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Forty years ago, former Harvard president James B. Conant '14 graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. He was seen not just as the president of a university but as a national spokesperson for education, lecturing around the country on topics as diverse as bright girls' studying science and tougher courses for high school students.
Last week, President Neil L. Rudenstine appeared in the New York Times. He was featured not, however, because of his innovative opinions, but because he was scheduled to return to his post after a three-month leave. The articles focused on his vacation in the Bahamas and the books he had read, rather than on his all-encompassing vision for higher education in America.
And that, perhaps, is only fair. Yet it would be wise for the president, as he settles back into Massachusetts Hall in the next weeks and months, to follow in the steps of some of his predecessors--to think not only about leading Harvard but about guiding the nation with decisive words about higher education.
Admittedly, Rudenstine has recently promised to devote attention to two pressing national issues, student aid and research funding, in his regular trips to Washington. These are noble goals, for in a world where need-blind admissions are becoming a thing of the past and Congress is threatening research budgets, colleges need all the financial support they can get.
In that spirit, Rudenstine will also continue to spearhead the University's precedent-setting $2.1 billion capital campaign.
But the future of higher education cannot rest upon money alone. As then-Secretary of Education William Bennett said in his 1986 address in honor of Harvard's 350th anniversary, "Of those [higher education] representatives [I see in Washington] I would say this: I have never seen a greater interest in money--money, cash, bucks--among anybody... but very few words can be heard from any of these representatives about other aspects of higher education--issues like purpose, quality, curriculum, the moral authority and responsibilities of universities."
In the midst of his fund-raising, Rundenstine would do well to remember the educational focus of the presidents who came before him.
Conant was so popularly known for his educational reform efforts that some suggested him as a candidate for the 1948 national presidential election. Nathan M. Pusey '28 served on the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and also appeared on the cover of Time. Most recently, Derek C. Bok wrote many books on higher education, including Beyond the Ivory Tower, and regularly issued open letters on such topics as academic freedom and the ethical responsibilities of the university in society.
The bulk of Rudenstine's contribution to higher education has been his co-authorship of In Pursuit of the Ph.D, which, while a fine piece of research, didn't quite make it into the national spotlight.
Admittedly, the idea of Rudenstine's appearing on the cover of Time in the age of O.J. might seem anachronistic and even quaint. But it should not.
Now, of all periods, is the time when a national voice in education is desperately needed. Both public and private schools are raising tuition by the year, fewer and fewer high school students care about school and the Republicans are considering axing the Department of Education altogether.
The president of Harvard, if he chooses to act, can be that national voice. After all, if the New York Times ran story after story about Rudenstine's leave of absence, it would certainly cover with interest his statements on education.
Harvard needs a president who speaks out on such issues. It will not take much time--a speech here, an appearance there--but if he speaks regularly and decisively, people will pay attention. As he steps into his mellower "second round," he can delegate other tasks, but this one he cannot. The responsibility to speak to the nation is uniquely his own.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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