...And a Speech for Dolts

THE YARD WAS drop-dead gorgeous when I arrived there at 2:30 last Friday afternoon. They say that God makes sure that Commencement is held under sunny skies; the weather for the inauguration was a further sign of His affection for Harvard.

The beauty of the scene, and the pomp and color of the academic procession, made me even more excited about the event than I already was. I had long been a confirmed Rudenstinian, though I had never seen the new president in person. Last year, I had been pleased by some convincing steps he had taken toward a more open dialogue with students--notably the institution of presidential office hours. Reading newspaper interviews had convinced me even more of his good intentions, especially in the area of undergraduate education.

The proceedings began well, with a suitably solemn prayer by the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, and with a deliciously irreverent talk by President Hanna H. Gray of the University of Chicago. The next two speeches were also good.

And then, it was Neil Rudenstine's turn. With a big smile on his face, he strode confidently to the podium, took a big gulp (of water, I assume) from a Harvard University cup, and took out his speech. I was at the edge of my seat, brimming with expectations.

After five minutes, I felt a little disappointed. After ten, I was dejected. When the speech was over, I was crushed.


IT WASN'T THAT Rudenstine surprised me by failing to mention specifics. I was prepared for generalities. Last Friday afternoon was not the time to discuss the nitty-gritty of University policies.

It wasn't that he supported some philosophical position I didn't like. I found nothing to disagree with in the substance of his talk.

It was his speaking style that got to me. Self-conscious and slow, unsure and uninspired, Rudenstine lost most of his audience's attention. Friends of mine--people who wanted to hear what he had to say--fell asleep, and others began conversations. Two people sitting in front of me started taking pictures of each other. The man sitting to my left read and reread and reread his little one-sheet program.

I had looked to Rudenstine as a person who would inspire the Harvard community to overcome institutional inertia with good new ideas powerfully expressed. A tinge of idealism, a little poetry and some biting humor can disarm one's most vociferous opponents. Unfortunately, it's clear that Rudenstine (to quote Sen. Lloyd Bentsen) is no Jack Kennedy.

Yes, it's possible that he could be more like Lyndon B. Johnson--a retail-politics man, nervous in front of the cameras but unstoppable behind closed doors. He'd better be, or the twin towers of the Corporation and the Faculty will get their way--and the students will lose.

BUT WHATEVER HIS effectiveness in private, the fact that he lacks charisma in public could be a serious problem for Harvard and for higher education in general. For the Harvard president has a special role in academe. When crisis hits, other universities--even other university presidents--look to him for leadership and vision.

Such a crisis is here. The federal education budget on the whole, and the higher education budget in particular, have been slashed and burned over the last 10 years. And in the tight budgetary climate of Washington, there is not much hope for an upswing in funding. But if any person could change that, if any person could convince Capitol Hill to do what's right instead of what's cheap, it would be Harvard's president.

This is a role that history has assigned him. He cannot duck out of it, he cannot shift the mantle to Yale or Princeton. As President of Harvard, he has to provide a voice.

I'm sure that the search committee selected Neil Rudenstine because they felt he was the best candidate for the job. Given their criteria, his qualifications were undoubtedly impeccable. But I wonder whether they fully understood the important public role any Harvard president must assume.

Perhaps they neglected to test the candidates' oratorical skills. Or perhaps they purposefully selected someone who, insecure in the harsh light of the public arena, would be unable to appeal to mass sentiment in order to override their wishes. Whatever the explanation, in selecting a poor orator as president, the search committee has not served the University well.

The sun was going down and the shadows were lengthening as my friends and I slowly trudged out of the Yard. Over at Weld Hall, the "We Love Our Neil!" and "We Love Neil More!" banners quivered in the autumn breeze. As we moved toward Massachusetts Avenue, I wondered when the residents would clamber out onto the fire escapes and take their banners down.

The Harvard president must provide a national voice for higher education. Rudenstine's isn't very strong.