Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

Op Eds

Larry Summers: An End and a Beginning For Harvard

By Julian J. Giordano
By Lawrence H. Summers
Lawrence H. Summers is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and served as the 27th president of Harvard University.

As the cliché has it, Commencement is both an ending and a beginning. That is always true for the graduates as they go forth. In a sense that is not usual, I hope that this year, Commencement can mark both an ending and a beginning for Harvard.

The last academic year has been the most trying time for the University in the last half century. We have seen evident antisemitism, leadership turmoil, extensive government investigation of the University, demands on Harvard from political leaders, and deep divisions over protests and the right responses to them.

Regardless of our stance on any particular issue, we are all ready for this year to end. Former University President Derek C. Bok used to joke that the three best parts of academic life were June, July and August. We all need the respite.

But before these summer months begin, I want to reflect on a new beginning for Harvard. It has been nearly 50 years since I first arrived as a graduate student and more than 40 since I first joined the Economics department. It was my immense privilege to serve as Harvard’s president for five years from 2001 to 2006. Since then, I have had the best job at Harvard: I am a University professor with the opportunity to teach students and interact with faculty across the campus.

In all my time at Harvard and in government, I have asked myself, my students, and my colleagues several crucial questions. What are we doing that future historians will notice? How will they judge what we have done? And how can we do more that will matter?

At Harvard, traditions, like commencement ceremonies, are deeply encrusted in our culture. Yet what is ultimately the true significance of Harvard, or any other great university, is its capacity to shape the future and alter the path of history. We teach, train, and shape students who make their dents in the universe. Many of those graduating from Harvard this year will become future scientific innovators, heads of state, transformers of culture, enterprising business leaders, and fighters for justice and freedom. I hope we have prepared them well.

“Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization,” Isaiah Berlin famously wrote. “But if professors can truly wield this fatal power, may it not be that only other professors, or, at least, other thinkers (and not governments or Congressional committees), can alone disarm them?”

It is ideas that shape history. Scientific ideas underpin technology and its application in everything from curing disease to growing food, enabling cities, and reducing the need for humans to do tedious physically punishing work. Philosophical and humanistic ideas shape the organization of society, the moral codes that govern our interaction, and the ways we appreciate and create beauty. Universities are society’s institutions with the nearly unique charge to develop new ideas for the sake of knowledge itself.

As we consider the future of the University after a very difficult year, it is essential to consider how we can best leverage our resources. With our vast financial assets, unmatched ability to assemble intellectual talent, and enormous reputation, we are uniquely positioned to make incredibly impactful contributions.

I am reminded (perhaps unsurprisingly, given my field of study) of an economic concept, originating from David Ricardo, that seems particularly relevant here — the idea of comparative advantage. This idea says that in a world characterized by specialized roles, each entity — individuals, institutions, and countries — should focus on activities where they have the most unique strength. We should do what will not be done if we do not do it.

Take climate change as an example. Many institutions are able to generate public alarm, urge legislation, or subject heavy emitters to economic pressures. But only universities can train cutting edge atmospheric scientists, develop techniques for making policy judgements with long-term uncertain consequences, examine the history of international collaborations to find the most promising paths to global cooperation, and broadly produce intellectual seed corn.

Similarly, in discussions about Middle East policy, there is no shortage of opinion writers, think tanks, and former officials offering their perspectives. However, only in universities can philosophers ponder the morality of responding to terrorists who use human shields in their defense. Where else can students strive to attain an even-handed understanding of the historical factors that have brought the Palestinians to their current situations?

I could proliferate examples. But the point should be clear. Institutions contribute most when they do things others cannot. For Harvard and other great universities, this means staying away from day-to-day distractions or from political advocacy — those in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences only harm our University when they undermine our disciplinary processes for the sake of a political cause. Instead, we must focus on that which is enabled by remarkable intellects: the magic of interaction between teacher and student and the independence of the ivory tower.

Some may argue that I am constraining the role of the university. They would suggest that even if teaching and idea generation are its primary functions, the university can still be a force for social justice advocacy that holds societies to account. I find this a dangerous view.

For one, academic freedom rests on a delicate compact between those in power and those in the university. The government should not seek to shape what universities teach and study, and universities should not seek to pressure government policy or political choices. If we insist on doing the latter, we will inevitably lose the high ground in resisting the former.

Furthermore, the credibility of Harvard’s scholarship and teaching is paramount. I am reminded each year that if I accept money from a private interest and advocate on their behalf without disclosing the potential conflict, I may undermine the credibility of others holding the title of Harvard professor. In the same way, if the University takes positions on controversial issues, it undermines the credibility of related research and teaching. Engaging in polemic debates undermines the credibility of our scholarship.

I belabor these points because they are highly relevant to the division and strain of the last year. Disagreements did not stem from how best the University could teach students or advance knowledge. Nor were they provoked by questions of methodology in inquiry, the interpretation of research results, or advocacy of new theory. Instead, they were over issues largely separate from the main missions of the University — the main objects of controversy were issues like time, place, and manner restrictions on advocacy.

These disputes, however resolved, have little to do with the most important work of the University and are unlikely to impact the history of our time when it is written years from now.

What follows from all this? This is not the place for a detailed policy agenda, but I will offer three observations.

First, as the late great Henry Rosovsky once pointed out, students are here for a few years, faculty for a generation or two, but Harvard is forever. Our fiduciaries, the members of the Harvard Corporation, are responsible for ensuring that the University remains focused on what is most ultimately important.

Especially at a time when the University is being led on an interim basis, it is essential that the Corporation articulate the values they prioritize. As it sets policy, chooses leaders, and declares values, it is the Corporation’s responsibility to focus on Harvard’s core missions of teaching and research. If these are done extraordinarily well, all else will work out. If not, little else will matter.

Second, maintaining focus is very challenging because it is human nature for faculty and students to leverage Harvard’s prestige for their own interests. Just as our ultimate fiduciary — the Corporation — sets rules limiting the use of academic affiliations for financial gain, it must also clarify that the University will not intervene in the political issues of the day, nor allow faculty or students to speak for it on political matters, just as it would not allow them to sell Harvard-branded merchandise.

Third, akin to the tension between the Civil Rights Act’s protection against discrimination and the First Amendment’s free speech rights, there exists a similar tension between academic freedom and upholding community values. Academic freedom gives individuals broad rights to speak and write as they see fit without fear of reprisal or retribution. But academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism. While it is the responsibility of academic leaders to stand up for academic freedom, it is also their moral obligation to support those being subject to hate speech.

Based on the number of calls I have received from Jewish students and their parents anxious about coming to Harvard, it seems that Harvard has fallen short on this dimension.

Harvard as a university, like the United States as a country, possesses remarkable resilience. We benefit from the power of self-denying prophecy, where jeremiads of decline or failure actually spur efforts of renewal. Ultimately, everything all works out, thanks to a very strong foundation.

I have been critical of Harvard over the last year. My intensity has come not primarily from disagreement over specific issues or even a concern over endangered students. Instead it comes from a belief that our ability to create and transmit knowledge is profoundly important but threatened when political activists are able to set our agenda.

As commencement marks the end of this difficult academic year, I hope it will mark the beginning of a time when Harvard moves past the urgent to the historically important.

Lawrence H. Summers is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and served as the 27th president of Harvard University.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Op Eds