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Remarks to the Harvard Alumni Association’s Global Series

New Delhi, India

As prepared for delivery

I am really glad to be here. As this is the last foreign trip that I take as Harvard president, it will very likely be the most important trip that I have taken as Harvard president, because it is symbolic of the ties that the University is making with India at a moment that I believe is of great importance in India’s history, in Harvard’s history, and in the world’s history.

I think it’s worthwhile to step back and think, every once in a while, about what it is that’s happening today that will be in a history book 300 years from now. The first thing to remember is that not very much will be in a history book 300 years from now. How many of us can really talk, in detail, about the difference between what happened between 1675 and 1700, and what happened between 1700 and 1725? But I’m convinced that, when the history of our period is written three centuries from now, one of the major stories, or the major story, will be the profound transformation that has taken place in Asia. Where, for the first time in all of human history, huge numbers of people are living in societies where standards of living are doubling within a decade or a little more. Where, for the first time in all of human history, it is reasonable to expect that standards of living could rise by 30-fold or more within a single human life span. Something that has never come close to happening, in the history of Europe or in the history of my country. And that it is happening in societies that include nearly 40 percent of humanity. And India is at the center of all of that. And that is why, I believe, that it is so important that Harvard do all it can to understand what is happening in India, to promote this profound transformation, that has such great implications for so many people, and to support historical processes that I believe will rank in the history of the last millennium only with the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

What I’d like to do this afternoon is talk to you about four broad things that are underway at the University that have, I believe, very considerable energy. That need, I believe, far more energy in the future. And that have important implications for Harvard’s relationship with India.

The first is our ongoing effort to continue to strengthen Harvard’s commitment to assure universal access to the University for all students, regardless of their background. I had a chance to spend a little time, earlier on this trip, with my Business School colleague, Krishna Palepu, who today is leading Harvard Business School’s efforts internationally. Krishna grew up in a village where there was no electricity. And, thanks to a remarkable set of efforts in India, efforts that made a staggering difference in his life, but still touch the lives of too few people, he made it to university, ultimately to Mumbai, and to the United States, and ultimately to the vantage point from which he is able to exert so much influence as the leader of the Harvard Business School’s international efforts. That is higher education at its best. But at a time when, at America’s leading universities, only 10 percent of the students come from the lower half of the American income distribution, I say to you that we need to be doing much more. We took an important step at Harvard several years ago when we eliminated any expectation of a family contribution for any student with a family income below $40,000. We did that for families in the United States, and we did that for families around the world, and as a consequence, we have 20 percent more such students in this year’s class than we did before. But that is only a beginning of what we have to do, to send a signal, and to recruit students from every background to the University.

At the same time, all of us who care about the University need to think about the University as a collective entity. We are so proud of the need-blind policies that we have at Harvard College. The Business School is, rightly, so proud of all it has done to promote access for students from every part of the world. Shouldn’t it be the case that any student of sufficient excellence who wants to come to the School of Public Health to study with Barry Bloom about the diseases that affect developing countries, or wants to come and study education, should be able to come, regardless of their family’s financial position? Shouldn’t the students who want to come to learn about government and governance be able to come to the Kennedy School and pursue that objective? Here, too, we have made great progress. More than 100 new scholars each year are able to come to these schools and go on to careers that may not earn them the highest income, but offer the potential for enormous contribution. But I would say, to all of you friends of the University, shouldn’t a university with a network as remarkable as our network of 300,000 alumni, with an endowment as fortunate as ours, of nearly $27 billion, be able to do more, to assure that, to every part of our university, everyone of sufficient excellence can come, can learn, and can go forth to contribute? That is our first great objective.

Second. We are engaged in Harvard College in a discussion, in what I believe is a profoundly important discussion, of the definition of liberal arts education and of the experience of our students at Harvard College. That discussion has many aspects. Much of the preoccupation, I believe, very importantly, is assuring that the focus of the faculty is increasingly in the vital area of undergraduate education. That more of our students have the opportunity to interact in small groups with remarkable people like Sugata Bose and Homi Bhabha, who you heard this morning. That we have more faculty so that students are able to be much closer to our faculty.

