard has, frankly, lagged. You look at the quality of our students’ social spaces, if you look at the number of square feet available for social activity per student. We leapfrogged to a new level with President Lowell’s innovation of the houses in the 1930s, and we were transcendent and ahead of everybody else then. But we have fallen behind.

But now, we are investing on an unprecedented scale with the Hasty Pudding Theatre becoming a student arts center, with gym facilities now in every House, with the Loker Pub – the area under Annenberg had 1,500 students trying to get in to a space that could hold 500, at 11 at night two weeks ago – with a partial renovation of the MAC under way, and more to follow.

And ultimately – it won’t come soon. It probably will take Allston. But you know something? If 50 out of 51 other leading institutions have a student center, Harvard should, too. Really it should. And it will.

This is an ambitious agenda for Harvard College, embedded in a University that is doing many remarkable things. Harvard College needs to stay at the center of Harvard University. To stay at the center of Harvard University, and to stay as the pacesetter in American education, it needs to innovate, it needs to invest, and it needs not to be too satisfied with itself.

We are in a period of innovation and investment. We have been fortunate, incredibly fortunate, in the scale of the endowment, but all of this – those 15 football fields of scientific space, especially – has very large costs, and we are drawing already heavily on our endowment reserves in order to accomplish these investments. And that is why, more than ever before, the help of the many, many people who are so very loyal to Harvard is going to change the lives of our students and magnify the transcendent impact that we have on this country and this world.

Thank you very much.