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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
University President Lawrence H. Summers reflected on a year characterized more by groundwork laid than tasks completed in his last Crimson interview of the academic year yesterday.
Citing progress on major University planning initiatives, ongoing curricular reviews at three of the schools and Faculty growth despite tough times, Summers said he had advanced this year on many of the goals he first outlined upon taking office in 2001.
And in a year when Summers largely avoided major controversy, he was careful to keep it that way. He declined to identify yesterday any mistakes he had made and distanced himself from unpopular moves within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).
Of the accomplishments cited by Summers, the most concrete was the announcement in January of a $14 million financial aid program aimed at graduate students pursuing careers in public service. Summers also highlighted a change to University fundraising policies that made it easier for donors to give to smaller schools like the Graduate School of Education (GSE) and School of Public Health.
However, on two of the other long term priorities Summers described—reviewing undergraduate education and deciding how to develop the University’s land in Allston—Harvard moved forward with small steps.
A comprehensive review of the undergraduate curriculum, launched this fall, is only now beginning to gather steam. The names of the professors who will serve on the four committees leading the review were only announced earlier this month.
But Summers said he never expected that the review would have reached any conclusions yet, that the progress was encouraging and that the “broad objectives have been laid out.”
“The real test is what ultimately emerges from the [committee] discussions,” Summers said. “There have been a lot of informal conversations.”
He said his five major goals for curricular review—increasing student-faculty contact, reviewing the Core Curriculum, prioritizing flexibility in concentrations, integrating curricular and extracurricular education, and improving science education—did not change this year.
Meanwhile, the economist Summers cited improvements this year on several indices, including undergraduate admissions yield, class diversity and faculty acceptance of tenure offers.
“We’ve had just about three quarters of senior faculty appointments offered in the Faculty of Arts and Science accepted, a higher fraction than we’ve had in many years,” he said.
Summers said Harvard has recruited several “globally recognized stars,” including computational biologist Martin Nowak and psychologist Steven Pinker, and has given tenure to Assistant Professor Leah Price ’91 from within the English Department.
Summers has touted granting tenure to younger scholars and those interested in interdisciplinary work, and he said yesterday there had been progress on this front.
“There’s definitely been more of a tendency to appointments of that kind this year than in the past,” he said.
He said he thought Harvard had probably added enough faculty this year to meet his and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s goal of increasing the size of the faculty by ten percent over the next ten years, but that with some offers still awaiting answers he couldn’t tell.
In addition, Summers said that he has worked this year to change Harvard’s image of not promoting from within.
“I think there’s now a culture in a number of departments that junior faculty see themselves as having a real prospect of being promoted in a way that, particularly in a number of humanities departments, they would not have a few years ago,” he said.
While citing FAS’s curricular review and its expanding faculty in his list of accomplishments, Summers dissociated himself from the school’s major controversies of this year.
In March, a proposal to require student to preregister for classes died in the face of student and faculty opposition.
Both Summers and Kirby touted the plan’s potential to improve graduate student life and the quality of undergraduate education.
But yesterday, Summers said the failed policy didn’t reflect on the progress of his own initiatives.
“Preregistration was FAS’s thing,” he said. “I supported it as something to explore and saw merit in it but when there was such a strong feeling on the students and faculty’s part…my position had always been we couldn’t put flexibility at risk.”
Summers also said that student complaints following the dismissal of Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 did not have a major impact on him.
Summers has said in the past that while he supported combining Lewis’ office with that of Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71, he did not orchestrate Lewis’ dismissal.
Student concern that the ouster signaled efforts to prioritize academics at the expense of extracurriculars had not changed his views “at all,” Summers said, because he has consistently recognized the importance of extracurricular activities.
“I was frankly mystified about some of the commentary that followed that,” he said.
An Extending Reach
While Summers continues to describe the College as the “heart of the University”, he said yesterday that he has been consciously more involved around the University than school deans might expect from Harvard’s decentralized central administration.
“We’ve fostered a higher level of involvement between schools and the center than has been traditional,” he said.
In addition to FAS, both the Divinity School and GSE are reviewing their curricula, and Summers has outlined visions for both schools this year.
Reviews of both the academic and financial plans of all of the schools conducted by Provost Steven E. Hyman continued this year.
And Summers cited as accomplishments a number of new multi-school degree programs between the Business and Medical Schools and the Law and Public Health Schools.
But discussions of interdisciplinary programs in the life sciences have not yet moved beyond planning stages.
Since last spring, Summers has maintained that such initiatives were “in the pipeline.”
Yesterday, he said “we’re much closer to the launch of several major initiatives that will strengthen the University’s capacity in the life sciences.”
He again declined to describe those programs, however, and saying only that they would probably be launched next fall.
On one of the broadest of Summers’ priorities—planning for a future campus across the river in Allston—there were few outward signs of progress, but Summers said headway was made nonetheless.
Summers said Allston planners this year learned “considerably” more about the two primary possibilities for the land—either creating an inter-school, interdisciplinary science campus in Allston, or moving professional schools that reside currently in Cambridge.
A report commissioned by the Law School, Summers said, improved his “understanding of space needs and the ways in which a professional school campus could fit in, what its needs would be in a different location.”
Further, he said, he now knows more about how vacated physical spaces in Cambridge could be converted for different uses.
Finally, planners have become convinced of the necessity of ensuring that some Allston space is used to increase available student housing, he said.
But the administration has backed off of one planner’s comment last October that the University would have some decision as to the use of the land by the end of this summer.
Summers would only say yesterday that a decision on direction would be announced “sometime.” “Sometime before too terribly long,” he added.
Summers remained hesitant to discuss the fallout of one major change since last year, the high profile departure of former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74.
Asked why he thought he had received less negative press this year than last, Summers said he didn’t know.
“Different people have different views on different things,” he said. “I think my job is to pull the high academic standards to make the University as great a place as I possibly can.”
West was not as close-lipped yesterday. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times following his appearance in the movie “The Matrix Reloaded,” West lashed out at Summers.
“The difference between [Princeton President] Shirley Tilghman and Lawrence Summers is like the difference between Abe Lincoln and Dan Quayle,” West said.
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at email@example.com.
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