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Installation address: Unleashing our most ambitious imaginings

Cambridge, Mass.

I stand honored by your trust, inspired by your charge. I am grateful to the Governing Boards for their confidence, and I thank all of you for gathering in these festival rites. I am indebted to my three predecessors, sitting behind me, for joining me today. But I am grateful to them for much more – for all that they have given to Harvard and for what each of them has generously given to me – advice, wisdom, support. I am touched by the greetings from staff, faculty, students, alumni, universities, from our honorable Governor, and from the remarkable John Hope Franklin, who has both lived and written history. I am grateful to the community leaders from Boston and Cambridge who have come to welcome their new neighbor. I am a little stunned to see almost every person I am related to on earth sitting in the front rows. And I would like to offer a special greeting of my own to my teachers who are here – teachers from grade school, high school, college and graduate school – who taught me to love learning and the institutions that nurture it.

We gather for a celebration a bit different from our June traditions. Commencement is an annual rite of passage for thousands of graduates; today marks a rite of passage for the University. As at Commencement, we don robes that mark our ties to the most ancient traditions of scholarship. On this occasion, however, our procession includes not just our Harvard community, but scholars – 220 of them – representing universities and colleges from across the country and around the world. I welcome and thank our visitors, for their presence reminds us that what we do here today, and what we do at Harvard every day, links us to universities and societies around the globe.

Today we mark new beginnings by gathering in solidarity; we celebrate our community and its creativity; we commit ourselves to Harvard and all it represents in a new chapter of its distinguished history. Like a congregation at a wedding, you signify by your presence a pledge of support for this marriage of a new president to a venerable institution. As our colleagues in anthropology understand so well, rituals have meanings and purposes; they are intended to arouse emotions and channel intentions. In ritual, as the poet Thomas Lynch has written, “We act out things we cannot put into words.” But now my task is in fact to put some of this ceremony into words, to capture our meanings and purposes.

Inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre. They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about. Or, we might more charitably dub them expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.

A number of inaugural veterans – both orators and auditors – have proffered advice, including unanimous agreement that my talk must be shorter than Charles William Eliot’s – which ran to about an hour and a half. Often inaugural addresses contain lists – of a new president’s specific goals or programs. But lists seem too constraining when I think of what today should mean; they seem a way of limiting rather than unleashing our most ambitious imaginings, our profoundest commitments.

If this is a day to transcend the ordinary, if it is a rare moment when we gather not just as Harvard, but with a wider world of scholarship, teaching and learning, it is a time to reflect on what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century.

Yet as I considered how to talk about higher education and the future, I found myself – historian that I am – returning to the past and, in particular, to a document I encountered in my first year of graduate school. My cousin Jack Gilpin, Class of ’73, read a section of it at Memorial Church this morning. As John Winthrop sat on board the ship Arbella in 1630, sailing across the Atlantic to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote a charge to his band of settlers, a charter for their new beginnings. He offered what he considered “a compass to steer by” – a “model,” but not a set of explicit orders. Winthrop instead sought to focus his followers on the broader significance of their project, on the spirit in which they should undertake their shared work. I aim to offer such a “compass” today, one for us at Harvard, and one that I hope will have meaning for all of us who care about higher education, for we are inevitably, as Winthrop urged his settlers to be, “knitt together in this work as one.”

American higher education in 2007 is in a state of paradox – at once celebrated and assailed. A host of popular writings from the 1980s on have charged universities with teaching too little, costing too much, coddling professors and neglecting students, embracing an “illiberalism” that has silenced open debate. A PBS special in 2005 described a “sea of mediocrity” that “places this nation at risk.” A report issued by the U.S. Department of Education last year warned of the “obsolescence” of higher education as we know it and called for federal intervention in service of the national interest.

Yet universities like Harvard and its peers, those represented by so many of you here today, are beloved by alumni who donate billions of dollars each year, are sought after by students who struggle to win admission, and, in fact, are deeply revered by the American public. In a recent survey, 93 percent of respondents considered our universities “one of [the country’s] most valuable resources.” Abroad, our universities are admired and emulated; they are arguably the American institution most respected by the rest of the world.

How do we explain these contradictions? Is American higher education in crisis, and if so, what kind? What should we as its leaders and representatives be doing about it? This ambivalence, this curious love-hate relationship, derives in no small part from our almost unbounded expectations of our colleges and universities, expectations that are at once intensely felt and poorly understood.

