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The Listener

7.1.01

What strikes me about Neil Rudenstine is that he has never ceased being a scholar and a teacher. He arranged to offer a week-long seminar during Freshman Orientation--an intolerably busy time for any administrator. He visited my undergraduate seminar in Shakespeare's sonnets and, through the two hours, let students see their president as a scholar of Renaissance poetry whose presence as a teacher is inquiring and solicitous, asking the best of them and receiving it, developing rather than imposing insights. He was a teacher (rather than an administrator-guest) at a Signet Society dinner I attended, mediating, in an after-dinner speech, poems of James Merrill to students who might not previously have recognized Merrill's name.

It's of course encouraging to those of us in the humanities to have a humanist as president, but it would be just as encouraging to have a president from the sciences or social sciences who believed, as Neil does, in supporting all branches of intellectual inquiry. It's true that during Neil's tenure we've seen the Freshman Union strikingly renewed as the Barker Center for the Humanities, as well as the modernizing and further endowing of Widener Library; but we've also seen, as the result of the capital campaign, major endeavors in both the sciences and the social sciences. Neil recognizes, as any sensible president would, that the University needs to advance on all fronts at once, that the impoverishment of any one wing impoverishes the others.

Still, we're lucky in having had, in Neil, an eloquent expositor of the worth of the humanities. They let us know, he has said, "much more about the human past--and present; about the values, the ways of life, and the art of people in a far greater number of societies; and about individuals and groups whose very existence, and whose contributions, were often overlooked and certainly underestimated." He has recalled to us how friendship, conversation, and debate contribute to the development of the intellectual life, and how the humanities and the arts "thrive on the pattern, texture, and flux of experience, where very little is provable or predictable....They prefer the audible, tangible, visual, and palpable" in their task of "probing, dramatizing, and clarifying values." We need people in the public eye who can articulate the social and personal worth of the study of felt experience, reflective consciousness, and the arts, and Neil has been such a public spokesman.

Neil is a listener. He listens with patience, empathy, curiosity, and modesty, even deference. Yet when he questions or speaks--as I've often heard him do at meetings of ad hoc committees--he goes to the heart of the question. He has insisted, all through the capital campaign, on the need to enlarge the faculty--not only to preserve a good student-teacher ratio, but also to incorporate new fields of investigation. He cares that Harvard should retain the true sense of what a university is: a group of students and faculty bound together to transmit and to further learning. Most of all, he passionately cares that students from every class and group be helped to call Harvard home. That end, through him, is nearer than it was when he came.