A Rudenstine Retrospective
For Harvard, a strengthening decade
Only 10 years ago, at the end of the 1990-1991 academic year, Harvard and the higher-education universe were very far from their current robust prosperity. The annual financial statements showed a $42-million deficit--$5 million worse than in the prior fiscal year. The treasurer and the vice president for finance delicately reported, "Harvard is not in long-term financial equilibrium," as revenues were insufficient to meet expenses and maintain existing facilities. After distributions to support academic operations, and huge write-offs of private energy and real-estate assets, the value of the endowment had declined $52 million during the preceding 12 months, to $4.7 billion on June 30.
Recession in the wider world heightened demands on the University "to limit tuition and fee increases" (and to increase financial aid to compensate for depressed family incomes), the financial report gloomily observed, and "reduced the level of gifts received." Punishing federal budget deficits crimped funds for scientific research and student aid. Given rising wages and health benefits, the need for new research facilities and equipment (even before the surge in spending for computers and communications technology), and competition for superb faculty members, the situation seemed likely to worsen.
The view from the academic ranks was equally sober. Decanal letters to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) from that era read like an extended dirge. In a missive of January 31, 1992, his first since becoming dean seven months earlier, Jeremy R. Knowles found the "current financial news...not reassuring," with a deficit then projected at $12 million and "our reserves essentially depleted." His themes focused on retrenchment and restraint: "sensible economies," "some reduction in the scope of our activities," "a combination of actions that...should be manageable, although not painless." Subsequent messages reinforced that tone, as the dean dutifully reported on reductions in FAS staff, refinancing of loans, and the urgent need to achieve "some moderation in the benefits that we presently expect." Although by the end of 1992 Knowles could foresee benefits from a forthcoming capital campaign, he warned how difficult it would be just to sustain existing "commitments to such fundamental and continuing activities as need-blind admissions to the College and the recruitment and retention of a world-class faculty." Academic initiatives would be secured "necessarily...by substitution, with new activities replacing existing functions rather than always being incremental to them." Given FAS's persistently precarious fisc, Knowles, who knew he and others would soon be extending the tin cup, underscored "the critical importance of putting our financial affairs in order before turning to our alumni and friends for an even higher level of support."
Such was the state of affairs when the Corporation and Board of Overseers in the spring of 1991 entrusted the University to its twenty-sixth president, Neil L. Rudenstine, Ph.D. '64. The former junior faculty member in Harvard's English department had subsequently served two decades as a professor, dean, and provost at Princeton and a three-year stint at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Given the economic realities, and the work already begun during Derek C. Bok's administration to mount a capital campaign, Rudenstine recalled in a recent interview at Massachusetts Hall that from his earliest days in office, "We had somehow to demonstrate that we could take hold of the financial problems and manage the place." Simultaneously, it was imperative to "build confidence while doing that, so that 24 months after I arrived, or 30 months at the latest, we could have the planning done and launch a campaign."
|The president, as professor, teaching a week-long course on lyric poetry to entering freshmen last September.|
|Photograph by Jim Harrison|
But that sketch is absurdly simplistic. In fact, the quantitative successes of the campaign, and the opportunities thereby opened for Harvard, were won by careful planning and hard work, both reflecting the vision and vocabulary Rudenstine brought to the task.
An essential priority emerged in his installation address, when he emphasized, "We must begin at Harvard to create a University-wide agenda and a stronger University-wide consciousness that extends beyond the confines of any one or two schools or faculties." By that, it became apparent, he meant much. Intellectually, Rudenstine intended to enable interfaculty collaborations at the boundaries of knowledge, from tackling applied problems like environmental quality or healthcare to pursuing pure research on the mind or the biology of the cell. From his earliest months in office, Rudenstine also began exploring how to create new entities like a Latin American studies center, where scholars in languages, history, government, economics, law, public health, business, and design could work together with students and visiting fellows to understand an entire continent and its cultures--a model for myriad international-studies ventures he saw blossoming in the future. Administratively, he would reintroduce the office of the provost as an integrating center for common initiatives, and engage the deans of Harvard's fiercely independent "tubs" in common academic planning. The objectives were both intellectual and economic: enabling the faculties to broaden their research without duplicating programs, and making expensive facilities affordable by designing them from inception for shared use. Pursuing that Harvard-wide agenda and raising that consciousness proved to have broad consequences for the institution.
