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Lessons for the Future

By Harry R. Lewis

Crises can bring renewal, and Harvard is poised for a rebirth.

The turmoil of the past five years yielded an unexpected benefit. People from every part of the academic community talked to each other about what they saw slipping away. In conversations among professors and nurses, among technicians and police officers, we remembered what made Harvard great—things we too long took for granted. Even as the president’s defenders created the public myth that a handful of lazy leftist professors had brought down a heroic bold thinker, the Faculty talked intensively about what really had gone wrong. Now that we have relearned important lessons about the values of the University, we must not forget them.

In most analyses of Harvard’s turmoil, too much has been made of the mysterious uniqueness of academic culture. Instead, most of these lessons about leadership and change are common knowledge among business managers and engineers:

A leader’s personal style matters, if truthfulness, kindness, and humility are considered matters of style. Part of the myth is that professors didn’t like the president’s “style,” as though they objected mainly to his tailoring or as though fey humanists were not used to the rough and tumble argumentation supposedly standard among economists. But basic human virtues are not trivial things. Any corporate CEO who regularly breaches the social and moral demands of leadership will eventually lose the power to lead.

Privacy in a search process is important, but not at the expense of due diligence. Corporations fear that press scrutiny of their CEO searches will scare off good candidates. But searches for university presidents need the same background checks that ordinary corporate boards expect when hiring CEOs—even if leading candidates are considered known quantities. Secretive searches are vulnerable to undue influence by insiders and undue malice by gossipers.

A good leader gets people to follow. Leadership is not simply having good ideas and then giving orders to execute them. Instead, a good leader makes people embrace and act on ideas as if they were their own. A healthy organization acts as a team, which in times of urgency or uncertainty relies on shared values to achieve coordinated action.

Confidence in your mission is more easily destroyed than created. Harvard’s leaders had nothing good to say about its curriculum but also had nothing constructive to say about what should replace it. We badly need a measure of inspiring idealism for the future.

Changes are almost always better made gradually than radically. The U.S. does not call a constitutional convention every 25 years because someone says we’ve been living under the old constitution long enough. Similarly, the Harvard curriculum, our own clearest statement of educational principles, is not a throwaway. In any design problem, studying what has and hasn’t worked in the past is not timid or backward thinking; engineers try to improve working systems by modifying them. In fact, radical design changes usually fail. Marketers always like to talk about bold innovations, but real businesses never offer radical inventions to consumers without testing them. They try out novel ideas on small groups and abandon most of them, rather than ostentatiously announcing them to the entire world as the way of the future.

Understand a problem before you try to solve it. “Shaking things up”—making random changes to a system rather than analyzing its operation—is irrational and usually makes it run worse. Making changes that affect people’s lives without considering the consequences is unethical leadership.

An institution is community property, and if the owners want it changed, they should tell the community how and why. On this point a university is different from a razor blade company. Harvard can’t bottle up the truth; misrepresentations are too easily exposed. So management is better off being direct and transparent with the stakeholders. At Harvard, the alumni-elected Board of Overseers, at least, has to buy into important changes planned by the President and Fellows. In recent years, this secondary governing board has been used largely as a booster club.

People are more important than structure. Creating titles and redrawing organization charts do not solve real problems. Any structure can work if the people in it are good and are dedicated to a common purpose; no structure can make up for inexperience and lack of direction of the people in it. In a functioning organization colleagues consult each other, out of respect and in the hope of enlightenment, whatever the lines in the organizational chart may show; in a sick organization individuals look only up and down the authority lines, flattering their bosses and expecting flattery from their staff.

A university’s human capital is its greatest asset. A university is little more than its people. Everything depends on their quality and on the process of making them better. Getting the best students and faculty and administrators takes hard work; retaining them and cultivating their growth are as important as bringing them in. The faculty and staff cannot be treated like interchangeable parts, or as political appointees whose jobs last only as long as the whims of their bosses.

A university is fragile and thrives on love. Yes, love! Harvard’s matchless resources and influence do not make it a healthy community. More than anything else, old Harvard hands have been distressed by the community’s loss of joy and pride. We hope for leaders who can again unite us—leaders whose selfless devotion to Harvard is apparent even in their clear-eyed criticisms.

We have all learned from the past five years. With all of Harvard’s strengths, it will flourish—if it doesn’t make the same mistakes again.

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is Gordon McKay professor of Computer Science and Harvard College professor. He was dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003. He is the author of “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.”

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