Address of Lawrence H. Summers
October 12, 2001
Members of the University community, friends of Harvard from far and
wide: we celebrate today a ritual generations older than our nation -- a
joyous ritual -- a solemn ritual -- that reinforces our sense of
tradition and community.
To begin, we acknowledge all who have come before us, all of those
who have built Harvard from a small school in a cow yard centuries ago
to the vibrant university of today. We are truly blessed by their
I want especially to recognize one person's leadership. Neil
Rudenstine stood in this place ten Octobers ago. His vision, his
dedication, his care, have left Harvard far stronger than he found it.
Neil, thank you!
Neil and I both know what President Edward Holyoke, who by the way
was not an orthopedist, and lends his name to the chair on which the
Harvard President sits, said in 1769: "If any man wishes to be humbled
and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College."
Humbled, yes; mortified, I hope not; excited and exhilarated, for
sure. I pledge my energy to Harvard's work.
Today's gathering is about more than any individual or any office.
Harvard's distinction, and its promise, flow from all who are here. From
this entire community, from all those who read books, who write books,
who shelve books. From all who do their part in the constant quest to
make a great university a greater one.
I will do my best to hear Harvard's many voices, and to respond. I
admire President Eliot, but not for me his view that a Harvard president
should be measured by, and I quote, "the capacity to inflict pain." Nor,
I hasten to reassure you, his predilection for the hour and
three-quarter inaugural address.
And much as I admire the movie Love Story, I do not believe that
being president means never having to say you're sorry.
The Torch of Truth
We meet now in the shadow of the terrible and tragic events of
September 11th. These events give fresh meaning to Franklin Roosevelt's
words from this stage 65 years ago. Said Roosevelt: "It is the part of
Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind and to
carry the torch of truth."
And so, in our present struggle, we do our part, we carry that
When we show support for the victims and their families;
When we honor those who defend our freedom and the calling of public
When we stand as an example of openness and tolerance to all of
And, above all, when we promote understanding -- not the soft
understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong, but the
hard-won comprehension that the threat before us demands.
We will prevail in this struggle -- prevail by carrying on the
ordinary acts of learning and playing, caring and loving -- the
extraordinarily important acts that make up our daily lives. And we will
prevail by recognizing anew that each of us owes it to all of us to be
part of something larger than ourselves. And here we are.
Today we recommit ourselves to the university's enduring service to
society -- through scholarship of the highest quality, and through the
profound act of faith in the future that is teaching and learning.
A World of Ideas
Great universities like this one have become more worldly in recent
More and more of us directly engage with the problems of the day.
Whether whispering in the ear of a President or helping museums
preserve great art;
whether establishing legal foundations for civil society in distant
lands or advising on the ethics of life-and-death medical decisions;
whether planning cities of the future or finding better ways to
teach children to read.
The people of the university make contributions every day.
This is good and it is important. That we serve in this way reflects
the immediate and practical utility of the knowledge developed and
But the practical effectiveness of what we do must never obscure
what is most special and distinctive about universities like this one:
that they are communities in which truth -- Veritas -- is pursued first
and last as an end in itself -- not for any tangible reward or worldly
Whether reading great literature, or discovering new states of
matter, or developing philosophies of ordered liberty, it is the pursuit
of truth, insight, and understanding that most defines enlightened
Indeed, when the history of this time is written, it will be a
history of ideas -- and of the educated women and men whose intellect,
imagination, and humanity brought them forth and carried them to
It will, in large part, be a history of what has come forth from
campuses like this one.
I will speak in a few minutes about some of the specific challenges
that Harvard faces in coming years.
But I want to say a word first about the singular success of
universities as social institutions. Though they are sometimes derided
as remote or not relevant, universities, and Harvard in particular, have
an extraordinary staying power -- as we are reminded by this ritual --
in a volatile and changing world.
The answer may lie in some of the creative tensions that are at the
heart of the academic enterprise.
The university is open to all ideas, but it is committed to the
skepticism that is the hallmark of education. All ideas are worthy of
consideration here -- but not all perspectives are equally valid.
