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Remembering Henry Rosovsky

Delivered Wednesday, May 31, 2023 in Memorial Church

Some of you may think I am standing here as the President of Harvard.  I am not. I represent all of us who were Henry’s students in one way or another, all of us who learned from Henry.  

I first met Henry shortly after I became President of Tufts.  Dick Chait introduced us.  I had already read his classic book, “The University, An Owner’s Manual.” For some reason, Henry decided to take me under his wing and tutor me, just like an Oxford Don.

Our classroom was quite unusual l – Henry’s table at Legal Seafoods.  Same table, same meal, tuna sashimi, every time. 

During my ten years at Tufts, Henry never gave me any advice.  Instead, he asked questions.  Probing questions.  I felt like I was back in law school learning by the Socratic method, except now Socrates was sitting across the table from me.  So, he asked, why did you take this job? How are you going to raise the scholarly reputation of the place? Are the faculty likely to rise to this challenge or challenge your plan? What are you going to do to win them over? Tufts doesn’t have any money. (He was right.) How are you going to pay for what you want to do? I could go on.

Each question was focused on elevating Tuft’s scholarly reputation. To accomplish this goal, he stressed, I needed to raise the quality of both the faculty and the students.  Henry impressed upon me that this was the most important job of any president.  He also told me that the way to win over the faculty was to help them do their best work – their best teaching and their best scholarship.

Not all of our conversations were about universities.  He shared with me the unlikely journey that brought him to Harvard. He never forgot his roots as an immigrant from Danzig and a refugee from oppression. He recognized that he was the embodiment of the American Dream. He loved this country deeply, always proud of his military service.

During my time at Tufts, I also got to know Nitza.  She was Henry’s not-so-secret weapon. When Henry started to get frail, we moved our meetings to their home, where we had three-way conversations.  Nitza never hesitated to correct Henry when, in her estimation, he got things wrong, something I think very few of us ever attempted. In that respect, Nitza has never stopped being an Israeli.  And whatever the dispute, Henry almost always relented with a warm smile aimed at the love of his life.

I joined the Corporation shortly after the governance reforms which expanded the Corporation from six to nine members and created committees. Once again, Henry asked questions, but they were now focused on Harvard. As the Chair of the newly created Finance Committee, I told him about how I proposed, and the University instituted annual benchmarking against our peers. This effort looked at a large number of metrics and ratios to gauge how we were doing relative to MIT, Stanford and Yale. Henry was perplexed.  Why would we ever compare ourselves to anyone, he asked?  In Henry’s mind, Harvard was truly exceptional in every meaning of the word.  From his perspective, Harvard was unto itself, and he spent a good part of his life trying to keep it that way.

When I was asked to become a candidate for the job I hold now, I went to Henry for advice.  I told him I had doubts.  I told him that when I looked in the mirror, I did not see the President of Harvard.  In fact, I saw Derek.  Henry was baffled. Why would anyone not want to be President of Harvard, he asked incredulously.  In fact, Henry revealed his own preferences when he declined the Presidency of Yale.  As he explained, he did not believe that Yale would really accept a Jew from Harvard as its President.  But more importantly, Yale was not Harvard and he believed it never would be. I heeded his advice, one of the few times he offered it directly, and here I am.  And Henry was right yet again; there is nothing quite like the presidency of Harvard.

Henry Rosovsky was a singularity. I never met anyone like him and doubt that I ever will.  There is a wonderful word in Yiddish, sechel, that is often translated as wisdom and Henry was certainly wise.  But the full translation of sechel is “the ability to think, to weigh, the strength to judge, and then, to come to a decision.”  That was Henry, and we all miss him.  He loved Harvard and we loved him.