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From Bok, An (Unintentional) Self-Evaluation

By Adam K. Goodheart

Derek C. Bok has written a book that is an insightful and tough assessment of the performance of American higher education. But as the author enters his last of twenty years as president of one of the nation's premier research universitites, it is a perhaps unintended, but inevitable, consequence that his book will be used as a yardstick to assess the performance of Bok himself and of the Harvard he has shaped.

Universities and the Future of America

By Derek C. Bok

Duke University Press

135 pages; $14.95

Surprisingly enough--for above all, he is remarkable for his rigorous commitment to standards--Bok in the course of Universities and the Future of America shows himself to have fallen short of his own model.

The slim volume, adapted from a series of lectures by Bok at Duke University in 1988, presents the strong argument that universities have failed to fulfill their full potential in "helping America surmount the obstacles that sap our economic strength and blight the lives of millions of our people."

Starting from the reasonable premise that universities play a central role in the social and economic advancement of a nation, Bok sets out to examine a simple question: If the system of higher education in this country is truly the finest in the world, he asks, then why has so little progress been made to solve the country's ills? On issues from industrial competitiveness to the drug epidemic to the ethical lapses of public officials, teachers and researchers could and should be doing more, Bok argues.

Few at Harvard or elsewhere would disagree with this analysis. Yet what is puzzling, viewed in light of Bok's record at Harvard, is some of the issues he chooses to focus on.

For instance, he deplores the failure of top law school graduates to devote themselves to pro bono work and helping the poor rather than pursuing ever higher salaries at big-name firms. Has Bok forgotten that it was he who appointed a new Harvard Law School dean who, after just a few months in office, eliminated the school's public-interest career counselling office in an effort to save money?

Similarly, Bok calls on universities to establish strong, independent graduate programs to train students in responsible, ethical public administration and carry out independent research on pressing social issues. He cautions that it is often difficult to obtain funding for such programs, since potential corporate conors would often rather finance research programs whose results may contribute directly to their business success.

Yet Bok's own public-administration baby, the Kennedy School of Government, has won for itself a rather welldeserved reputation for being exactly what he warns other university presidents against creating. Its educational program is known as a training school for soulless technocrats. Even worse, its research programs often carry out what is little more than private consulting for corporate donors who are given free rein to set scholars' priorites.

To be sure, Bok in several instances gives well-reasoned and persuasive explanations of some of his pet causes. He reiterates his oft-repeated call for increased internationalization of universities and their student bodies, refuting conservative know-nothings who have argued that this would sap American economic strength.

And Bok's support of a University-wide fund drive, a move away from Harvard's tradition of "every tub on its own bottom," is implicitly explained by his description of how graduate programs that make the greatest contributions to society--such as schools of education--often receive the smallest contributions from alumni.

It is in such clear and forthright delineations of the problems facing modern universities that Bok's outstanding qualities as an administrator come through. Unlike many in his position, he is neither a nearsighted bureaucrat nor a self-important fulminator. Rather, he proves himself once again as a remarkably incisive social scientist, separating one by one the strands of an intricate web of forces affecting higher education.

Bok takes an opposite tack from recent critics who have faulted universities for their professors' supposed withdrawal into ivory towers remote from the "real world." Instead, he says, higher education has been all too subject to real-world pressures in recent decades as government grants have diminished and scholars have turned increasingly to strings-attached corporate funding.

Nor does Bok spare the universities themselves. There, he asserts, too many scholars view their research merely in terms of their own advancement within a field, and are therefore reluctant to blaze trails in difficult new areas that offer little prestige.

The net effect of these market forces, Bok argues, is profoundly detrimental:

Although the potential exists to repond to almost every issue on our formidable national agenda, the readiness to do so does not...[M]ost universities continue to do their least impressive work on the very subjects where society's need for greater knowledge and better education is most acute.

As true as this may be, though, Bok's book suffers as well as profits from his rigorous scholarly approach. This is clearly evident in the writing itself, which, while not overly long-winded, is dry and almost entirely free of the anecdotes that spice the theorizing of such educational leaders as A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale's late president. Many of Bok's analyses are clearly born of personal experience, and one would think that after two decades in office, he must have some tales to recount that would help illustrate his points. If so, however, they are not to be found in Universities and the Future of America.

Bok's shortcomings are most obvious when he attempts to move from describing problems to prescibing solutions. Readers expecting a visionary plan for rechanneling economic and social pressures to push universities in the right direction will be disappointed by Bok's list of stopgaps. It is as though his natural cautiousness has discouraged him from putting forth any daring ideas that might later prove flawed. Instead, he sticks to time-worn exhortations: Schools should lobby vigorously for government funding. Administrators and government officials should work together to develop "effective leadership." Trustees should be more aggressive in setting priorities.

As Harvard's own stewards ready themselves to choose a new president, they would do well to give Universities and the Future of America a careful read. Or perhaps two careful reads: The first time around, they should read it as an unclouded look at the challenges that will face the University's next president. And the second time, they should read it as a barometer of both the merits and the shortcomings of the University's current president.

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