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Risky Business

By Ira E. Stoll

President Neil L. Rudenstine released his plan for Harvard's future in October, and it landed with a thud.

The report, the product of two years of University-wide planning, is 84 pages long. (You thought last year's Commencement speech was long? Check out this baby.) As you might expect, few undergraduates have read it.

The document was originally intended for the Board of Overseers, and I hope it's not too irreverent to raise the possibility that at least a few of them haven't read the whole thing, either.

But I did read the whole report, over the last few days, deftly avoiding that senior thesis chapter I was supposed to be writing.

It's actually an interesting document, primarily for what it suggests about Harvard's relatively new president.

Rudenstine's political views have been something of a mystery. In an interview with The Crimson shortly after he was named the Harvard president, but before he officially took over the job, he called himself "progressive," and acknowledged voting against Reagan twice.

Since then, information has been scarcer. Last fall, when Harvard administrators like Provost Jerry R. Green and then-Vice President for Government Community and Public Affairs John H. Shattuck were falling all over themselves to get to the front of the line of those endorsing Bill Clinton for president, Rudenstine kept quiet. He said he didn't think it was right for the president of Harvard to take sides in that partisan election.

Surprisingly, though, the Rudenstine planning report is assertively opinionated about many political questions that are quite open to debate.

Consider this alarmist statement, listed as one of the "assumptions" of the entire report:

"Many of our most significant institutions, both domestic and international, are under great stress--stress that is serious enough to threaten their capacity to fulfill their basic functions. Some of our more established domestic institutions--our public schools, our health care system, our major cities, our manufacturing industries--are more beleaguered than at any time in recent memory."

Call me a naive optimist, but I don't think things are that bad. And my memory is probably much shorter than Rudenstine's.

The president repeats this theme of collapse throughout the plan. "The world is troubled...the foundations of society seem less stable," he writes.

At times, the report overreaches in its desire to show the Overseers (and potential donors to the $2 billion capital campaign) that the world is in such desperately bad shape that Harvard has to help. Check out this humdinger of a sentence from the report's section on the Kennedy School of Government:

"The greater scale, complexity and heterogeneity of institutions and societies; the need to forge consensus when the possibility for achieving it is often so sharply constrained; the widespread decline in respect for legitimate forms of authority; the potential global implications of many local events; the prevalence of organized violence and terrorism, as well as contagious random violence--these and other factors make the process of governance and the exercise of public leadership a particularly difficult problem in our contemporary world."

This stretches it. None of Rudenstine's assertions describe anything particularly new. In fact, the large-scale heterogeneous societies like the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have broken up into smaller, more homogeneous states. The "decline in respect for legitimate forms of authority" is a trend that Lincoln might have accused the Southern states of.

Local implications have long had global effects. (Remember Archduke Ferdinand? Remember the Boston Massacre?) And organized violence is also no newcomer to the "contemporary world." (Remember the Barbary Pirates? How about Al Capone?)

The planning document frankly admits that many of its programs "deliberately" attempt to address "serious problems confronting society."

But who are Rudenstine and his deans to define and prioritize the "serious problems confronting society?"

Therein lies the problem. The alumni, faculty and students of Harvard should feel comfortable delegating the problems of academic administration to Rudenstine and the deans.

The top Harvard brass are expert about things like how to construct buildings to increase faculty interaction, how to promote increased financial aid for graduate students, how to recruit brilliant faculty members. It's their job.

But deciding which are the most serious problems confronting society, and giving Harvard the job of solving them, goes beyond the expertise of academic administrators so engrossed in ad hoc tenure committee meetings and academic planning sessions that they barely see The New York Times three days late before they go to bed.

It's a very risky business, one that Rudenstine and his deans would do better to leave to other, more public and broadly composed bodies.

At times, the Rudenstine report is sensible, even stirring. At one point, Rudenstine writes that Harvard is committed to remaining "an institution of humane learning:"

"Our major activities--not only in Arts and Sciences but also in our professional schools--are strongly devoted to the search for fundamental knowledge: for basic patterns that can help us understand nature or human behavior more fully; for principles of broad application that can help to explain phenomena at much deeper levels than would be required if our only goal were the solution of very specific or purely practical problems."

In planning for the future, Harvard should keep that mission in mind, no matter how grave and tempting Rudenstine thinks the world's problems are.

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