As he prepares to step down as Harvard’s president after almost two decades, Derek Curtis Bok is issuing a serious warning: American universities are failing to provide the scholarship and leadership needed to solve society’s most pressing problems.
“Whether you are looking at entire schools, like schools of education, or schools of public administration or social work, whether you look within schools at what is really strong . . . you are struck by what an inverse correlation there is between what society needs from these institutions and what we are taking most seriously,” he said.
“If you take some of the basic problems facing our society . . . and then make a list of all the things that a university could contribute . . . and ask yourself how do all these things rank in the list of priorities of the modern university, one is struck by how low they rank.”
Bok delivered the critical appraisal during an interview in his office. He discussed challenges facing higher education in general and Harvard in particular, touching on troublesome issues his successor will face.
This spring, Bok, 60, announced that he would resign next June as Harvard’s 25th president.
Bok, a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, said he wanted to tell the search committee that will pick his successor what he told the committee that selected him: “Beware of the danger of trying to win the last war.”
“If you do that, you are getting the wrong set of (presidential) characteristics,” he said.
He said a central problem that Harvard’s new president will face is how to avoid becoming so immersed in fund raising, lobbying and other external tasks that insufficient time exists to remain a participant in the intellectual agenda of the university.
“The external jobs of a university president have gotten so much greater than they were 20 years ago,” Bok said, “the danger is that presidents will become sort of exclusively managers and disconnected from the center of the institution, which is, of course, intellectual education and research.”
Bok said he would like to tell Harvard’s new president: “It is very important at Harvard to keep that from happening, and I am sure you will not keep that from happening unless you are aware of that problem from the very beginning. You are going to have to be much more creative in keeping it from occurring than I was. And it took some fairly fancy footwork on my part.”
Bok said he would advise his successor to play a pivotal role, “observing what is happening in society, observing what is happening in the minds of other people, observing what is happening intellectually and then seeing how the university can pick and choose among new opportunities thrown up by changes in each of these areas.”
He outlined some of the opportunities and obstacles Harvard and other universities will face during a series of lectures he delivered at Duke University this spring. Viewed in the light of his departure, they constitute an informal valedictory.
“Most universities continue to do their least impressive work on the very subjects where society’s need for greater knowledge and better education is most acute,” Bok told the Duke students.
Harvard’s president sketched a number of problem areas:
--Grants for research facilities have dropped by 95% since the 1960s, and the number of research fellowships funded by the federal government has declined by a quarter. Leading departments of engineering and computer science face serious shortages of American graduate students. One result: 50% or more of those departments’ Ph.D. candidates come from abroad.
--When the nation must replace half of its 2.5 million teachers within a few years and when public schools badly need more effective methods of instruction, graduate schools of education rank low on the totem pole at many universities, with low faculty salaries and overcrowded classes.
--When poverty, homelessness, drug abuse and chronic unemployment are major problems, schools of social work are neglected and, “like faculties of education, they are poor stepchildren on most university campuses.”
--American colleges “have not made much headway” in giving students sufficient knowledge of foreign languages and cultures so they can have the international background necessary for careers. U.S. universities send 60,000 students to study abroad, versus almost 400,000 foreign students who attend U.S. colleges and universities. In addition, fewer American colleges require language instruction than 25 years ago.
--Regional and international centers specializing in advanced education and research “are probably no stronger and may be weaker” than 25 years ago, Harvard’s president said. Few centers have joint programs with business and other professional schools. There are serious shortages of outstanding specialists in such fields as the Soviet economy, development economics and international law.
--Foundations rarely consult with universities on funding priorities, depriving academic officers of a chance to express their views on how universities can contribute to important social problems, Bok charged. Long-term foundation support has been disappointing in education, poverty and public policy. Faculties of education and public administration schools are forced “into a hand-to-mouth existence, endlessly seeking new projects that funding agencies will support in order to defray the salaries and stipends of professors and graduate students.”
--Federal funding to universities for poverty, education and other areas bearing on U.S. competitiveness has fluctuated too widely to build a strong base of research and teaching. Further, little discussion exists between government and academic officials about how universities can respond to key national challenges.
“All things considered,” Bok concluded, “in the constant interplay between universities and the outside world, neither side has done a satisfactory job of promoting the nation’s long-term interests.”
Bok returned to those themes during the interview in his office.
“The quality of education and teaching are at risk in a research university because the rewards of society are so powerful in the direction of research,” he said.
“Society is voting heavily in favor of research rather than education in where it is putting its money and all of the prizes, the visibility, the excitement and consulting . . . . We have to be more imaginative in figuring out how to develop incentives that will ensure greater attention to teaching.”
He said that, in an age of far-reaching scientific discovery, the contribution of the humanities, in “what they can tell us about a quality of life, a quality of community, a quality of an individual’s existence that is really worthwhile” should not be downplayed.
He said that, in the next 50 years, the realization that scientific knowledge is outrunning moral development “will come home to us with terrifying force.” Fundamental questions will be raised about “what it means to be human and how we relate to each other.” The humanities will have to be called on in the broadest sense to help provide answers, he predicted.
When he was appointed in 1971, it was fashionable to argue that the selection committee had turned to Bok, then dean of Harvard’s law school, because he was a crisis manager able to deal with campus unrest. But the search committee was convinced--and events proved it right--that the crisis on campus would disappear only to be replaced by more enduring problems.
In his almost two decades as Harvard’s president, Bok presided over significant expansion of America’s oldest institution of higher learning. Initiatives included the establishment of a core curriculum for undergraduates, major development of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, revision of the Harvard Medical School’s curriculum, programs to foster education in ethics and more effective college teaching. Scholarship and research on a broad variety of problems, including poverty, energy and the environment, international security, business and government and AIDS were stressed.
Bok said that one of the roles of a Harvard president is to “move against the tide . . . to try to offset one-sided pressures and occurrences that are flowing rapidly.”
At the same time, Harvard’s president often has to balance conflicting psychic pressures, Bok said.
On the one hand, Bok explained, danger exists that a new president will be so eager to be appreciated that “you really don’t have a mind of your own and you are simply reacting.” On the other hand, there is the danger of being thick-skinned because “you don’t like all those people out there telling you what to do and you don’t listen to what you can learn from the outside world.”
“You are continuously being tested by people who are trying to put you under pressure, subject you to some form of psychological pressure to conform to something they want, whether it is a particular issue or whether they are trying to get you to conform to a whole image of the presidency they think is important,” he said.
” . . . If you don’t think about that before you are into the maelstrom, it can easily get to be too little, too late.”