News

Undergraduates Celebrate Second Consecutive Virtual Housing Day

News

Dean of Students Office Discusses Housing Day, Anti-Racism Goals

News

Renowned Cardiologist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Bernard Lown Dies at 99

News

Native American Nonprofit Accuses Harvard of Violating Federal Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

News

U.S. Reps Assess Biden’s Progress on Immigration at HKS Event

Forging A Vision For Harvard

By Tara A. Nayak

A quick glance at the title of President Derek C. Bok's recent books provide the key to his philosophy on the role of higher education in America.

First there was Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University in 1982, and then Higher Learning in 1986. And just this year, Bok published Universities and the Future of America.

In both writings and speeches, Bok has taken a vocal stance in defining the role of the activist university. As he sees it, it is an institution of higher learning's duty not only to study society but to help make it better.

"It's a question of trying to align the priorities of the University a little more with the priorities of the country," Bok says. "So many of the things society seems to need the most in terms of ideas and well-prepared people get low priority on campuses."

The right has criticized Bok's stance for being just another example of liberal, 'Harvard-knows-what's-best-for-the-country,' thinking. And the left has often charged that in his governing of Harvard, he does not put into practice the same values he preaches to the nation.

Despite the criticism, however, Bok has persisted in his defense of higher education as a dynamo for social change in America.

In fact, his belief in socially responsible education, together with an exacting standard of scholarly excellence in tenure promotions, forms the core of the outgoing president's academic philosophy, colleagues say.

The Formative Years

Bok's first years in office were largely occupied with restoring order to a divided and sometimes violent campus. The late 1960s saw escalating student anti-war protests, culminating in the occupation of University Hall and a violent police crackdown ordered by President Nathan M. Pusey '28.

As order was gradually reestablished on campus, Bok increasingly began to focus his energies beyond the ivy-colored walls of the Yard.

When Bok assumed the presidency, the connection between the ivory tower and the real world had never been under greater scrutiny.

For several years, schools had been attacked by students for being complicitous in the Vietnam conflict. And universities like Harvard were just beginning to face heat from activists charging that their investment policies were having damaging impact on the struggle for racial equality in Southern Africa.

Intense campus demonstrations on these questions disrupted Harvard to a degree that Bok had little choice but to concentrate on restoring internal peace.

Bok followed this pattern and attended chiefly to internal Harvard matters for the first five to 10 years of his presidency, according to administrators close to Bok.

"He resisted efforts to make the University a player in social and political issues," says John Shattuck, vice president for government, community and public affairs. "If the University was going to be able to do the job of teaching and research, it was important to be free from the great controversy of the times raging outside."

But over the last decade, Bok broke out of his narrow focus on Harvard alone. Emerging as a spokesperson for higher education as a whole, Bok increasingly touted the research university as a major asset that can help solve the nation's social and economic problems.

Defensive Stance

During the 1980s, Bok's stance on the role of higher education often came in the form of a defense of elite colleges from polemicists on the right.

The Reagan administration made drastic cuts in the federal education budget, and then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett hurled attack after attack against selective private colleges, accusing them of being too expensive, elitist and academically unfocused.

Bennett especially attacked the Core Curriculum, the undergraduate education showpiece begun under Bok, for not grounding students in the central tenets of Western civilization.

Even after Bennett had left the Department of Education, Bok continued to paint a picture of higher education under siege, pointing to ongoing budget cuts, cynicism about the academy and, most recently, a federal probe into colleges' financial practices.

While Bok has continued to oppose conservative critics with defensive salvoes like this spring's annual report to the Overseers, the president has also fine-tuned his own vision of what universities should do for the country.

In a book published this year, Universities and the Future of America, Bok urges higher education to take the lead in the economic and social revitalization of the country. They can, he writes, instigate social change by exercising influence in the corporate and public sectors and by broadening their own student's educations.

Bok often uses the rhetoric of national reform when pushing his plans for the University. For instance, he has framed his ongoing campaign to internationalize the student body and liberal arts curriculum as critical for the country's well-being.

