What's Next, Harvard?

At Commencement, we are naturally told to look backward and to celebrate what Harvard has been for us. We are continually reminded of the privilege inherent in being Harvard students, perhaps this week more than ever before. I, like many of my peers, feel immense gratitude for all that Harvard has given me: the knowledge, the personal growth, and the appreciation for powernaps.

In the midst of all the nostalgic reflection, I have found a few moments to also imagine what it might be like to be at Harvard another century from now. Notwithstanding the continued use of printed study cards, much will certainly have changed in a hundred years. The Harvard I know never settles; we will always strive to move onward in the right direction. But for this next century, I feel we must evaluate and experiment at a whole new level to find and pursue that direction.

Change begins from within: We must critically examine our institution in its present and historical state before designing its future. In a challenging world where nearly every profession is increasingly specialized, the Harvard education continues to fulfill its purpose of preparing students for technically focused careers without sacrificing broad knowledge across fields. Today’s multidisciplinary Harvard reflects the vision of Charles W. Eliot, its 21st President, one of the boldest innovators Harvard has known. Around 100 years ago, he led the infusion of Harvard’s largely classical liberal arts curriculum with practically-oriented technical courses, thereby endowing Harvard with the best of both worlds.

A century later, many Harvard teachers continue to innovate boldly to take the already stellar Harvard education to the next level. Computer Science 50 is one extremely successful course that relies heavily on peer-to-peer learning; the introductory global health class Societies of the World 25 demonstrates the power of multigenerational teaching and learning by using student-generated case studies as instructional materials. Generous alumni gifts continue to encourage such innovation in teaching, a reassuring commitment to keep Harvard at the forefront of university education.

But in the next century, Harvard will permanently transform more than in any previous era, meriting reform that transcends pedagogy. The roles of professors, students, advisers, administrators, workers, and alumni will evolve, synthesizing a new kind of Harvard community. So it is now time to craft a new vision for our university, the development of which should have a part for all community members. While we will always need strong executive leadership to chart the course, our destination should be determined by consensus.

A unilateral vision for the next century will invariably be weaker than one which is informed by the views of many. Even Eliot, the luminary who shaped modern Harvard through his 40-year tenure, could not get it all right on his own. For instance, although he was ahead of his time in revolutionizing the Harvard education, overhauling American university research, and advocating for racial equality, his opposition to organized labor inadvertently contributed to the poor treatment of Harvard workers, a trend shamefully persisting through the end of the century. Eliot’s top-down approach that epitomizes Harvard’s corporate culture may have worked for past centuries, but it will not sustain a vibrant university community in the twenty-first.

The Harvard Corporation, inertial by nature, has thus far invested little in the kind of institutional flexibility that will pay dividends in the next century. Anyone in the administration will acknowledge the glacial pace of progress at Harvard; faculty members are frustrated by the rigid, expansive bureaucracy; students leave frustrated with their initiatives stalled in proposal mode. Looking forward, a more participatory approach incorporating the diverse insights of many talented individuals would undoubtedly serve our institution better.

We must ultimately transform Harvard—first in our minds and then in practice—from an organization whose primary service is education to a community of thinkers. Based on our interactions with our mentors, our peers, and the world around us, the current generation of students certainly envisions Harvard as such a community. The Class of 2012 reflects this new level of engagement with our alma mater, having launched a comprehensive initiative for social justice and founded the Fair Harvard Fund; we will hopefully be surpassed in our efforts by the Class of 2013 and beyond.

If any community can successfully redefine itself for the 21st century, I believe it to be the one we enjoy at Harvard. Unlike in previous centuries, the question of what our university shall be will not be answered by one person—or even by a handful of people. It will be answered by all of us—women and men—studying, learning, teaching, working, and serving here. So, what’s next, Harvard?

Senan Ebrahim ’12 is a neurobiology concentrator in Quincy House and former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council.