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With U.S.-European relations more strained than they have been in decades, the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) announced Monday that they have established a task force to address the growing divide. Searching for a co-chair to work alongside former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ’50, the council asked Harvard University President Summers if he would take the job. Summers graciously accepted.
With his prestigious background in government and academia, Summers will have much to contribute as the task force considers the causes of the schism and makes recommendations for improving U.S.-European relations. It is encouraging to see a Harvard President descend from the ivory tower and engage highly pressing social issues as a public intellectual.
Summers will be the first Harvard president since James B. Conant ’14—who participated in the Manhattan Project—to play a prominent role in national policy while in office. Summers’ experience in the Clinton Administration and the World Bank gives him expert insight to bring to the discussion. And whatever conclusions the task force ultimately draws, that Summers is engaging in such a relevant and important debate is promising for the future of his tenure and the office of the Harvard president. The concern that some have raised, that the co-chair position will be a distraction from the president’s campus duties, is unfounded; only once a month will Summers have to forsake his Mass. Hall office to attend the Task Force’s New York City meetings. And these trips will be well worth it—engaging in the work of a public intellectual can only enrich his presidency.
Unlike the national dialogue in which Summers has recently participated—he has been vocal about affirmative action and anti-Semitism on university campuses—the debate over U.S.-European relations will have little direct effect on Harvard students. But that very fact makes Summers’ involvement on even more laudable. A university like Harvard has a duty to search for truth, not only in the depths of Widener, but also in the world on which it is built. While the private goals of the University include preparing its students for individual success, the research institution has the responsibility to harness the talent, creativity and ideas of its faculty, students and administration to enrich the public discourse.
It is only fitting that the president of Harvard should engage in such intellectual public service. Summers’ involvement will doubtless add to the controversial and highly relevant debate over U.S.-European relations, and send the message that such service is a vital part of Harvard’s mission.
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