From the time of its founding, the United States has tied its national identity to the power of education. We have long turned to education to prepare our citizens for the political equality fundamental to our national self-definition. In 1779, for example, Thomas Jefferson called for a national aristocracy of talent, chosen “without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance” and “rendered by liberal education … able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow-citizens.” As our economy has become more complex, more tied to specialized knowledge, education has become more crucial to social and economic mobility. W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1903 that “Education and work are the levers to lift up a people.” Education makes the promise of America possible.

In the past half century, American colleges and universities have shared in a revolution, serving as both the emblem and the engine of the expansion of citizenship, equality and opportunity – to blacks, women, Jews, immigrants, and others who would have been subjected to quotas or excluded altogether in an earlier era. My presence here today – and indeed that of many others on this platform – would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago. Those who charge that universities are unable to change should take note of this transformation, of how different we are from universities even of the mid 20th century. And those who long for a lost golden age of higher education should think about the very limited population that alleged utopia actually served. College used to be restricted to a tiny elite; now it serves the many, not just the few. The proportion of the college age population enrolled in higher education today is four times what it was in 1950; twelve times what it was before the 1920s. Ours is a different and a far better world.

At institutions like Harvard and its peers, this revolution has been built on the notion that access should be based, as Jefferson urged, on talent, not circumstance. In the late 1960s, Harvard began sustained efforts to identify and attract outstanding minority students; in the 1970s, it gradually removed quotas limiting women to a quarter of the entering college class. Recently, Harvard has worked hard to send the message that the college welcomes families from across the economic spectrum. As a result we have seen in the past 3 years a 33 percent increase in students from families with incomes under $60,000. Harvard’s dorms and Houses are the most diverse environments in which many of our students will ever live.

Yet issues of access and cost persist – for middle-class families who suffer terrifying sticker shock, and for graduate and professional students, who may incur enormous debt as they pursue service careers in fields where salaries are modest. As graduate training comes to seem almost as indispensable as the baccalaureate degree for mobility and success, the cost of these programs takes on even greater importance.

The desirability and the perceived necessity of higher education have intensified the fears of many. Will I get in? Will I be able to pay? This anxiety expresses itself in both deep-seated resentment and nearly unrealizable expectations. Higher education cannot alone guarantee the mobility and equality at the heart of the American Dream. But we must fully embrace our obligation to be available and affordable. We must make sure that talented students are able to come to Harvard, that they know they are able to come, and that they know we want them here. We need to make sure that cost does not divert students from pursuing their passions and their dreams.

But American anxiety about higher education is about more than just cost. The deeper problem is a widespread lack of understanding and agreement about what universities ought to do and be. Universities are curious institutions with varied purposes that they have neither clearly articulated nor adequately justified. Resulting public confusion, at a time when higher education has come to seem an indispensable social resource, has produced a torrent of demands for greater “accountability” from colleges and universities.

Universities are indeed accountable. But we in higher education need to seize the initiative in defining what we are accountable for. We are asked to report graduation rates, graduate school admission statistics, scores on standardized tests intended to assess the “value added” of years in college, research dollars, numbers of faculty publications. But such measures cannot themselves capture the achievements, let alone the aspirations of universities. Many of these metrics are important to know, and they shed light on particular parts of our undertaking. But our purposes are far more ambitious and our accountability thus far more difficult to explain.

Let me venture a definition. The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition – in Widener and Houghton and our 88 other libraries, in the Fogg and the Peabody, in our departments of classics, of history and of literature. We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part “for their own sake,” because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness.

We pursue them because they offer us as individuals and as societies a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present. We pursue them too because just as we need food and shelter to survive, just as we need jobs and seek education to better our lot, so too we as human beings search for meaning. We strive to understand who we are, where we came from, where we are going and why. For many people, the four years of undergraduate life offer the only interlude permitted for unfettered exploration of such fundamental questions. But the search for meaning is a never-ending quest that is always interpreting, always interrupting and redefining the status quo, always looking, never content with what is found. An answer simply yields the next question. This is in fact true of all learning, of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities, and thus of the very core of what universities are about.

By their nature, universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness. This lies at the heart of their accountability to the future. Education, research, teaching are always about change – transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies – policies like those being developed at Harvard to prevent unfair lending practices, or to increase affordable housing or avert nuclear proliferation – or translated into therapies, like those our researchers have designed to treat macular degeneration or to combat anthrax. The expansion of knowledge means change. But change is often uncomfortable, for it always encompasses loss as well as gain, disorientation as well as discovery. It has, as Machiavelli once wrote, no constituency. Yet in facing the future, universities must embrace the unsettling change that is fundamental to every advance in understanding.

