A President of the Community

The next president should mend our community image and prioritize student interests

Within our gated walls, it is easy to forget that a whole world of problems exists just outside. As Harvard narrows down its presidential shortlist, the University needs to choose a candidate with a vision both for Harvard’s undergraduate body and its place in the community. The Search Committee must consider what students want in their new president and what they see as the role of their university in the world.

Community leaders, at least, feel that Harvard is not doing enough: Richard Harding, Jr. of the Cambridge Public School Committee has blamed Harvard for doing little to help local poor and under-performing public schools. “I really need to know what the hell are they doing for us,” he said. Ten years after covertly buying land in Allston, Harvard has yet to publicize how its expansion will affect local residents. Community meetings and donations to build a library are no more than an excellent public relations campaign if the University ends up driving out residents.

Meanwhile, scandals over Harvard’s treatment of its workers—such as protests that forced the University to rehire a janitor fired for fainting due to a medical condition—have drawn attention to easily-overlooked problems—and people—within our community. Harvard’s next president needs to keep an eye on our reputation outside the academic world.

We must repair our image in our neighborhood and defy stereotypes about the Harvard bubble and its self-interested policies. The integrity of this institution rests not just on tallying up its Nobel Prize count, but also in the fair treatment of its workers and in its social and environmental responsibility to the community. The next president should continue initiatives such as payment in lieu of taxes program (PILOT) of 2005, in which Harvard significantly increased its payments to Cambridge for the tax-exempt land it owns. Harvard’s neighborhood respectability is as important as its global prestige and its wealth and reputation oblige it to set just and moral standards.

The next president should also address concerns about education and act both as a peer and leader to faculty—a “primus inter pares,” as Interim University President Derek C. Bok said. In order to maintain Harvard’s academic reputation, the new president must remain committed to undergraduates. Students come here to learn from the leaders in their fields, not to be the secondary concerns of preoccupied professors. It is important to continue work on teaching initiatives within the curricular review, but the new president should go further and introduce tenure for excellent pedagogy alongside research posts. Such actions would help to reduce the tension between research and teaching for the faculty so that the “publish or perish” climate does not interfere with professors’ critical role as educators.

Finally, as part of his or her obligation to undergraduates, the president must listen to campus leaders. Campus groups have proven students’ eagerness to participate in the administration of their school and the president must regard students as critical shareholders in the administration of the University. Student leaders seek a president who will listen to them and prioritize undergraduate interests.

Undergraduates will not be the secondary cares of Harvard’s administration and professors. The next president must consider student needs and consult their vision for their community. Students have been active in the community, improving Harvard’s reputation as a good neighbor. Similarly, the president must not weigh Harvard’s global prestige before its responsibility to its community, both in and outside its walls.

Rachel M. Singh ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Matthews Hall.