Don't Neglect Grad Students

A typical student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) only sees Harvard’s president twice during their long stay at Harvard—once when they are welcomed to Harvard and once when they graduate. And only half of graduate students even see the president in the welcoming ceremony, since he alternates bi-annually with the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as the keynote speaker. The absence of the University’s president at such an important juncture leaves the impression that he or she is uninterested in the graduate student body. This must change, starting with the coming presidential search.

With a University as vast and decentralized as our own, it is especially important that our president be acutely attuned to the complex needs of a diverse constituency—something outgoing University President Lawrence H. Summers seems to have failed to do. This is particularly important to graduate students who, like professors, are intensely focused on a specific field of study and want a president who is sympathetic to their niche. An ideal candidate to replace Summers would possess the professional tact and sensitivity required to bridge disciplinary boundaries rather than exacerbate divisions by playing favorites with certain departments and programs.

No university president should lack the good sense and good taste that would allow him to say “economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists” as Summers allegedly did to Cowles Professor of Anthropology Peter T. Ellison, the former dean of GSAS. It didn’t help that Summers, an economist, was concurrently trying to shift funding from a sociology program to the Kennedy School. Such virulent disciplinary biases are unacceptable. The next president of Harvard should work from the top to promote vibrant intellectual exchange by creating an environment in which students and faculty feel equally valued regardless of their field of specialization.

The University is diverse not only in fields of study, but also in the needs of its faculty, staff, undergraduate, graduate and professional students. In order to understand and better reflect the perspectives of all members of the community, a university president should be visible and accessible across the University. Summers deserves credit for frequently engaging undergraduate students in their Houses and in the Yard. Our next president, however, should make a greater effort to reach out to students across the University’s campus including in its graduate and professional programs. To be fair, beyond opening ceremonies and commencement, there is an annual “meet the president” event where GSAS students have the opportunity to pose questions. While we undoubtedly appreciate any occasion to interact with the president, our next leader should make a stronger effort to be accessible to graduate students throughout the year.

The best way to make it clear from the start that the next president should engage all the members of the Harvard community is to formally involve students and faculty from across the University in the search for Summers’ replacement. This is not without precedent. In 2000, Princeton University, which has a considerably smaller graduate student population than Harvard, had one graduate student and two undergraduates on its 18-member presidential search committee. Stanford, too, named one undergraduate and one graduate student to its 15-member search committee in 1999. By contrast, Summers was selected by a committee consisting of six members of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the alumni-elected Board of Overseers. Harvard cannot afford to limit the role of faculty and students again; this time we must ensure that students and faculty have a central role in selecting the University’s next leader.

Our University is strongest when we pool the contributions of all fields of study and all members of the community. Whoever comes to assume the presidency at Harvard will need to understand the value of building consensus across the broad constituency that they lead and have the power to influence. Building that consensus should begin with the Harvard Corporation embracing an inclusive and transparent search process that involves faculty and undergraduate and graduate students from across the University.

Benjamin G. Lee, a graduate student in applied physics, is president of the Graduate Student Council. Crystal M. Fleming, a graduate student in sociology, is an at-large representative for the social sciences on the council.