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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Rudenstine Will Step Down

7.1.00

Neil L. Rudenstine, whose service as Harvard's twenty-sixth president began July 1, 1991, announced on May 22 that he would step down at the end of the next academic year.

He reached the decision "after careful consideration," Ruden-stine wrote in a brief letter addressed "Dear colleagues and friends." Its penultimate paragraph read, "Serving Harvard, especially during so pivotal a time for higher education, has been an extraordinary privilege and an exhilarating experience. Every day I am reminded how remarkable a community this is--one that brings together astonishingly talented people to pursue their highest aspirations, to push beyond the edge of what's known and to discover something new about the world and about themselves. There is no human pursuit of greater value to individuals and to society, and there is nothing more engaging and fulfilling than to be part of it." Reinforcing his preference for collaborative action and personal self-effacement, he closed by saying, "I am deeply grateful for all that our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends have together enabled Harvard to accomplish during this past decade."

In one sense, the news took Harvard by surprise: it came unheralded between the elaborately scripted and staffed celebrations of the University Campaign and Commencement; and, within a notoriously gossipy community, the secret had held. When the Crimson distributed a broadsheet "Extra" late that Monday afternoon, many students, then in the middle of final exams, assumed it was an elaborate Lampoon spoof.

But the president's decision quickly came to seem inevitable. Limiting his term in office to exactly one decade bore the same sense of symmetry in timing as Rudenstine's planning the campaign celebration for a weekend precisely six years from the public kickoff of the $2.1-billion drive. His announcement also came nearly 10 years after May 28, 1990, when Derek Bok gave notice that he would relinquish the presidency in June of the following year. Finally, the news came between a pair of spring events--a departmental milestone and the Commencement formalities on June 8--that showcased the moral and intellectual concerns of Rudenstine's presidency.

On April 8, he spoke at the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the Department of Afro-American Studies. An outspoken advocate of diversity and affirmative action (the subject of "Diversity and Learning," one of the occasional President's Reports issued during his tenure), and a strong supporter of recruiting faculty members for the department, Rudenstine chose a very personal form of address for that occasion.

I entered secondary school in the fall of 1948. It was a very small school--a total of 90 students and 11 teachers--on a remote hillside in rural Connecticut: high academic standards, a demanding curriculum, and an astonishingly dedicated faculty.

Nonetheless, during my four years there, I did not read a single work by an African American, or a single book about African Americans--and there were very few references in our American history textbook to African Americans. Nor were there any black students in the school.

I do not say this in any spirit of criticism of the school or its teachers. I'm only describing a situation that must have been typical of hundreds of thousands of students, in thousands of towns....I knew essentially nothing about an absolutely central aspect of our collective heritage. In fact, not only did I not know anything: I didn't even--as was once said of a legendary benighted student--suspect anything.

How far had I progressed, if at all, by 1958 or 1968? A little--but not very much. Reading about major events in the press (such as the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the entire unfolding of the civil-rights movement) was one thing. But serious study--actual knowledge in any depth--was a totally different thing. And in that arena, I moved incredibly slowly.

Rudenstine perceived both "ignorance" and "a devastating blindness" personally and in society; ringingly made the case for Afro-American scholarship; and ended by asserting that "Harvard will continue to take ethnicity and race into account, along with many other factors, as it admits students."

The lineup of Commencement speakers this year--Amartya Sen and Seamus Heaney--was of a piece with past guests from the wider world (recently Václav Havel, Madeleine Albright, Mary Robinson, and special September 1998 honorand Nelson Mandela), who have spoken from personal experience about the great moral struggles of the era. That Heaney does so in poetry--the subject of Ruden-stine's doctoral studies and teaching, and an abiding passion--was an added bonus.

 

Tributes came swiftly from colleagues. Commenting from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study--the creation of which will rank as one of Rudenstine's legacies--acting dean Mary Maples Dunn said, "With Neil as president, we had someone with whom we could share a vision and build something new and exciting. We also knew that the history and tradition of Radcliffe would not be lost or diminished in the process." In a one-liner that might end up in a presidential scrapbook, the Boston Globe quoted Climenko professor of law Charles J. Ogletree Jr.--an often outspoken presence on campus --to the effect that Rudenstine is "an extraordinary president and an ordinary guy."

Guided by Rudenstine's "wisdom, his humanity, his passion for learning, and his extraordinary leadership," said Robert G. Stone Jr., Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, "Harvard has become more inclusive, more cohesive, more interdisciplinary, and more engaged with the larger world. Its education and research agenda has never been more ambitious, its appeal to students and scholars has never been greater, its collaborative pathways have never been broader, its physical resources have never been more impressive, and its financial footing has never been more secure."

Noting that "No one person deserves credit for all of that, and Neil would be the last person to claim it," Stone nevertheless maintained that "more than anyone else this past decade, he has put his mind, heart, and soul into making the whole of Harvard as good and as forward-looking as it can be, and the result is a thriving university with a future even brighter than its past."

There were many things to say about that past. Inevitably, given the timing, most accounts noted that Rudenstine had led the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of higher education. They also cited his emphasis on fostering collaboration among Harvard's diverse faculties; expanding financial aid; enhancing international-studies programs (in part through his own extensive travels in Asia, Europe, and Latin America); and accelerating efforts in information technology and scientific and medical research.

 

As to the future, the president himself helped to define what he hopes it will bring. By homing in on what he may regard as his own most important legacy--intellectual and administrative links that make the most of Harvard's parts while preserving their identity and integrity--Rudenstine has set the stage for a new round of academic planning and execution. That process, which earlier set the agenda for the University Campaign and the academic investments it enabled in recent years, has brought about new relationships among deans, faculty members, and administrative vice presidents, and breathed life into the provost's office, whose modern revival was another of Rudenstine's initiatives. The second paragraph of his retirement announcement noted that as "a decade of planning and development" draws to a close, "The time has come for the University to begin to establish significant new goals. The president who initiates that process should lead Harvard through to their fulfillment" over a decade or more. "In view of the momentum that has already been established, and the importance of pressing forward with an ambitious future agenda in an environment of continuous and rapid change," the time had come for Harvard to seek its next leader.

That process will start soon. Under Harvard's charter, the Corporation selects the president, with the Board of Overseers' counsel and consent. Stone, the Senior Fellow, will chair the search committee, which (as in the 1990-91 search) is expected to comprise the six Corporation members other than the president as well as three Overseers. Broad outreach to faculty and staff members, students, and alumni will begin this summer.

In the meantime, even as he deflected questions about his postpresidential plans, Rudenstine promised "a full and fruitful year ahead." Among other goals, he hopes to advance planning for the Arts and Sciences-based center for international and regional studies and a significant new art museum. (Given his unfinished agenda, Harvard Magazine will defer assessing Rudenstine's presidency until next spring.)

The institution itself carried on, as always. The morning after the retirement headlines emanated from Massachusetts Hall, workers in Tercentenary Theatre began erecting the banner standards and tent supports for the 349th Commencement. When he presides over the ceremonies for a final time, in 2001, Neil Rudenstine will take Harvard through the 350th such exercise in its history.