A Harvard Civic Responsibility

Perhaps October is the cruelest month. With the happy reunions over and the summer a faded memory, the realities of Harvard hit again. Midterms, project proposals, that looming pile of laundry silently growing in the corner:

Harvard has hit you full swing, and there doesn't seem to be any time to do anything about it. Add to that the national and international tension that has filled the news in recent weeks and the idea of finding a moment to discuss anything else may seem futile.

Yet a moment of your time is exactly what I will ask. If you are like me, there are many things at Harvard you feel passionately about--your blockmates, your extracurriculars, your instructors or your Chickwiches. Some you love, some you hate, but the definition of what your Harvard experience has and will be would be fundamentally altered were one of these things to change.

And one of them just did. In May, President Neil L. Rudenstine announced that he will be stepping down at the end of the year. Last month--back amid the heady September moments of Harvard-is-wonderful-when-I-have-no-worries--the Presidential search committee, headed by Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow Robert G. Stone, Jr. '45, wrote you. The committee, he said, wants "your help… your observations and ideas about the state of the university."

And so you should step up and answer the call. It is no great secret that these sorts of committees do not hang on every word of a student's email. But this is no reason why we as students should not treat the offer of helping to select a leader of the academic world with as much seriousness as the presidential election. In fact, it may be of even more importance--you are part of an elite group who even has standing with the search committee, an electorate that alumni and all still is much smaller than that of the least populated states. Here, your vote and voice will count--I want to encourage your responses, so that all of us, together, can guide the search committee with a broad base of student opinion.

Consider it as a civic responsibility. Wherever you spend time at Harvard--from Undergraduate Council meetings to sports teams, church groups to meetings of your House committee--set aside some time to make recommendations on what a Harvard president could do to make your Harvard experience a richer and more meaningful one. Maybe it is better funding for a project, or removing red tape on something you feel is important. Maybe it is just the idea that a Harvard President would come your lacrosse game or your Project HEALTH program. Think concretely about what the top official of the University, with all his or her power, can do to improve your time here.

Create a priority list. Past Harvard presidents have shaped the course of educational theory here, creating the House system and the Core Curriculum. President Rudenstine and the Corporation saw the job more as one of fundraising and securing a financial future for Harvard; if you believe that a president's job is more about vision and dedication to students, especially undergraduates, express those views in your letter to the search committee.

And finally, help the committee think outside the box--or at least outside Harvard. The Corporation, the president, the provost and the other top administrative brass of the University think highly of their own ability to run the university, but they are unlikely to change the system they are used to. Rudenstine came from outside Cambridge, but inside the Ivy League; maybe you know of a candidate from another walk of life that could lead Harvard in a direction you would desire. The Clintons have been crossed off the list, but otherwise the gambit stands open to those willing to approach the process.

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