For a tradition-bound place nearing its fourth century, Harvard embraced Rudenstine's unifying impulse to a surprising degree. An early product of the decanal and presidential collaboration was the 1992 agreement, sealed by Rudenstine with central funds, to form a common electronic catalog for the University's vast library holdings--a harbinger of things to come. Another result was his handcrafted President's Report, 1991-1993, the prospectus for the campaign (the first such all-Harvard effort in history).
An essential ingredient in Rudenstine's effort to stitch the University together, academically and administratively, was his hands-on approach to learning about diverse fields of knowledge, their individual quirks and contours, and the boundary areas where one part of Harvard might touch another. For someone who joked in 1980 that he was too "lazy" and self-indulgent to pursue Princeton's presidency, a different ethic emerged in Cambridge. Joint review of each school's separate plans provided one way for the president and the deans to educate themselves and their colleagues about the substance of the nine faculties' work. Searches for new vice presidents, deans (for Arts and Sciences, Education, and Design early in Rudenstine's tenure, and ultimately for all the schools except Law), and successive provosts provided in-depth entree into the problems and possibilities of the schools and Harvard as a whole. Rudenstine immersed himself in such searches, investing weeks of his time in each--efforts that enabled him to meet dozens of faculty members and outside experts who could lend broader, or critical, perspectives.
That work in turn informed his decisions in the steady stream of "ad hocs"--reviews of candidates for appointment to tenured faculty positions. Those reviews opened still more windows into the University's intellectual life and opportunities, and provided a focus for Rudenstine's incessant, deep reading. During an average academic year, he estimates, ad hocs required 30 long work days. But in combination, he maintains, the searches and ad hoc reviews enabled him--and any Harvard president who is so inclined--to be a more truly academic leader than the executives of many other, seemingly more centralized, higher-education institutions.
In time, Rudenstine's role in bringing members of the far-flung Harvard community together--to articulate the academic rationale and assemble the architecture for the campaign, gather its seed corn, and encourage nascent intellectual collaborations--imposed a personal cost. Exhausted by those efforts, by getting the bugs out of his Massachusetts Hall team, and by traveling to meet alumni worldwide (part of a sweeping embrace Knowles dubbed "global warming"), in the winter of 1994-1995 he took a widely publicized leave of absence on the advice of his doctors.
By then, however, Harvard had been prepared for change. As a result of the campaign itself and the harnessing of University strengths that Rudenstine had encouraged, new resources and new approaches to seeking knowledge converged in unanticipated ways during the second half of his presidency.
In keeping with the tenor of its times, the 1993 campaign plan had stressed economy, efficiency, and modest enhancements. Enrollment in the College "should not grow," Rudenstine wrote. The graduate and professional student body "will remain essentially stable," no new schools or "other freestanding major academic units" were anticipated, the faculty ranks would grow by just 4 percent, and physically, in the evolution of the campus, "the balance will increasingly be struck in favor of the renovation and adaptive reuse of existing facilities," particularly where related departments--in the humanities or social sciences, for instance--could be clustered to promote "opportunities for more cooperative work."
Essentially all these basic goals were met, and many were exceeded: for undergraduate financial aid and graduate fellowships; for professorships in many of the schools; for funding of research not housed in any one department or school, and for the central administration (to facilitate institution-wide investments in new scholarly programs, libraries, information systems). The libraries were not only linked together electronically, but in many cases physically rebuilt (Widener plus the law, medical, and divinity collections)--an immense investment in protecting the University's store of knowledge and preparing for new forms of publication and research. The Harvard Yard dormitories were thoroughly renovated, Sanders Theatre and Memorial Hall renewed and reclaimed, the FAS humanities departments gathered together in Barker Center and Boylston Hall, the computer sciences and electrical engineering faculties rewired in a state-of-the-art facility, racquets courts and playing fields replaced and refurbished. New buildings rose at the law and business schools and the School of Public Health, and much of the medical campus was rebuilt from the inside out--all as planned.
|Greeter-in-chief: The warming presidential handshake, extended at Commencement and year-round.|
|Photograph by Stu Rosner|
At the undergraduate level, Harvard today enjoys "clear, strong dominance," with applications up by more than half over the decade, and the "yield" (the number of those offered admission who accept) 10 percentage points higher, to 80 percent, far ahead of other institutions. The quality of the students "if anything, has gone steadily up," even as the applicant pool has widened, Rudenstine says. "I couldn't be happier."
