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HIS CRITICS thought they had Derek Bok by the scruff of the neck. Picking at the few nuggets of potentially controversial material that speckle the president's monolithic annual report for 1980-81, faultfinders have proclaimed that in his discussion of the fate of student aid. Bok has given short shrift to those who don't make his academic grade--i.e., who aren't the stuff of the Ivy League. In his suggestion that students who do not achieve some "modest threshold" of college board scores be denied financial aid opportunities afforded those who transcend the cut-off mark. Bok was taken by his foes to mean that only the elite should reap the rewards of federal dollars. Aha! said reporters and columnists, educators and students: The president of Harvard has finally exposed himself as a closet snob.
Undeniably, Bok made a mess of things when he threw out that rather bizarre proposal for cutting the fat from the federal education budget. If he seriously was looking, as he insists in the report, to channel national dollars to those most likely to finish their college educations (a still-controversial but at least reasonable idea). Bok should not have been so imprecise--and consequently self-defeating--in his scenario-making. If he was conniving to hoard all the bucks for this University, then he was foolish to do so in such a crassly indirect--but suspect--manner.
In context, it is likely that Bok's controversial words were meant to illustrate his conviction that it is possible to envision an operable system whereby rich people and kids who don't really want to go to college don't get financial aid. But that does not excuse the president of Harvard for sloppiness. He deserves the flood of criticism that resulted from his creative remarks, a deluge that, unfortunately, all but obscured the bulk of his message a well-researched, rhetorically admirable polemic in favor of federal support for higher education.
Regardless of whether he was serious about the board scores idea. Bok will no doubt take pains, if necessary, to explain away his brainstorm and to convince those who count that he is not one to hold his nose in the air. The hullaballoo will die down and, with a few more public statements. Bok may find himself where he apparently set out to be at the forefront of a movement to maintain national support of colleges and graduate schools. Without much straining, it is possible to envision Bok turning a sticky situation to his advantage if things get too messy. It's happened before.
WHEN THE POWERS-that-be finally look beyond the jolting statements in Bok's report, the ones that caught the eye of the media, they will find a highly idealistic argument that translates into the practical as follows. The world is complicated Things are bound to get more complicated. Hence, the United States in the technical-nuclear age must rely, more than ever, on human capital to figure out how to Keep America Number One. And that's why it makes sense for the federal government to help pay for the education of its citizenry.
In presenting his case. Bok sets up one straw man after another to fortify an already intuitively appealing line of thought. To his credit, he has clearly wrestled with some of the most fundamental questions concerning the proper role of a national government, and he takes little for granted. To cite a consistent theme as an example. Bok acknowledges that we cannot gauge the effects of higher education on the public interest in hard figures. "How," he asks, "do students actually change and grow through their undergraduate experience? How much does college--or graduate school, for that matter--truly help people become better leaders, make wiser judgments, be more productive?" The answer, he contends, is "not at all firm" and, he implies, is destined to remain that way. As a result, Bok throws off the mantle of devil's advocate and opines that higher education produces "important public benefits," an assumption with which few would disagree.
It's his approach that is disturbing.
In his broad treatment of financial aid questions. Bok lays an obstacle before himself--and then steps quickly to the side instead of confronting the problem head on. Specifically. "How do students actually change and grow through their undergraduate experience?" should be a fundamental question--and not a rhetorical device--for liberal arts educators, especially at a school that purports to challenge the student socially, morally, politically, and ex-tracurricularly, as well as academically. Certainly, this concern has no single answer. But that is not to say that there are no answers at all, or that answers are unobtainable. The truth lies in that the Derek Boks of Harvard have characteristically ignored the most basic academic aspect of Harvard's effect on individual undergraduates, not because such data is intangible but because it takes a little extra effort to gather it.
If Bok spent a good portion of the time he has devoted to the University's multi-million-dollar capital fund drive talking with individual undergraduates or even groups of undergraduates with similar concerns, he might very well see that students change and grow in large part by learning to cope with the bitter fact that their voices are effectively silenced by an almost total lack of active concern on the University's part. The average student hears from Harvard officials only when he trips up or when he performs so superbly that to ignore his achievements would only serve to embarrass the University. Admittedly, several campus research groups periodically survey the masses in order to prepare "trend" reports on the quality of life. The latest of these questionnaires, now being circulated among upperclassmen, concerns the undergraduate House system, about which, Bok notes in a cover letter, the Harvard administration is "deeply concerned" To be sure, the results of this effort will eventually surface somewhere above the fold on page one of The Crimson, students will learn, to their utter surprise, that gay people generally feel unwelcome in Eliot House and that a good number of students consider the location of the Quad disadvantageous.
JUST AS THESE conclusions will be too grand to filter down into concrete good, so Bok's approach to the issues that confront him as an educator is too broad. He should be commended for concerning himself with such a pressing topic as financial aid, and it is difficult to find fault with much of the logic that characterizes his annual report. But, in the long run. Bok's words will serve only to clarify that the president of Harvard likes the idea of federal aid to students--in general. Aside from a few loose suggestions for the feds to consider. Bok's report says nothing that, like the sour bells that sound from Lowell House every Sunday afternoon, is not painfully predictable.
More important, Bok refuses to deal with Harvard as a separate institution in his report. He implies, of course, that this is one of the better schools. But we find not a word defending the University's policy, however sound Bok may believe it to be, of maintaining a huge endowment while accepting millions more in federal gifts. Not a word about how more and more incoming freshmen are being admitted on the condition that they live off campus. Not a word, most importantly, about why the federal government should bolster students who want to go to this institution--about why Harvard University deserves support.
It could be argued, with some measure of cogency, that these topics fall outside the periphery of Bok's subject and, moreover, that he has a right to address the latter without acknowledging the former because of his key role in education. Perhaps the annual report does not constitute the proper forum for Bok to reflect any extensive interaction with students or to address specific areas that concern members of the Harvard community. It is, after all, addressed to the "members of the Board of Overseers." But this does not excuse Bok, and the rest of the Harvard administration, for that matter, from involving themselves in community concerns on a personal level and in a precise, careful manner. If Bok has the right as a leading educator to pontificate, no matter how sagely, on the future of financial aid, he also has a responsibility as a leader of this institution to try to get at how students change and grow here. That task will require more than surveys such as the "Learning and Living in the Houses" questionnaire, which is designed to "preserve anonymity."
In fact, it will necessitate that the student body become a group of individuals, that the concerns of those individuals are greeted with more than lip service because they are regarded as direct indicators of how Harvard will ultimately fare in benefitting the public interest. Otherwise, in dealing with important issues only in macroscopic terms. Derek Bok becomes a snob in a substantive way, especially in the eyes of those for whom he pretends to speak.
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