But there’s another aspect of our change in undergraduate education that I think may be, over time, even more important in the life of the University, and perhaps even in American national life. And that is the change underway with respect to our attitude towards our students’ spending time studying, or working, or researching, abroad. As Dean Kirby likes to say, there’s no better place to learn Chinese than China. And there are a set of fairly obvious corollary propositions about other countries.

I don’t think there’s been a time, certainly since the Second World War, when the United States has been so misunderstood in the world and so misunderstanding of the rest of the world. It says something about American attitudes that one of our key congressional leaders a few years ago was asked: Will you be going abroad during the congressional recess? And he responded, abroad? No, I’ve already been there. And, at one level, you laugh. But at another level, we are seeing today a consequence of a failure to think deeply, to comprehend closely, to look in depth at the cultures and contexts of other countries. And surely there is no greater contribution that Harvard can make than to assure that each of our students before they graduate has a substantial international experience. Whether it is studying abroad for a semester, whether it is working abroad over a summer, this is something that is very, very important. Four years ago, between 200 and 300 Harvard students were going abroad each year. This year the number is expected to be over a thousand. That means we are more than half of the way there to having our whole class, each year, have a meaningful international experience. And there’s nothing more important than we get there over the next four years.

And I will say to you also that it is my hope, and this will take much more effort on our part, and if I may say so, I think it will take more effort on the part of some people here’s part, that much more of this will take place in India than has been the case historically. More Americans, six times as many American students, studying in Australia and New Zealand as study in India, despite the fact that India has a population nearly 30 times the combined population of Australia and New Zealand. The figures for Harvard are not very different. Surely it is incumbent on us to find the partners, to find the relationships, that will enable there to be many more students who have the remarkable experience of spending time in India at an early stage in their lives. Harvard is prepared to do its part, and one of the important subjects that I’ve had a chance to take up in my conversations with government and university officials here, is the importance for India of being prepared to welcome more students from Harvard and from other universities.

This is crucial. But it is also crucial that, as we study abroad, we make sure that students studying abroad be wrapped in a broad context of international understanding. I already referred to the costs, for American objectives, of failing to understand what was happening in other societies. Surely, we need to make it the case that, in every part of our curriculum, whether it is in the study of economics, or the study of political science, or the study of literature, that the experience of the rest of the world be brought strongly in, and that we define the rest of the world in a much less European way than has been the case historically.

Ensuring access, educating and teaching in the best possible ways that bring in the international element. These are two critical elements. Here is a third. Pursuing deep truths in every area. We do that as our faculty carries on remarkable research in so many areas. We understand the nature of colonialism and how it shapes society much better because of Professor Bhabha’s research. Those of us who comment on globalization and its implications do so in far more nuanced ways because of Professor Bose’s research looking at earlier eras and earlier periods of globalization. And there are so many other examples.

One area, frankly, where I believe that over the decades of the ’80s and the ’90s Harvard did not do all that it could, or all that it should have, is in the sciences and particularly in the application of science. Along with the changes taking place in Asia, the other story that I think is likely to be in that history book 300 years from now is the revolution that is underway in science and technology, especially the life sciences. You know, when I first came to India, only 15 years ago, I was a rabid fan of the Boston Celtics. And I was concerned to know whether the Celtics had won their games or not. It was prohibitively expensive to make a phone call from the hotel to ask and so one had no recourse except to the International Herald-Tribune. And if you were lucky, you could get the Tuesday International Herald-Tribune on Thursday, and it would have the result of Sunday night’s game. Contrast that with, at least at the level of hotels, a universal CNN society. That’s coming because of technology and its spread.

