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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Trading in '60s liberalism for laissez faire

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decanal appointments, which Bok also puts extraordinary time into in part because, as he says, "Harvard really depends on its dean like no other institution I know." Bok emphasizes that policy decisions are tightly bound to his selections of deans; this is true in part because once appointed a dean has total control. "He's like a knight at King Arthur's round table. He can tell the king to go to hell any time he wants," Treasurer Putnam says. The unity of policy and decanal choices is also apparent in Bok's annual reports. His 1973-74 report analyzed the fate of the public policy program at the Kennedy School, whose dean, Don K. Price, is retiring this year, and next year's report, Bok says, will address a series of contemporary problems in health and medicine and fit into his search for the next dean of the Medical School.

After five years it is evident that Bok's 1971 promise to the Faculty to dedicate "his principal efforts in the future to education in its fullest sense" has not meant a search for holistic, abstract new educational philosophies but a strenuous concern with the nitty gritty of faculty appointments. "Care in making appointments is crucial," Bok says, "for Harvard can easily survive a mediocre president if it appoints the ablest professors, but the institution will go down hill steadily, regardless of its president, if mediocre appointments are allowed to be made."

The choice is characteristic of Bok's preference for working out of the limelight; if one had to choose the most obscure side of the academic world, faculty appointments would be high on the list. Business School Dean Fouraker, who like many of Bok's admirers speaks disparagingly of Yale's Brewster, doubts that Brewster--"who gets a lot of publicity, takes a lot of positions, and is sensitive to the media"--gets involved in the appointments of faculty. Bok's choice, he believes, "is one for which we should be grateful."

The hypothesis that Bok prefers the subterranean gets more support from the president's low-profile devotion to creating interdisciplinary programs between the professional schools, especially in the Schools of Government and Public Health. While the professional schools are "extremely good at giving specialized training in economics or political science or some other discipline," Bok says, "the major problems of society are never solely economic or political or sociological. They are always problems that need a variety of perspectives and points of view."

Such interdisciplinary programs run entirely against the each-tub-on-its-own-bottom structure of the University; as Francis H. Burr '35, senior fellow of the Corporation, says, "If selection and promotion of faculty is done within departments, it's very hard to get people to think in interdepartmental, interdisciplinary terms, because that's not where the rewards are. Something has got to evolve, exactly what is going to come up I don't know. The most conservative body in the world is a faculty, especially a Faculty of arts and sciences." While Bok downplays the difficulties of setting up compelling incentives and remains optimistic that he can slowly raise funds needed to create new faculty positions, Treasurer Putnam says that tight money has made fundraising for the Kennedy School extremely difficult. "It's been going much slower than President Bok would like. It's been very frustrating for him."

Although Bok--as president of the University--has felt that it is his role to push the professional schools to create joint programs, he has declined to take the powerful role a president like Conant took in shaping undergraduate education. Although he has argued repeatedly that Harvard must improve the quality of its undergraduate education--"to give the students their money's worth, which isn't a Harvard tradition"--James S. Ackerman, professor of Fine Arts, says Bok has restricted his role largely to establishing funding for professors experimenting with new teaching methods. It was not until Henry Rosovsky took over the Faculty deanship that a wholesale review of undergraduate education began, one in which Bok has participated as a member of the committee coordinating Rosovsky's seven task forces. Steiner says that Bok believed no such review could occur before the Pusey-era splits had healed, creating a consensus that would allow the Faculty to focus its energies on undergraduate education. In addition, Bok's readings of educational reviews done elsewhere and his staff's investigations revealed, Steiner says, that the innovations "appeared glamorous on the face of it but weren't working. The last reason Derek would propose something," he adds, "is because it looks good."