But even as the campaign plan's steady-state view of the student body and the faculty held true, what Rudenstine now calls "a funny kind of expansion" began taking shape, aided by the twin "tail winds" of a robust economy and renewed federal interest in research and education. He cites the creation of new research centers, such as those on nonprofit institutions (at the Business School and the Kennedy School) and on human rights (at the Kennedy and public-health schools, joining an existing law-school program). Beyond these, he notes, in three spheres "the agenda moved" more quickly than campaign planners fully envisioned, propelling Harvard's growth and internal cohesion.
The first was opportunities for research and teaching across international boundaries. Rudenstine's campaign plan envisioned issues "beyond the question of how many students to accept from other countries, or how many students to send abroad." He foresaw engaging with the "complex interactions" of global trade, climate change, the spread of diseases, ethnic conflicts, and new roles for women in diverse societies. By mid decade, a startlingly broad agenda came within reach as countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico became more democratic and accessible, as the People's Republic of China stepped into the world, and as Eastern Europe began its painful transformation. Suddenly, hidden archives opened, histories begged to be reinterpreted, and the urgent demand for professional education soared.
In Cambridge, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies blossomed, the recapitalized Weatherhead Center for International Affairs enlarged its programs of research and travel support and scholarly exchange, the Davis Center for Russian Studies retooled to probe the post-Soviet era, and the Korea Institute and the Asia Center broadened and deepened Harvard's involvement with that region beyond traditional strengths in Chinese and Japanese studies. As the new centers welcomed scholars and students pursuing new fields of inquiry, they operated across disciplinary boundaries, overcoming some of the inefficiencies and turf issues of Harvard's traditional structure.
Much the same thing began happening in the sciences, where the sense of "fields of knowledge moving, " as Rudenstine puts it, became palpable. The University Committee on Environment, created in 1991, was an obvious instance, since knowledge of science, public policy, economics, risk analysis, law, business, and urban planning might be required to address any given problem. That integrated approach was built into the College's associated new environmental science and public policy concentration. But intellectual convergence increasingly reshaped the pure sciences, too, as the decade progressed. With the advance of genomic and proteomic techniques, for example, it became clear that "the old and ferocious split between molecular biology and evolutionary biology was not doing anybody any good," Rudenstine says. "The connectivity across the spectrum of development and adaptation of species, from the molecular level to environmental conceptions, was all of a package."
|Reshaping Radcliffe: The Institute's first dean, Drew Gilpin Faust; then acting dean Mary Maples Dunn; and Rudenstine, April 2000.|
|Photograph by Marc Halevi/Harvard News Office|
Finally, information technology brought the world much closer together--especially the world of research and teaching. Electronic communications accelerated the dissemination of knowledge, effected student-teacher exchanges through e-mail and Web-based assignments, and made it feasible to project mid-career education from Massachusetts to remote healthcare professionals or business managers eager for new skills.
In the early 1990s, that meant wiring undergraduate Houses for Internet connections and boosting network bandwidth. By the turn of the millennium, the Harvard and Stanford business schools were pursuing an ambitious distance-learning joint venture for continuing education; medical faculty were providing content for the leading health-information website; and robust course websites and case materials were de rigueur. Installing common IT utilities, financing experiments in electronic pedagogy and sharing lessons across schools, and retooling Harvard's antiquated administrative systems (an expensive and not always timely undertaking) all added another thread to the fabric that brought the University's constituent parts closer. "People recognized more and more that they needed this kind of coming together," Rudenstine says.