Openness means a willingness to listen to ideas -- but also the
obligation to sift and test them -- to expose them to the critical
judgments of disinterested scholars and a discerning public.
We must be neither slaves to dogma nor uncritical followers of
fashion. We must exalt neither novelty nor orthodoxy for their own sake.
Our special obligation is to seek what is true -- not what is
popular or easy, not what is conventionally believed, but what is right
and in the deepest and most rigorous sense advances our understanding of
Universities are places of ideas but also places of idealism. We owe
allegiance to the dispassionate pursuit of truth. But universities --
and certainly this one -- have been and should always be places of
passionate moral commitment.
We cultivate what is special and intellectual here, but we must also
nurture the value of generous public service to society beyond these
This takes on a special importance at a moment like this, when we
have an opportunity to awaken a new generation to the satisfactions of
And not just as individuals do we serve, for as a university we
serve. Most importantly, always through our teaching and our scholarship, we
must avoid temptations to take on tasks beyond our scope and our capacity.
But we can -- and we will -- meet our obligations to members of our
campus community and to the communities in which we reside.
Perhaps the most important creative tension in our university is
this: we carry ancient traditions, but what is new is most important for
Our most enduring tradition is that we are forever young.
Our historic buildings always house new students. We venerate our
past but we succeed and endure only when the university renews itself in
Renewal does not just mean doing new things and growing larger. It
means moving beyond activities that have run their course, being
selective and disciplined about the most critical paths to pursue, and
nimbly and rapidly responding to the opportunities created by a changing
Harvard is strong today -- to keep it strong we will need to
maintain that careful balance that has sustained us so long, between
openness and skepticism, between the
imperatives of thought and service, and between tradition and
Now is the time to consider Harvard's challenges for a new century.
We come here together at a moment when this university is fortunate in
all that it possesses -- physically, financially, and most of all
But we will -- and we should -- be judged not by what we have, but
by what we do, not by what we accumulate, but by what we contribute.
First, we will need in the years ahead to ensure that teaching and
learning are everything they can be here, especially at the very heart of the
university -- Harvard College.
Oliver Wendell Holmes said late in his life that he was "set on
fire" in his freshman year here by reading and discussing the essays of
We are exceptionally fortunate in the students who choose to come
here. To do them justice, it is our task to set their minds on fire.
We must help them to find what intrigues them most, press them
to meet the highest standards of intellectual excellence and start them
on a lifetime quest for knowledge and truth.
This has many aspects:
- It means assuring that the academic experience is at the center of
the college experience.
- It means strengthening and expanding our
distinguished faculty to embrace new areas of learning.
- It means
thinking carefully about what we teach, and how we teach, recognizing
that any curriculum, course of study, or form of pedagogy can always be
And what is most crucial is this: Whether in the classroom or the
common room, the library or the laboratory, we will assure more of what
lies at the heart of the educational experience -- direct contact
between teacher and student.
I speak from experience. A moment ago, Karen Kelly mentioned her
freshman Ec 10 section -- the first class she took at Harvard and the
first class I ever taught.
Karen, as we sat in my office talking about elasticity, I don't
think either of us imagined that we would be here a quarter century
later. I don't know if you
and your classmates learned anything much in that class, but I do
know that I learned very, very much.
Second, we need to come together as a university -- a
community of scholars and students -- doing different things but united
by common convictions and common objectives.
Every tub may rest on its own bottom, but all draw on the reservoir
of knowledge and tradition that Harvard represents. And the strength and
reputation of each depend upon the strength of all.
We will not sacrifice the flexibility and innovation that autonomy
promotes. But we will assure that Harvard, as one university, exceeds --
by ever more -- the sum of its parts.
Discoveries are no longer confined by traditional academic
boundaries. Many students no longer crave careers confined to a single
profession or field. Specific programs and initiatives have had and
will have an important
place in responding to these realities.
But real and ultimate success will come only as our culture
changes -- only when each
of us in a single part of the University is genuinely part of Harvard
University as a
The University in this regard has a historic opportunity to create a
new Harvard campus for centuries to come.
