The demands on the president of Harvard University are heavy indeed, and we recognize the time and effort that President Rudenstine invests in his office. The president's endless schedule carries him from lobbying lunches in Washington, to fundraising dinners with alumni, with a steady stream of meetings on faculty appointments thrown in between.
Travelling this busy path, it is perhaps too easy for the president to lose the forest in the trees, to neglect his primary role as leader of the University for the daily challenges which consume so much of his time. While the ethereal quality of leadership does not require the time of other commitments, it asks for the far more precious asset of vision.
President Rudenstine is always ready to make a public appearance, but it is rare that he takes the opportunity to seriously address the Harvard community. The annual reports of his predecessor, Derek C. Bok, became an institution among students and faculty, who awaited his probing discussion of Harvard's institutions and its mission.
Rudenstine has not made full use of his opportunity during his four-year tenure. His first report did not come out until 1993, and his second, devoted to "student learning, how people learn, and what the purposes of the university are," remains long delayed. Since his return from illness, Rudenstine has spent more time managing Harvard's outside affairs than he has working within the community on a vision of the University's future.
We are disappointed then that the president missed an excellent chance to begin this dialogue in his open letter to the Harvard community. Rudenstine's letter, released last week, devotes several pages to boasting about Harvard's strengths and greeting new students, deans and faculty, but is more noticeable for its gloss over the problems of a university that has come off a very difficult year.
Missing from the letter is mention of the Faculty's sharp criticisms of the Central Administration over benefits reductions. Gone is any mention of the media circuses that surrounded the Gina Grant affair, the murder-suicide in Dunster House, or even the president's own leave for exhaustion.
Instead, the letter's purpose appears simply to massage Harvard's ego and spin the challenges facing the Administration in the most favorable light. When asked in an interview if the letter were not some kind of public relations ploy, the president rolled his eyes and said, "You know me better than that by now. It's not part of a public relations blitz, I promise you that, absolutely not. It's not me, it's not my nature."
President Rudenstine addresses serious issues only in the closing paragraphs of his letter. There he discusses the University's efforts to stem its operating deficit, outlines his efforts to defend educational spending in Washington and reiterates Harvard's commitment to diversifying its students and faculty.
Still, Rudenstine reflects on the university's budget difficulties only to speak in terms of "Harvard's vigorous commitment to containing costs," which has been assisted through "the perspectives and counsel of an advisory committee including senior administrators. There is little mention of the ongoing acrimony that these cost-cutting measures have entailed.
Perhaps we should accept Rudenstine's spin as simply a light, "welcome back" message from the president. However, given Rudenstine's limited encounters with the Harvard community, we wish that he had made better use of this opportunity to substantively explore the challenges facing the University.
President Rudenstine, over his first years at Harvard, has shown his dedication to managing the daily duties of the presidency. Now it is time for him to go further--to be frank about the past and to offer the community his vision for the University's future.