In combination, the proliferating research centers, international programs, scientific collaborations, and information systems threatened to bring the University together in another, but unwelcome, way. By decade's end, the practical limits to Harvard's growth in Cambridge were within sight. Beyond putting pressure on its surrounding neighborhoods--reaction to which has extended the design and review process for a new government and international-centers building to four years--the allowable building space could not accommodate the needs of the overcrowded schools of government and education, plus the expansive ambitions of FAS and the law school, through 2010. In the near term, that has forced the schools to coordinate physical planning more closely, under the provost's auspices. Here, too, Rudenstine says, "We simply needed a more sensitive, fine-grained system."
In the longer run, the central administration's $240-million acquisition of 100 acres of redevelopable land in Allston (at first clandestinely, to Boston's official annoyance, and then by a public auction) raises the stakes for successful planning, financing, and construction of a brand-new academic precinct in the new century. Recent efforts to create an "infrastructure fund" (through which the endowment will provide half a billion dollars over the next five years to secure and clear the Allston properties and accelerate their reuse) are, Rudenstine maintains, "an absolutely major step in the schools working with the center to do what's best for Harvard University for the next 50 or 100 or 150 years."
This spring, even as Rudenstine was "savoring the days" at the end of his presidency, he was thinking through ways to further improve the institution. Compared to the College's yield, Harvard fares less well in attracting outstanding graduate students in some fields; Rudenstine attributes that to other schools' better fellowship offers and cheaper housing. Fixing those problems will require both money and time, given the tight Cambridge-Boston housing market. Also on his list of unfinished business: an effort to expand the FAS professorial ranks in a "more pressured way" by adding several dozen positions soon (to reduce class sizes and accommodate new kinds of research); and significant investments in the arts (a passion he shares with his wife, art historian Angelica Zander Rudenstine)--from a new downriver museum, to rehearsal and performance spaces for proliferating student groups, to curricular enhancements such as a vigorous film-studies program. Alongside those priorities he ranks unending attention to diversity across the Harvard community; "vigorous pursuit" of the science agenda in FAS, medicine, and public health; and continuous work on using information technology--again, factors likely to sustain cooperation among the University's many parts.
Rudenstine's sweeping focus on the institution's interests over the long run, in light of its research and teaching mission, is of a piece with his adherence to certain principles underlying its pursuit of that mission.
|A moral and emotional high point: Rudenstine and Nelson Mandela, Tercentenary Theatre, September 18, 1998.|
Revisiting those issues in early April--late in his presidency, and just two weeks before the "living-wage" sit-in at Massachusetts Hall again raised the conflict between coercion and discussion within the academy--Rudenstine returned to his initial formulation. Any consideration of the University's purpose, he said, must "powerfully support free expression"--and at the same time, sometimes vexingly, anchor that spirit of discourse "within a human community that knows how to live with itself." Efforts to sustain community by constructing "'speech codes' on offensive speech are clearly unacceptable at a place like this," he said, even as it is incumbent upon the institution's leaders to remind its citizens that "We are here to discover the truth, usually by asking and framing questions and challenging people--but without having an open season on people." That said, he continued, "Personally intimidating individuals or groups is out of bounds and won't be tolerated."
Whatever else would be discussed during the living-wage sit-in, Rudenstine signaled his devotion to this core position in his April 23 statement on the protest. While acknowledging the protesters' "right to express their views, with vigor and passion," he characterized the building seizure altogether differently: "The view that efforts at coercion and disruption, as opposed to discussion and persuasion, represent a proper means to achieve a desired result is mistaken, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of a university."
Beyond his own efforts to create an environment conducive to discourse, and to talk about the hard work involved in doing so, Rudenstine used his presidency to bring to Harvard "people who stand for these things"--whose example could challenge and educate the community at large. Hence Commencement afternoon addresses by Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic; Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; and last year, Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Seamus Heaney. In his remarks on the latter speakers, Rudenstine drew this lesson from their experiences--a formulation that appears to lie very close to his heart:
I think of both Seamus Heaney and Amartya Sen primarily as humanists, very much kin to one another and always preoccupied with those questions with which the humanities, arts, and social sciences have traditionally been engaged: how--and even where--to live; how to define one's obligations and responsibilities, not only to society but to oneself; how to exercise one's freedoms and rights wisely; how to enable societies to be productive and also just; and finally, how to use words--whether in poetry or in prose--precisely, faithfully, and lyrically so that we do not sow even more confusion than already exists in the world, either through the willful distortion and crude simplification of language and meanings, or through any careless disregard for the intellectual and imaginative stringency necessary to the task of articulating truths.