"If the United States is going to survive, students need to be more cosmopolitan," he says.

But like many of his apparently liberal positions on higher education, Bok's internationalization drive has been criticized for simply being a thin veneer over a more conservative stance.

Overseer Peter H. Wood '64, who was elected to the Board on an independent pro-divestment platform, says that Bok's plans will only renifornce economic inequalities in developing nations.

Specifically, Wood says Bok's efforts to fund scholarships for foreign students from alumni in their home countries limits access to education to the elites.

Ethical Education

A key segment of Bok's vision for Harvard, and for higher education as a whole, has been the teaching of ethics. During his presidency, the College, the Medical School, the Business School and the Kennedy School of Government have all had some form of ethics education incorporated into their curricula.

"He is the reason I think we have an ethics emphasis at [the Kennedy] School," says Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser.

Despite the curricular reforms, critics have charged that Bok's commitment to ethics is more rhetorical than substantial.

For example, they point to the Med School's Medical Science Partnership (MSP), a program under which scientific research at Harvard can be marketed for profit, a practice some say violates conflict of interest principles.

Strict Standards

Implicit in Bok's vision of the University is the idea that Harvard must not jeopardize its principle mission--maintaining excellence in education, although many have charged that Bok's definition of first-rate scholarship has blocked appointments in some politicized disciplines.

Some professors also suggest in fact that Bok has impeded the progress of Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence's plan to increase junior faculty's chances at being promoted to tenure.

But what others interpret as a frustrating conservatism on hiring questions, Bok sees as making sure that Harvard scholars remain the best in the world.

According to members of the president's inner circle, Bok considers faculty hiring and promotion as the most important and enjoyable part of his job.

He maintains that the best way to ensure that Harvard only attracts the best scholars is to preserve the tradition-bound ad hoc committee system, in which he presides over a panel of outside experts who determine whether department-nominated tenure candidates are worthy of Harvard lifetime posts.

Those who have served on ad-hocs with Bok say he is careful to hear every opinion, and reads the scholarship of nearly every candidate under question. And Bok does not hesitate to reverse a faculty's recommendation for a tenure appointment if he disagrees with their assesment of the candidate, Zeckhauser says, even if it means losing a popular teacher.

"I've seen him on a number of occasions, rather than say what will make a dean or a majority of the faculty happy, sit and ponder for weeks, sometimes for months, what the merits were," Zeckhauser says.

Bok has several times come under fire from students and faculty for what has been called a hard-line insistence on an impossibly high standard of scholarship, one especially unattainable for Harvard's own junior faculty.

In 1986, Bok's denial of tenure to Alan Brinkley, a popular junior American history professor, caused a major campus uproar. Bok explained that he thought Brinkley's scholarship was not up to par, whether or not he was a popular teacher.

While faculty praise Bok's evenhandedness in the ad hoc committees, they are critical of a process that results in few internal promotions and puts too little stress on teaching ability.

"A 51-year-old...historian might be tenured," Zeckhauser says, "but we should be appointing to tenure people who are 31, although they are always a gamble."

Bok has especially been criticized for fostering a tenure system that hardly takes teaching ability into account when evaluating scholars for lifetime professorships.

Bok says that research and teaching are equally important aspects of research universities. Good teaching, he says, is normally a natural outgrowth of research, since it constantly expands and renews both field and teacher.

And senior faculty members tend to agree that, while it is difficult to balance the two factors, teaching skill alone does not make a good professor.

"There is a tension between teaching and research, but to resolve it by saying, 'focus only on teaching' is not a solution," according to David A. Riesman '31, Ford Foundation professor of social sciences emeritus, "because then faculty members members only get older, and not wiser."

Despite the criticisms Bok has weathered, Riesman concludes that the president's academic vision for the University has translated into reality.

"Bok will leave a legacy of excellence," Riesman says, "whether people have liked the process or not."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags