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John Harvard's Journal

Interim Accomplishments

July-August 2007

When he was summoned back to Massachusetts Hall in February 2006, interim president Derek Bok told a group of Harvard administrators last October, he found himself in the position of Rip van Winkle. Having been president from 1971 to 1991, he had thereafter kept out of Harvard affairs, “which is what I think a former president ought to do.” It appeared then that the chief aims of his second tour of duty would be to “calm the natives” and to restore “normalcy” after the resignations of President Lawrence H. Summers and Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean William C. Kirby.

Instead, he reported during a conversation in early May, Harvard addressed a significant agenda during the academic year, making substantial progress on undergraduate education, the future of scientific research and teaching, and campus development in Allston—to name the most prominent examples. “Far from finding the faculty impossible to deal with,” Bok said, “they’ve been very loyal and hardworking” on every subject where he engaged with them. Among the highlights:

Photograph by Stu Rosner

President Derek Bok reviews the alumni procession

Undergraduate education. Bok said he and interim FAS dean Jeremy R. Knowles (see "Arts and Sciences Transitions") agreed that concluding the four-year “reform of undergraduate education” was a high priority.

Much attention focused on a successor to the Core curriculum (the courses intended to ensure students’ general education outside their principal fields of study). The work of an eight-member task force established at Bok’s request and charged with devising a general-education curriculum “came out very well,” he said. As he observed in Our Underachieving Colleges—his book on course design and pedagogy, published just before he was asked to be president again—there is no perfect curriculum, but there are several plausible and coherent ones. The task-force recommendation brought to FAS for extensive discussion and legislation has “clear purposes and a thoughtful definition of the kind of work that would further each purpose” (see “General Education, Finally Defined,” March-April, page 68, and this issue, "College Curriculum Change Completed").

But general education was only one part of rethinking undergraduates’ academic experience. A separate task force, set up at Bok’s request, proposed measures to encourage and reward innovative and more effective teaching. The recommen-dations are a template for “a very effective body of reform,” he said (see “Toward Top-Tier Teaching,” March-April, page 63).

Overall, he suggested briskly, if the proposals for change in courses, teaching, advising (now being phased in), and evaluation of student learning (his office paid for trial assessments of writing ability and critical-thinking skills) are implemented, the result will be “the most comprehensive effort we’ve had to improve undergraduate education in at least a century.”

At the May 15 FAS meeting where the faculty voted for the curriculum changes, acting interim dean David Pilbeam saluted Bok, saying that in a year when he could have read, written, and played tennis, “He took up the plow again.”

Science. Creation of the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee (HUSEC), Bok said, signals “completely different ways of organizing and thinking about science” here (see “For Science and Engineering, New Life,” March-April, page 65). The oversight committee—drawn from FAS, the medical and public-health faculties, affiliated hospitals, and new units based in future facilities in Allston—and funding of an interfaculty department (developmental and regenerative biology) for the first time take Harvard beyond individual faculties and their departments to facilitate inter- disciplinary science.

Bok emphasized “how hard the faculty worked” to bring HUSEC into being, sorting out difficult issues and paving the way for “really first-rate, exciting science.” The result, he said, creates a “hugely important blueprint” not only for Allston, but for science investments across the University, with a structure and decanal involvement to steer those programs productively. Along the way, according to an informed observer, Bok worked to rationalize earlier science initiatives with ambiguous governance and unfunded financial needs—some of them potentially very large.

Allston. Bok said he sought to “maintain momentum” in Allston—an opportunity initially glimpsed during his first presidency, when Harvard began purchasing property beyond the Business School in the late 1980s. Publication in January of the master plan for campus development, for regulatory review by Boston, was an important milestone (see “Harvard’s 50-Year Plan,” March-April, page 58). So were the designs for the first science complex and a proposed building for the University art museums. Bok hailed those developments as an “impressive achievement” by the “immensely capable” Christopher Gordon, chief operating officer of Harvard’s Allston Development Group.