Perhaps the emotional high point of his administration in terms of this kind of moral education was reached in September 1998, when on successive days the University welcomed Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, and then Nelson Mandela, president of the Republic of South Africa, who received a special honorary degree at a full-scale convocation in Tercentenary Theatre.
That occasion vividly highlighted another of Rudenstine's core beliefs. Along with establishing ground rules for conversation within the University, he has been an outspoken advocate of including within its ranks excluded or overlooked members of society. His advocacy began well before he became Harvard's leader, and continued during his presidency, when diversity became the issue on which he spoke most regularly to the larger public.
His President's Report, 1993-1995, is an extended essay on the educational advantages of diversity among students, of admissions criteria aimed at assuring diversity, and of affirmative action. In the aftermath of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Hopwood v. Texas, he released a blunt public statement saying, "I respectfully and strongly disagree." Diversity among students, he said, makes possible "the kind of understanding that can come only when we are willing to test our ideas and arguments in the company of people with very different perspectives"--the "remarkable variety of men and women whom we might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn from or even to meet." Fueled by the desire to narrow "the real gaps that continue to exist among many people of different races," he then enlisted other university presidents to support affirmative action publicly. And in April 2000, at the thirtieth-anniversary celebration of the Department of Afro-American Studies (to whose revitalization and recruiting he gave the highest priority), Rudenstine took the occasion to declare, "Harvard will continue to take ethnicity and race into account, along with many other factors, as it admits students"--and to provide whatever amount of financial aid is needed to keep its doors open.
As in the selection of speakers who could bring alive the lessons of rights and civility, Rudenstine matched his creed of inclusiveness with deeds. Where he has had the power of appointment, he has used it to elevate to University Professorships Cornel West and William Julius Wilson, the first two African-American faculty members so recognized. Judith Richards Hope broke the gender barrier on the Corporation in 1989, during the Bok administration; among the Fellows who have been appointed since are Hanna Holborn Gray, the second woman, and Conrad K. Harper, the first African American. For much of Rudenstine's time in Massachusetts Hall, three of his five vice presidents have been women. In another kind of openness, the first single-sex couple to serve as master and co-master of a undergraduate House were appointed during his presidency.
Change in the general faculty ranks proceeds at a different pace, driven by departmental and decanal decisions, the constraints of tenure, the rate of retirements, and the entry of younger scholars into diverse fields. Nonetheless, from Rudenstine's arrival as president through the end of last academic year, the number of tenured faculty members counted as minorities in the University's affirmative-action reports (excluding the Medical School, with its thousands of clinical appointments) increased from 59 to 84 (nearly 11 percent), and in the "ladder" ranks (assistant and associate professors) from 61 to 100 (19 percent). The number of senior women grew from 64 to 134 (17 percent), and of women in the junior ranks from 147 to 165 (31 percent). "There is more to do," Rudenstine said, "but the feelings about how minorities and women are welcomed on the campus" have changed, with a "critical mass" being achieved in most instances. He noted, especially, that "far more women are coming up in the ad hoc processes than 10 years ago--that has really moved."
Finally, Rudenstine has devoted himself to expressing a vision of what a university's work should be. Perhaps the most resonant of those expressions came at the end of the speech he delivered at the formal launch of the capital campaign. In that address, the president, as poetry professor, explicated Robert Frost's "The Star-Splitter," finding in its lines about the shared experience of looking through a telescope a metaphor for the driving curiosity and revelation and aspiration that characterize these special institutions: "This passionate pursuit--this desire to find out what lies just beyond the ideas we have barely understood, beyond the discovery we have just made; this desire to marshal the evidence, tighten the argument, polish the stanza, design exactly the right experiment, and convert ideas into effective actions--this is the primordial energy and motive force of the university, in all its many forms and purposes."
|Final thoughts: Pen in hand, the president revises his remarks for a May 4 event at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, where an exhibition of works by Piet Mondrian, shown in the portrait, is on display. That evening, it was announced that the Harvard University Art Museums had acquired 30 works, by contemporary American artists, in the Rudenstines' honor.|
|Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell|
In making an assessment, therefore, one must assemble other evidence. Harvard Magazine solicited comments from a half-dozen people who worked closely with Rudenstine, in diverse capacities, during the past decade; those appear throughout these pages.
