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Remarks at a symposium on Harvard at Fundaçao Estudar

São Paulo, Brazil

As prepared for delivery

Thank you so much, Jorge Paulo [Lemann], for that thoughtful and generous introduction. I am very excited to be making my first trip to Brazil — one of the countries at the forefront of shaping the 21st century. You and everyone here could not have given me a warmer welcome.

I am honored to have been invited by Fundaçao Estudar to join you all this morning. As many of you may know, in 2009, Harvard Business School recognized Estudar’s founders — Jorge Paulo Lemann, Beto Sicupira, and Marcel Telles — with the School’s highest award for alumni achievement. The honor is a testament to what so many of you have experienced firsthand — the commitment to educational opportunity and excellence, the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, that have been at the heart of Estudar’s efforts ever since it was founded 20 years ago.

Harvard is proud to be associated not only with Estudar and its founders but also with the many outstanding students whose education has been made possible by Estudar’s support. I want to thank those of you who are here today — not just for being part of today’s symposium, but for the credit that your good work in the world brings to Harvard and to all of us.

Thanks, too, to the Lemann Fellows who are here with us; to the award-winning Brazilian students in the audience; to Insper and its president, Claudio Haddad, for hosting today’s gathering; and to the range of college and university leaders and other distinguished alumni, guests, and friends who are with us today.

I have been asked to say just a few words this morning about the role of the university in a changing world. That’s a big topic for the few minutes we have together. But it’s a topic that is at the heart of what I do every day, what I think about when I wake up each morning, when I go to bed each night — and when I wake up in the middle of the night. So I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share some brief thoughts with all of you.

I should say, though, that while it’s my place to help lead things off this morning, I am here in Brazil not so much to speak as to listen and learn. One of the best things about being a university president is that you never stop being a student, you never stop learning. It’s why I have spent my life, ever since my college days, within universities. A day never goes by without the opportunity to learn something new, to experience something you’d never imagined, to meet people of intelligence and creativity and passion who help you think about the world in new ways.

More than anything, that’s why I have greatly looked forward to coming to Brazil. I want to learn — and a great many more of us at Harvard want to learn — about the remarkable transformations under way here, the ambitions and the innovations that have helped Brazil emerge in recent years as such a prominent player on the world stage. Harvard has great interest in better understanding a nation and a culture that are doing so much to influence how this century unfolds. And we have a great interest in better understanding how we can continue to stimulate the flow of Brazilian students and scholars to Harvard, and of Harvard students and scholars to Brazil.

This is a particularly exciting moment for higher education, in the United States, in Brazil, and worldwide. Times of extraordinary challenge and change in the world tend to be times of extraordinary opportunity for universities. It’s our responsibility to educate students who can understand the world in all its complexity — students whose education is rooted in a deep sense of values and who, especially in the face of challenge and adversity, are determined to make a concrete, positive difference in the lives of other people. And it’s our responsibility to nurture the discovery of ideas that not only shape the course of knowledge but that improve people’s health, that foster new technologies, that stimulate economic opportunity and innovation, that inform public policy, that change the world for the better.

Harvard is the oldest university in the United States. It was founded 375 years ago —140 years before the North American colonies declared their independence from the British Empire. It is a university unusually rich in history and tradition. Over the centuries it has built a set of Schools that each aspire to be worldwide leaders in their domains. And it has built a community of faculty, students, and alumni whose talents and energy and commitment never cease to amaze me.

But Harvard’s distinction isn’t really about being old. It’s about being new. It’s about being restless and ambitious and innovative. It’s about thinking constantly how to do things differently and better, about having the confidence to take on consequential challenges but also the humility not to think we have all the answers.

One of the most important of those challenges, of course, is how to reimagine the university in our more and more globalized world. Harvard takes root in distinctively American traditions and ideals. But with each passing year we have a more and more global reach. You see it in the composition of our student body and our faculty. You see it in our changing curriculum — in the increasingly international content of the cases and materials studied by our students in business and government, in medicine and public health, in law and education and design. You see it in the dramatic surge in the numbers of Harvard students who now spend part of their Harvard years studying or working abroad, including the growing number who come to Brazil and other parts of Latin America each year — for a semester, or for the summer, or for several weeks of research or work. You see it in the worldwide web of academic collaborations between our own faculty and scholars around the globe — in almost every field imaginable. You see it in the stamps in my passport — China and Japan, South Africa and Botswana, England and France, Germany and Italy, and here, this week, in Chile and Brazil.