Now that Harvard affiliates can envision Allston, Bok said, they no longer regard it as remote, and are eager to locate in the new campus. HUSEC’s view of “the science that will go there” will help to determine the timing of what is built and the best way to integrate those decisions into an attractive, effective community.

Proceeding carefully will matter, in light of prospective costs Bok called “pretty remarkable.” He credited Gordon with trimming the price tag for the first science facility—four linked buildings totaling about a million square feet—by $300 million from estimates based on the initial design. (Gordon told a Harvard Alumni Association gathering in early May that ground-level parking for users of the building would cost $3,000 to $4,000 per car, compared to $160,000 for each space constructed underground in Allston’s marshy soil.) The decision to build a single new art museum—compared to an earlier plan to fit up temporary swing space, and then to construct a permanent successor building—probably in part reflects Bok’s view of appropriate spending for the project.

As he prepared for his service as interim president, Bok said in early May, friends called up to commiserate and offered “forbidding assessments of what everything would be like.” Now, with much of the work behind him, he said it had been a positive, productive experience, “a privilege and a treat to do whatever I could to settle the place down some after stormy years” and to focus on central priorities. “What really lighted up my day? Seeing that kind of loyalty I saw before—people willing to step up and help the institution when it needed them.”

In 1971, Bok recalled, the dominant images of Harvard were of students occupying University Hall, faculty members who refused to talk to one another, and alumni disengaged from the institution. During the first two-thirds of his administration, the stock market was flat and inflation regularly exceeded investment returns on the endowment.

But today, he said, “The focus is really on all the things we can do in the future and making good choices to capitalize on these opportunities as best we can.” Among the intellectual possibilities, he cited science and international activities—and the strengths of Harvard’s faculty and administrators to realize them. Bok said he was “very pleasantly surprised” by the quality of candidates for tenured appointments, and pleased by “some real success in encouraging the development and the promotion of younger people” without compromising standards. Though the costs of building and operations are markedly higher, the University’s financial position is healthier still.

His self-effacing style and dry humor may have helped members of the Harvard community focus on their individual and collective roles in making the most of those assets. In January, the general-education and teaching task forces issued their reports, the Allston plan was released, and HUSEC was established and funded. All reflected work Bok had guided or encouraged, but none was particularly publicized in his name. As he presided at FAS faculty meetings, Bok helped defuse tensions in a way that advanced discussion. In March, when a professor inquired about foreign-language requirements, Jeremy Knowles suggested the matter would be studied by his successor, prompting Bok to comment, “Expertly dodged, I think,” and eliciting laughter. In May, having navigated most of the academic year with no unexpected business having arisen during the “question period” docketed for each meeting, he observed, “I have an unbroken record of being unquestioned by the faculty this year, which I will cherish.”

While Bok prepared for the unusual circumstance of conferring an honorary degree on his successor-plus-one and immediate predecessor, in the presence of his new successor (see "Honoris Causa"), he readied one last surprise for Harvard. At the outset of his interim presidential year, he made it clear that he would focus his energies—he is 77—on matters close at hand, not the travel and fundraising expected of university leaders today. But he used his evenings, in part, to revive his custom of writing an extended annual report on some matter of University import. And so it was on June 7 that he published a report on Harvard governance and organization—a final gift to the institution, honed by his 21 years of experience as president and 15 years of writing and reflection, often about higher education. (See "Managing Harvard: A New Deal?" for excerpts and a link to the full text.)

As befits a president who counsels leaders to leave plenty of room for their successors, he has planned to spend his final day in office far from Cambridge. On June 30, his wife, Sissela Bok, is to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree from the American College of Greece, in Athens. Then, the Boks intend to vacation in Crete and plunge into new writing projects.

Of the job awaiting Drew Gilpin Faust, preparing to move down Garden Street from Fay House to Massachusetts Hall, Bok said, “It’s a wonderful time for a president to come in.”