On a few issues Bok has taken uncharacteristically bold positions that apparently reflect his strongly liberal bias. The most volatile issue on which he has spoken out loudly is the admission of women to the College. Before his official installation as president in October 1971 Bok called for a 2.5-to-1 male-female ratio to replace the 4-to-1 balance used for the Class of 1975 and its predecessors. This shift was relatively moderate, calling merely for a drop of 25 in the number of male undergraduates. But the move to equal access admissions this year--a policy officially endorsed by the Strauch Committee but long pushed by Bok--involved a far greater risk of alumni support and donations. Bok's commitment has not emphasized the practical, either; in his 1974 Commencement week speech to the alumni, Bok said: "The admissions practices of a university reflect its educational philosophy and embody its attitudes towards students. This being so, what are our women to make of a policy that imposes on them alone an admissions ceiling? If we seek a student body that combines diversity with the highest intellectual talent, why should any group be subject to a predetermined and seemingly arbitrary limit? If students at Radcliffe perceive that they alone are barred admission beyond a certain number regardless of the talents and accomplishments they possess, can they avoid the conclusion that Harvard values women the less?"

While Bok has held firmly to his support of boosting the number of female undergraduates, his early Great-Society-liberal stand behind affirmative action has wavered under his laissez-faire-liberal opposition to government intervention in higher education. In March 1973, in an article in The Crimson, Bok wrote:

Government requirements do involve a substantial administrative burden. Fantastic amounts of time and energy have been devoted in this University to gathering data, obtaining computer printouts, and preparing hundreds of pages of reports to HEW...Despite these costs, I believe that the extra work has been worthwhile. Our poor record prior to the past four years suggests special efforts have indeed been necessary. In addition, the efforts we have made have allowed us to understand our personnel policies more fully, to identify many deficiencies, and to provide more genuinely equal opportunities at Harvard.

But today Bok's statements take a different tone: affirmative action has fallen under Bok's attack on government regulation. In his annual report this year, for example, Bok criticized federal officials for imposing "rules [affirmative action, for instance] to secure important social objectives without considering less intrusive ways of achieving their goals. When the government, acted, however, strong pressures were already developing on many campuses to devote more attention to hiring women and minorities. There was also little evidence to show that minority faculty were victimized by systematic discrimination; careful studies suggest that these professors were already receiving larger salaries than white colleagues of comparable background and experience." Only as an afterthough did Bok concede, "Higher education can certainly be criticized for its past record in these areas."

As his shifts on affirmative action show, federal regulation of higher education has gradually become Derek Bok's number-one national issue. His position again reflects a curious and contradictory mixture of liberal stands: while Bok argues that government regulation ignores what he sees as the central role of "experience, judgment, and informed intuition [rather than of] logical demonstration" in education, he also believes that universities have failed to meet their social obligation to guide public policy makers: "Beneath these complaints [of government officials about higher education spokesmen's attitudes to Washington] lies a deeper concern. The quality of government regulation does not depend simply on the intelligence and judgment of public officials but on the adequacy of the information and advice that these officials receive to assist them in their work. According to many critics, higher education has done a poor job in meeting this responsibility."

Faculty members and administrators repeatedly emphasize Bok's style when asked to sum up his first five years--conciliation, consensus, open-mindedness. This is partly the legacy of the '60s; according to one senior Faculty member, Bok is "the classic example of a man chosen to make up for his predecessors. If Bok retired today, the professor adds, Bok "would be remembered as the president who brought back the lawn to the Yard." While some are reluctant to juxtapose Pusey and Bok and instead insist on emphasizing their similarities, others quite bluntly concede their differences. Ackerman says the Pusey administration was like the Nixon White House: "You couldn't break in, there was no way of giving a contrary opinion." Bok, on the other hand, Ackerman says, "tries to get unbiased opinions" and "invites openness."

While Bok and his staff are happy to broadcast an open-house image of consensus, they deny sharply that Bok is merely a high-level mediator who keeps the boat from rocking too much, who uses the skills he learned in his labor experience to keep his central administration running smoothly. After insisting that he does make unpopular decisions for which there is no compromise solution, Bok adds, "I don't think, on the other hand, that compromise should be a dirty word."

Behind Bok's milquetoast image--a by-product of his disdain for the press, preference for nuts-and-bolts programs, and reluctance to speak out on issues he does not know well--there does appear to be a series of substantive programs. But it remains problematical whether Bok can spread his sense of purpose and create a sense of direction in the University. As he moves toward the end of his first decade in office Bok's ability to influence and inspire educators--something he has yet to do--may become the prime determinant of whether he is remembered as a caretaker president or as the heir to the Eliot-Lowell-Conant legacy.CrimsonSandy O. Steingard

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