We live in the midst of scientific developments as dramatic as those of any era since the 17th century. Our obligation to the future demands that we take our place at the forefront of these transformations. We must organize ourselves in ways that enable us fully to engage in such exploration, as we have begun to do by creating the Broad Institute, by founding cross school departments, by launching a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. We must overcome barriers both within and beyond Harvard that could slow or constrain such work, and we must provide the resources and the facilities – like the new science buildings in both Cambridge and Allston – to support it. Our obligation to the future makes additional demands. Universities are, uniquely, a place of philosophers as well as scientists. It is urgent that we pose the questions of ethics and meaning that will enable us to confront the human, the social and the moral significance of our changing relationship with the natural world.

Accountability to the future requires that we leap geographic as well as intellectual boundaries. Just as we live in a time of narrowing distances between fields and disciplines, so we inhabit an increasingly transnational world in which knowledge itself is the most powerful connector. Our lives here in Cambridge and Boston cannot be separated from the future of the rest of the earth: we share the same changing climate; we contract and spread the same diseases; we participate in the same economy. We must recognize our accountability to the wider world, for, as John Winthrop warned in 1630, “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Harvard is both a source and a symbol of the ever expanding knowledge upon which the future of the earth depends, and we must take an active and reflective role in this new geography of learning. Higher education is burgeoning around the globe in forms that are at once like and unlike our own. American universities are widely emulated, but our imitators often display limited appreciation for the principles of free inquiry and the culture of creative unruliness that defines us.

The “Veritas” in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we – and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry – challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.

The kinds of accountability I have described represent at once a privilege and a responsibility. We are able to live at Harvard in a world of intellectual freedom, of inspiring tradition, of extraordinary resources, because we are part of that curious and venerable organization known as a university. We need better to comprehend and advance its purposes – not simply to explain ourselves to an often critical public, but to hold ourselves to our own account. We must act not just as students and staff, historians and computer scientists, lawyers and physicians, linguists and sociologists, but as citizens of the university, with obligations to this commonwealth of the mind. We must regard ourselves as accountable to one another, for we constitute the institution that in turn defines our possibilities. Accountability to the future encompasses special accountability to our students, for they are our most important purpose and legacy. And we are responsible not just to and for this university, Harvard, in this moment, 2007, but to the very concept of the university as it has evolved over nearly a millennium.

It is not easy to convince a nation or a world to respect, much less support, institutions committed to challenging society’s fundamental assumptions. But it is our obligation to make that case: both to explain our purposes and achieve them so well that these precious institutions survive and prosper in this new century. Harvard cannot do this alone. But all of us know that Harvard has a special role. That is why we are here; that is why it means so much to us.

Last week I was given a brown manila envelope that had been entrusted to the University Archives in 1951 by James B. Conant, Harvard’s 23rd president. He left instructions that it should be opened by the Harvard president at the outset of the next century “and not before.” I broke the seal on the mysterious package to find a remarkable letter from my predecessor. It was addressed to “My dear Sir.” Conant wrote with a sense of imminent danger. He feared an impending World War III that would make “the destruction of our cities including Cambridge quite possible.”

“We all wonder,” he continued, “how the free world is going to get through the next fifty years.” But as he imagined Harvard’s future, Conant shifted from foreboding to faith. If the “prophets of doom” proved wrong, if there was a Harvard president alive to read his letter, Conant was confident about what the university would be. “You will receive this note and be in charge of a more prosperous and significant institution than the one over which I have the honor to preside … That … [Harvard] will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy, I feel sure.” We must dedicate ourselves to making certain he continues to be right; we must share and sustain his faith.

Conant’s letter, like our gathering here, marks a dramatic intersection of the past with the future. This is a ceremony in which I pledge – with keys and seal and charter – my accountability to the traditions that his voice from the past invokes. And at the same time, I affirm, in compact with all of you, my accountability to and for Harvard’s future. As in Conant’s day, we face uncertainties in a world that gives us sound reason for disquiet. But we too maintain an unwavering belief in the purposes and potential of this university and in all it can do to shape how the world will look another half century from now. Let us embrace those responsibilities and possibilities; let us share them “knitt together . . . as one;” let us take up the work joyfully, for such an assignment is a privilege beyond measure.

– Drew Gilpin Faust