Think about how grateful we are right now for the vision of those who
built the Business School's magnificent campus in what was once a Boston
swamp, or helped create the Kennedy School from what was once a
not-very-attractive train yard.
If we make the right choices -- if we take full advantage of a
physical opportunity across the river in Allston -- an opportunity to
create a campus that is several times as large as this
whole yard -- we will have earned the gratitude of future generations.
Let us make these choices as a university, as a community, and let
us choose well.
Ultimately we are a community though, more of people than of
buildings. As we work to strengthen this community, let us reaffirm
commitment to being ever more open and inclusive.
We have come a long way. A century ago this was an institution
where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen.
Today, Harvard is open to men and women of all faiths, all races,
all classes, all states, all nations. As a result, we offer a better
education to better students who make us a better university.
And yet, as proud as we all are that any student, as we so often
stress, can attend Harvard
College regardless of financial circumstance or need, I say to you
that we should not
rest until much the same is true of all this great university.
Inability to pay does not constrain students from coming to Harvard
College and it should not constrain the most able students from coming here
to Harvard to become scholars, or doctors, architects or teachers.
Revolution in Science
Third, the scientific revolution now in progress demands and
compels all of our
Steps from here, scholars, individuals, sitting in offices, are able
to fathom what happened in detail in the first billionth of a second of
the cosmos billions of years ago. They begin now to comprehend the deep
structure of matter and the biological and chemical basis for life.
We are beginning to understand in a rigorous and clear way the
inner workings of the human mind.
As a consequence of all of this, as a consequence of science, we
have seen life expectancy come close to doubling in the last century,
from the mid-forties to the long life expectancies that await the young
people who are here today. And all of that was before what looks to be
the century of biology and life science.
Still, we live in a society, and dare I say a university, where few
would admit -- and none would admit proudly -- to not having read any
plays by Shakespeare or to not knowing the
meaning of the categorical imperative, but where it is all too common
and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome or the
meaning of exponential
Part of our task will be to assure that all who graduate from
this place are
equipped to comprehend, to master, to work with, the scientific
developments that are transforming the
world in which we will all work and live.
In a time when multi-billion-dollar projects sequence the genome, at
a time when scientific papers are written that have 300 authors, to
discern how the university is able to adapt its traditional structures
to most effectively engage the adventure of science will pose a
closely related challenge.
Science does illuminate the human condition, but many of the most
perplexing questions -- including some generated by science itself --
cannot be answered by science alone.
These questions will demand in the future, as they always have in the
past, the kind of insight that can come only from philosophers, artists,
historians, critics -- from creative works, and those who study them,
that illuminate the essence
of who we are as humans.
Finally, over time, the converging phenomena of globalization and
new information technologies may well alter -- will alter -- the
university in ways that
we can now only dimly perceive.
The Internet and other innovations in information technology
represent the most dramatic change in the way that we share and we
pursue knowledge since the invention of the printing press. The rippling
effects of that invention took centuries to play out and shaped
universities and their structure for all our time. And I have no doubt,
the same will be true of information technology.
As globalization continues, the opportunity to make a
difference through our teaching and our scholarship becomes far more
pervasive than ever before.
A century ago, Harvard was becoming a
national university. Today, while strongly rooted in American
traditions and values, it is becoming a global university.
We will, in the years ahead, need to think very carefully about
technology, about globalization, and how we can enable us to
contribute as much to as
many as possible.
We will also need to assure that we do not compromise our high
standards. Our goal will be to extend excellence
without ever diluting it.
The Adventure of Our Times
In this new century, nothing will matter more than the education of
future leaders and the development of new ideas.
Harvard has done its part in the past. But that past will be
prologue only if all of us now do our part to make it so.
We will face difficult choices. We will take risks. Sometimes we
will fail. Indeed, if we never fail, we will not have participated as
fully as we can
in the adventure of our times.
Like all great universities, Harvard has always been a work in
progress, and it always will be. In the words of the song we are
about to sing, let us together renew this great
university for the age that is waiting before.