Harvard is becoming global simply by virtue of gradual changes in what we study, where we study, who comes to our campus. But this is a moment when we’re also stepping back to consider some larger, more strategic questions about our engagement with the wider world:

• How should Harvard as an institution extend its physical presence in other countries? The local office we launched here in São Paulo several years ago is one of our most promising steps so far, part of a growing network of outposts around the globe.

• How can we strengthen Harvard’s remarkable array of international studies centers based in Cambridge, which together cover nearly every region of the world? Our David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies is one of Harvard’s proudest initiatives of the last two decades. And — thanks in no small part to Jorge Paulo — we are building a Brazil program that we’re confident will fulfill his expansive vision and our own high hopes.

• How can we open our doors ever wider to the very best students in a wide range of fields — whatever passports they hold, and whatever their financial circumstances may be? This is of course a crucial concern both of Estudar and of the Lemann Fellows program — and it’s one of Harvard’s very highest priorities. We want to be a magnet for the most able and promising students from around the globe — and not to let financial barriers stand in the way of talented young men and women who see an excellent education as the way to pursue their dreams.

• How can we bring faculty and students together from different parts of Harvard to address complex, concrete problems in the world — whether their focus is global health or energy and the environment, whether their interest is in strengthening democratic institutions or in creating economic opportunity through entrepreneurship and innovation, whether their passion is to help communities cope with natural disasters or to help give poor children in every society the chance for a decent education?

The more we think globally, the more complex and intriguing the questions become:

• How can we take more purposeful advantage of new technologies to extend our programs of education and research to places thousands of miles away from Cambridge and Boston? And, at the same time, how can we be sure not to dilute the powerful educational value that comes from bringing people from around the world together in one community — so they can learn from one another, so they can experience their differences face to face, so they can find their common bonds and form relationships that will carry through their lifetimes?

• How can the knowledge and ideas we create in universities make an even more direct contribution to society — whether we are conceiving of new medical therapies we could not have imagined a generation ago, or envisioning a new architecture for global financial systems, or helping expand early childhood education programs in different parts of the world?

• At the same time, as we aim to make knowledge more useful, how can we sustain our commitment to knowledge that we pursue not because we’re trying to solve some immediate, well-defined problem — but out of the sheer human desire to understand the world we inhabit?

In closing, I want to pause for just a moment on this last pair of questions. Universities are singularly powerful engines of useful knowledge. As they like to say at Harvard Business School, universities generate ideas that have power in practice. And in a world where economic growth depends more than ever before on the steady flow of new knowledge and ideas, and on people whose education equips them to put those ideas into practice, universities are in many ways the wellsprings of economic progress. That makes what we do at universities ever more valuable, more important, more worth aspiring to do as well as it can be done.

At the same time, we cannot measure the worth of what universities do simply or primarily in reais or dollars. The work that happens at universities does a great deal to boost the gross domestic product of the United States, of Brazil, and of countries around the world. The ideas born in the minds of our faculty — and the ideas born in the minds of the students and alumni educated in our universities — lead to new jobs, to new technologies, to new companies and sometimes even to new industries. That is immensely important. Even so, no simple economic calculus can capture the full measure of what universities do.

The best education helps us learn not just how to get better jobs, but how to live better lives. Not just how we can live better lives, but how we can better the lives of others. It opens our minds to other ways of thinking. It confronts us with the unfamiliar and challenges our comfortable assumptions. It makes us skeptical and critical, confident and curious. It invests us in causes and concerns larger than ourselves. It infuses us with a sense of possibility. It heightens our capacity for both thoughtful reflection and constructive action. It fires our creativity and feeds our appetite for innovation. It makes us more fully human — more fully committed to improving the human condition, and more fully able to act on that commitment.

There’s no enterprise I would rather be part of. And it’s a privilege to share in that enterprise with all of you here today.

Thank you very much.

– Drew Gilpin Faust