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Derek Bok has spent most of the last year learning about his new job--how best to deal with Harvard's myriad constituencies while offending no one and still managing to get things done. It didn't take him long to discover that this latter feat is one of wild imagination.
In a recent interview. Bok described how his preconceptions of the job have altered with experience. He admitted that faced with Harvard's tiers of academic bureaucracy and its inter-disciplinary jealousies, he has found the implementation of academic change more frustrating than he expected.
Bok told the Faculty at its first meeting of the year in September that his energies would be directed toward "the process of education in the fullest sense." He spoke mostly of undergraduate education, which he called his greatest concern, and outlined several areas in need of reform. But in the interview, Bok focused on the coordination of larger programs throughout the University; he described structures, but mentioned few significant advances in undergraduate education.
Bok acknowledged that student issues--primarily Gulf and the resulting takeover of Massachusetts Hall--had taken up an unexpected amount of time. "There's no question that the Mass Hall episode threw us behind schedule. That kind of situation does absorb your energies to the extent that you can't do the things you planned on as easily," he said.
Such situations also proved frustrating to Bok, since he found himself in the unfamiliar position of being unable to talk out problems, as he had done at the Law School, when faced with criticism of his administrative decisions. He was quick to realize that the shift from Law School dean to Harvard President encompassed a rude transition from conviviality to impersonality.
These realizations have had their effect on Bok. There have been moments when his demeanor has reflected his frustration: 15 hours into the PALC occupation of Mass Hall, he paced impatiently on the tenth floor of Holyoke Center, perceptibly worn and distraught.
That night he was asked how he intended to respond to alumni if pressured to move against the occupiers. "I don't need this job," he said. "And alumni will not dictate how I run this University. I will never do anything to hurt a student in this University."
Well, he may not need the job, but he has become somewhat attached to it. He is probing the limitations of his power, and as he establishes boundaries, he becomes more comfortable in what he does. He has slowly broken his worst diplomatic habit of staring at the floor when he discusses unpleasant issues. And he has become more relaxed as his confidence has increased.
There is no doubt that Bok's style varies drastically from that of his predecessor, Nathan M. Pusey '28. His reputation is that of a crisis solver; in this respect, he has demonstrated an irritating, but apparently effective, knack for avoiding direct confrontation through postponement. Rather than meet an issue head-on, he defers to "a need for further discussion," discussions in which he ostensibly tries to assert the strength of his own convictions.
At other times, Bok uses the University's decentralized structure to avoid issues altogether. In the case of three professors trying to oust a dean, he shuffles responsibility to the Corporation as the body which is hearing the charges. He avoids discussion of SDS and its efforts to get rooms for a national convention at Harvard, saying that it is a matter for the College to decide. Then he quietly arranges for rooms at the Law School to avoid a potential disturbance.
Similarly, he puts off a statement on the Herrnstein issue until harassment has reached the point that the University community is almost united in its revulsion. Then, a statement is a safe and expedient move.
The most obvious postponement, and the one which drew the most fire, was Bok's handling of the Gulf issue. PALC felt put off to the point that it occupied Bok's offices; even then, however, he moved deliberately, waiting for the issue to cool, waiting for mediation. Only in this case, the issue didn't cool and "mediation" came only because of a court order.
Bok maintains that it is incumbent upon him to let different faculties settle their own problems; otherwise, all of his time would be consumed by crises of varying proportions. He figures that his responsibilities as President lie elsewhere. But as President, he is the one to whom all complaints are channeled.
Bok's tendency to let controversy run its course, with only limited involvement on his part, makes it hard for him to convey sincerity when he does act.
Many people refuse to believe that Bok could really have a moral stance on the Gulf issue because he delayed, he put off concrete action with promises of well-defined alternatives to divestiture at some unspecified future date. His Herrnstein statement, some say, was easy to make when he finally did. Graduate students criticize his lack of involvement with their scholarship demands, which they feel indicates a lack of concern.
But for all the differences in style between Bok and Pusey, there is really no difference in sincerity between the two men: like Pusey, Bok believes in what he does, and he does what he feels is best for Harvard. Student protests are the product of institutions as much as the men who run them: no President however clever or sincere, can avoid serious disagreements over policy in a community as diverse as this one.
Much of the apparent difference between Bok and Pusey lies in Bok's attempts at openness: he tries to reason out disagreement to his advantage, and in doing so he belies his reluctance to force confrontation. He has paid the price for his cautiousness: he accepts it, saying that one of the essential things he has learned this year is "how to take flak, and to know you can't avoid it."
Just as Bok has been learning how he wants to be President, Harvard has been judging him. The judgments have often been harsh. Some have been approving. He has been called arrogant, a maximizer, a cold-hearted bureaucrat who lacks substance. He has been hailed as The Answer--young, efficient, forthright.
When it comes down to classification, though, Derek Bok is simply a good academic administrator. Like anyone else, he holds strong personal prejudices: his nature is to guard them closely, and
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