There are revealing testimonials on which to draw as well. At the May 5 business meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, executive director John P. Reardon Jr.--whose work in admissions, athletics, alumni affairs, fundraising, and University governance throughout a long Harvard career have made him the institution's premier people person--said with heartfelt emotion, "I don't think I've ever met a human being who is more caring about other people." That trait, he said, made outsiders misjudge Rudenstine's strength--as evidence of which he referred to the president's principles and decisions during the sit-in then still congesting Massachusetts Hall. "Neil will go around a lot of mountains," Reardon said, "to get what he wants without hurting other people."
On May 15, at the last regular meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences over which Rudenstine presided, Dean Jeremy Knowles said, "In 1890, Charles Eliot Norton wrote that: 'The true life of a university depends finally not so much on the abundance of its means, as on the character of those that use them.' Neil: we can say the same today, and be grateful to you, both for the abundance and for the character. On behalf of the Faculty: thank you, for an uplifting decade." That tribute came with a long subtext, for Knowles, who was Rudenstine's first decanal appointment, led the faculty whose members most often and most loudly challenged the president's decisions--on reductions in benefits; on the allocation of financial resources; on the divvying up of responsibilities and costs for the transformation of Radcliffe College into the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; and, this winter and spring, on the funding and scope of the infrastructure investments in Allston. Each time, Rudenstine extended himself for meetings and prolonged discussions with faculty members, and occasional modifications and improvements in his proposals--before, ultimately, proceeding more or less in the direction he had initially set, as being in Harvard's best interest. He serenely answered Knowles's salute, and the faculty's standing ovation, with thanks ("It has been more than a privilege to be able to share these 10 years with you") and with assurances that the faculty's guidance and advice had helped him "let the University be itself, which is intrinsically strong."
Finally, though, the best evidence on Rudenstine's character must be sought as he himself might seek it--by closely consulting, and learning from, his texts. Thus it is easy to pick up from his May 2000 address at the end of the University Campaign a passage that displays Ruden-stine's extraordinary devotion to scholarship. He quoted Henry James, "Harvard Law School's most famous dropout," who once wrote, "We work in the dark, we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task." Beyond underscoring his own unwavering optimism, Rudenstine found in those words "a marvelously moving, quietly heroic, and wonderfully generous response to a profound predicament," perhaps the fundamental predicament of finding new knowledge: "To work in the dark, with doubt as a companion, but not to diminish one's passion for the task; to do whatever one can, and to give what one has: this situation represents a mode of action under continuous adversity, which in turn elicits a mode of faith and commitment sustained by continuous passion. The energy and determination in James' lines are tangible, and they would not--could not--exist except for the consciousness of doubt and darkness"--and, implicitly, the human drive toward the light of knowing.
Rudenstine has also left self-revealing clues in his portraits of the diverse leaders he most admires--Heaney and Sen, surely, and Harvard philanthropist John Langeloth Loeb. At the 1997 memorial service for the latter, Rudenstine said, "He wanted to play no part in creating even greater antagonisms than already exist among people, or any greater separation of human beings into winners and losers, either in conversation or in life.... It was as if he had come to feel that, although considerateness and common kindness would never cure all of the ills of our planet, they were very likely to help, and at the very least they were not very likely to do harm."
Neil Rudenstine seemed to know the sources of that kind of quietly compelling character, too. Just before Thanksgiving in 1995, when what had been planned as a reception for and speech at Harvard by Yitzhak Rabin instead was transformed into a memorial service for the murdered Israeli prime minister, Rudenstine said, "We admire him the more, precisely because he was not always absolutely single-minded, or utterly self-confident, or fully persuaded that he knew firmly what was right, or what was the true will of his people, or of God."