Summers Takes Charge

Installation of Harvard's new president marks unveiling of his long-term agenda

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers left the University a decade ago to pursue a career in politics. Now the ambitious plan he sketched for Harvard’s future at his grand installation Friday will require every ounce of his political savvy if it is to succeed.

The pomp surrounding the installation last week—a ceremony that dates back to the early 18th century—contrasted sharply with the plain words and forceful message that Summers delivered in the keynote address. In a brief speech, Summers laid out his plans for, among other measures, improving undergraduate education, hiring more faculty members, expanding into University-owned land in Allston and making Harvard into a “global” university. Although there are still some big questions left unanswered, the staff is gratified that many of the points made by the new president have been suggested in this space over the past months, and we look forward to the swift realization of Summers’ vision.

Most importantly, it seems that our new president has taken to heart the rumblings he’s been hearing from undergraduates. His focus on the College as the “very heart of the University” could herald the most exciting era in the history of the College since President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, introduced the House system in the early 1930s. Summers emphasized direct contact between teachers and students and called for a new focus on the academic experience in the College.

But even though the sky was picture-perfect blue last Friday, the outlook for a few of Summers’ proposals is decidedly cloudy. Expansion into Allston still has hurdles to overcome both with local residents and Harvard’s own faculties, and Summers’ failure even to mention the city in which he delivered the address may have complicated already-tense relations with Cambridge. Near the beginning of the speech, Summers commented how “great universities like this one have become more worldly in recent years.” Summers is a worldly man himself, and as a politician he knows well that goals are always negotiable and he may not get everything he wants. He made it clear, however, that his first goal is undergraduate education.

Students at the Center

In one of those rituals that contrast Harvard’s past elitism with its more egalitarian present, harried students, many rushing to take midterm exams, were shut out of large swaths of the Yard on Friday as dignitaries in suits sipped champagne in private receptions. But students were encouraged to attend the installation ceremony later in the afternoon and even got champagne with proper identification. In a notable bow to students’ role at the University, Undergraduate Council President Paul A. Gusmorino ’02 delivered the first student speech at a presidential installation in Harvard’s modern history. And we should be heartened by the attention Summers said would be showered upon students under his administration.

In his speech, Summers outlined several goals for the College: to make academics the center of the College experience, to hire more faculty members and to increase contact between undergraduates and their teachers. These goals could not have been more timely. It has been far too long since Harvard College was viewed as an undisputed leader in undergraduate education; Harvard’s reputation should rest not only on the quality of its students but on the education that they receive. Harvard’s current undergraduate program has significant room to improve: though the Core Curriculum seemed a radical innovation at the time of its introduction, today the Core program is widely considered an annoyance at best and a cruel joke at worst. Summers noted that “any curriculum, course of study, or form of pedagogy can always be improved,” and we hope that significant improvements of the undergraduate program will come under his administration.

The proposal to increase the size of the faculty should prove to be an unalloyed boon to all students. If Summers can significantly reduce class size and encourage more interaction between professors and students, it will most likely be counted as one of the greatest achievements of his term. The problem is finding the space to house the new professors, as well as the money to pay for them. Summers should consider granting tenure more frequently to the talented junior faculty whom Harvard often shunts aside. Such a move would promote better continuity within departments and bring in younger professors with better understanding of today’s students.

Summers should use the expansion of the faculty to improve undergraduate advising. In some departments such as government and economics, advising can be so uneven that students go for years without a serious conversation with a faculty member about their program. The situation is truly appalling, especially for first-years, who may be advised by harried graduate students who know nothing about the college. Summers has already taken on the role of academic adviser to one first-year student. He should now encourage faculty members to do the same and let the distracted Yard proctors concentrate on breaking up parties and hosting study breaks.

If successful, Summers’ programs to improve the personal academic experience of the College will enable him to pursue another of his educational goals, namely an increased attention to the sciences and a stronger science education for undergraduates. Given the current structure of undergraduate education, it is possible to graduate from the College with a scientific background that is both partial and superficial. If Summers is looking to promote the quality of science education—especially in the biological sciences and those disciplines that will have significant social impacts in coming decades—he could start by emphasizing interdisciplinary programs such as biomedical research, bioethics and ecology and by making courses and professors at the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health more available to undergraduates. Improving the quality of Harvard’s science education and encouraging students to pursue the sciences across discipline and faculty boundaries would not only help teach students the difference between a gene and a chromosome, as Summers mentioned, but would help them apply their knowledge to the world at large.

A Single University

These interfaculty efforts will require careful planning. In his speech, Summers signaled that he plans to continue former President Neil L. Rudenstine’s assault on the traditional independence of the graduate schools. He stressed the need for interdisciplinary collaboration and for the University to be more than “the sum of its parts.”

While Rudenstine created several interfaculty initiatives, Summers signaled that he wanted integration to go beyond a few isolated programs with “each tub on its own bottom.” The sharing of knowledge, rather than money, seemed to be Summers’ goal. He also stressed that the University should be a single entity rather than the collection of fiefdoms that it has historically been.

Such an significant reshaping of the University’s structure is likely to be resisted both by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the graduate schools; Summers will need to use all his political acumen to bring about the change that is necessary for integration.