Even more important is the revolution underway in the life sciences, which, for the first time in all of human history, is offering an opportunity to systematically address problems of disease. Yes, medical science has made great progress over the years, but historically, much of it has been a consequence of serendipity and accident. Fleming finding the mold, and so forth. Today, we have the opportunity to find cures systematically. Within the next 25 years, we are likely to see as much medical science progress as we have seen in the last century. But it’s not something that’s going to take place automatically. You know, it was estimated a few years ago, and there’s a lot of controversy about this number, so it may not actually be right. But if it’s even remotely close to being right, it says something very powerful. That the American pharmaceutical industry spent more money on pet disease research than it did on research that bore on diseases that took place in tropical countries. That may or may not be exactly right. But that the comparison can even be made suggests the presence of a staggering gap. A gap that institutions with the kind of resources that Harvard has, with the kind of ability to bring together people of extraordinary ability that Harvard has, needs to fill.

That’s why I’m pleased to be able to tell you that, as I speak, there is construction underway on the Harvard campus of 14 football fields’ worth of laboratory space, in a number of locations, with much more to come. That’s why I am pleased to be able to tell you that, with the tremendous leadership of Dean Venky, Harvard is on its way to strengthening its engineering program within its Faculty of Arts and Sciences to ensure that technology has its proper place in a Harvard education.

And I’m pleased to be able to tell you that, as we think about all of this, we are recognizing that scientific progress is not something that takes place in isolation, but is a profoundly cooperative enterprise. Cooperative between the different parts of the University that are coming together, for example, in our new life sciences Ph.D. programs, in ways they have not before. But much more importantly, collaborative across the world. That’s why I’m so proud of the collaborations that Venky is launching with the IIT. That’s why I think the work that the School of Public Health is doing to support, along with Rajat Gupta’s tremendous energy, the establishment of a network of public health schools here in India, so that we are working together, to build the institutions that will make sure that this scientific progress takes place as rapidly as it can, with such large implications for the betterment of humanity.

These three things, ensuring access, teaching as well as we can, pursuing in every direction, truth and all that it means, are central missions of the University. They are the central missions of the University. But I believe that a university as fortunate as Harvard is, fortunate in so many ways, cannot be satisfied there. That we are called to do everything we can to use our knowledge, our power, our influence, to lever as much human progress as we possibly can. We try to do that in many ways. David Ellwood is bringing great energy to the Kennedy School. One of the things that he’s celebrating on his trip here is the Kennedy School’s major collaboration with the government of India to become involved in training its Civil Service in a set of techniques, in a set of methods, that the School has developed in the area of governance over the last three decades, at a time when what the Civil Service of India decides to do, and if I might, what the Civil Service of India decides not to do, and withdraw from, is of such great importance for the future of India.

Mike Porter, at the Harvard Business School, supported by his colleagues, is teaching a course in global competitiveness, that yes, is being offered to 70 students at the Harvard Business School, and students from all over Harvard, but is also being offered at some 57 other universities around the world with the use of information technology. That, I believe, is a harbinger of things to come. If we think, and we do, and we’re right, that we have some of the most remarkable scholars in the world at Harvard, don’t we, as an educational institution, owe it to them, and owe it much more broadly, to ensure that their wisdom, their lectures, what they can teach, is transmitted as broadly and widely as possible? Professor Porter’s is one of many experiments, and there are many different models. I don’t know which one will work out the best. What I do know is that, with everything that is happening, we have the opportunity to touch and reach more people than we ever have before.

The University has embarked on a partnership with Google. No one knows just where that partnership will go. But let me tell you what its ultimate objective is. It is that every book, in the Harvard library, be accessible, be searchable, everywhere on earth, by anyone who has an Internet connection. There are a million issues of intellectual property. There are a million issues of copyright. There are a million issues. But those books have started to be scanned. And when that becomes available, think about what it will mean for the possibilities for collaborations. Think about what it will mean for the democratization of access to knowledge. Think about what it will mean for the very idea of a university library.

We are doing a great deal. But I believe that we can do so much more in the future. This is an important moment, I believe, in India’s history, as India takes off. I believe it is an important juncture in the life of the University. In ways that go far beyond the influence of any individual. In ways that go far beyond any single sphere. India is changing and evolving and strengthening, and so, too, in its way, is Harvard. And I believe that both will be much stronger for their ever closer collaboration. And that’s why I’m so glad to have been here, to have had the chance to be here with all of you today.

Thank you very much.