Radical quest for excellence

Making Harvard Modern
September 27, 2002

Ruthless change keeps Harvard at the top, says Gordon Johnson.

The subtitle of this excellent and enjoyable book refers to Harvard as "America's University", but in truth Harvard is perceived as the pre-eminent university in the whole world, admired, envied and, perhaps, to be emulated. It is the ideal of a contemporary university, even the 21st century's "idea of a university". What makes Harvard successful should allow us to reflect more generally on the place of the university in modern society.

This book, which charts the history of Harvard over the past 70 years or so, based on archival research and informed by the authors' own close involvement in higher education (Morton Keller is professor of history at Brandeis University, Phyllis Keller was associate dean for academic affairs at Harvard from the 1970s to the 1990s), is welcome not just because it tells the story of a particular university but because of the light it sheds on universities in the modern world.

Harvard is very rich: its endowment, worth about £12 billion, makes it nearly twice as well off as its nearest US rival and six times as wealthy as Oxford University and its colleges combined. It boasts the largest concentration of the best scholars in the world, the more senior chosen after lengthy, sometimes decade-long, searches that extend, as one colleague ruefully put it, not just across the globe but to the ends of the galaxy. Its libraries and laboratories are the best stocked and most fully equipped; and its students, selected from the widest and most diverse social backgrounds, and supported financially to a degree unimaginable in the UK, are formed by their Harvard years into an enduring elite that occupies an enviable position of power and influence in the US and beyond.

It is a common assumption that influential institutions with a long pedigree are conservative in nature, trading on their inheritances and maintaining their positions by exploiting close links with established social hierarchies. Such institutions are often resented because they resist change and may use their position to hinder it. Hence the venom that, in higher education in the UK, is directed at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and which in the US is levelled at the Ivy League. There is some truth in this view: social elites do seek to perpetuate themselves. But a more profound truth is that institutions do not continue to be successful unless they change and respond radically to new social pressures.

The main lesson to be taken from the book is that the more ruthlessly an institution pursues radical change, the more successful it will become. The Harvard of today is not the Harvard of 100 years ago. The Kellers remind us that Harvard College once served very limited purposes and provided education for a small and circumscribed set of New Englanders. It was neither rich nor distinguished, but it gave a good education to a few, and it trained the clergy. It was, in every sense of the word, a parochial institution, and there was no particular reason why it should ever have risen above the level of competent mediocrity. But from the middle of the 19th century, Harvard produced an institutional leadership that, in the teeth of considerable opposition, transformed it from a local college into an international university.

To begin with, Harvard, like other universities, fell under the influence of changes taking place in continental Europe, where more interest was shown in research and scholarship than in teaching the standard curriculum. As the 20th century progressed, greater weight was placed on the research capabilities of the faculty hired than on their teaching qualities, something that brought strain as well as benefit to the college. This was followed by the battles to open the college to wider social groups: the Kellers pay particular attention to the way in which the puritan Boston Brahmin establishment, which founded and controlled Harvard, came round to accepting first Jews and then women, and then all sorts and conditions of men. It did so out of naked self-interest, because it was untenable not to tap these sources of talent, but later it became a matter of principle implemented through sophisticated policies of positive social discrimination: this also was not without controversy.

Perceiving that nothing could be done well without money, Harvard gave priority to securing its financial future. Campaigns (initially always limited in scope) to raise funds were launched as early as the 1920s, but the major growth in Harvard's wealth dates only from the 1950s: then it was that Harvard had only to ask and the money flowed in like water over the gunwales. Alumni, who have a significant continuing voice in the development of Harvard, were the main source of benefaction - either personally or through their contacts; but as important was the university's ability to pull in funding through research contracts with business and to tap public sources. Again, the success was not without difficulty, and political compromises were the order of the day.

Overall, the Kellers see the Harvard story as falling into an orderly sequence: from the early 1930s to about 1970, during the presidencies of James Bryant Conant and Nathan Marsh Pusey, Harvard was transformed from a regional school dominated by Boston's social elite into a much more diverse and meritocratic university, with academic staff selected primarily on the basis of their scholarly reputations and students chosen increasingly for their intellectual achievement and potential. The institutional aim was to be "the best" university in the country. Then, from about 1971 until the present, when Derek Bok and Neil Rudenstine served as president, this meritocratic culture became overlaid by what the Kellers call a more worldly one. This sought for Harvard an increasingly international presence: "A socially driven pursuit of racial and gender diversity, scientists ever more involved in commercial ventures, students and faculty caught up in politics and public policy, a growing bureaucracy, incessant fund-raising, a swelling institutional hubris: Harvard in the world's service."

In writing about all this, the Kellers are particularly good at describing and analysing the institutional structure that made successful modernisation possible. Their primary perspective is through the presidency, but they are careful to stress the quite limited scope of the president's office. All four recent presidents have been major figures in higher education and have had an influence beyond the university world. Each was markedly different from his predecessor - and this was acknowledged at the time of appointment. Each served for relatively long periods, giving some continuity to leadership. But the Harvard president works in a complex organisation and has fairly circumscribed authority. Paradoxically, power is both diffused and concentrated at the university. Diffused because key decision-making rests in various bodies, some of them extremely democratic. Concentrated because the whole is made up of strong separate parts: the Board of Overseers, Harvard College (narrowly defined as being for the undergraduates), the graduate school and the professional schools, each with deans and assistant deans, and with complex committee structures of their own. A great deal is devolved, and independence of action is jealously guarded by the various parts.

The exercise of central leadership is a delicate one: this is not an institution managed by a chief executive officer with policies emanating from the centre and being uniformly enforced. Rather, the president wheels and deals, chivvies and chives, consoles and panders, and bribes and whips as he seeks to explain Harvard as much to itself as to the outside world. But to a remarkable degree, and with very little central administration, the centre of government holds at Harvard in ways that would be unimaginable in contemporary Oxford or Cambridge. And this is a great and determining strength: initiative, change, growth - all come from below; but they are given their head by the centre: moderated, adapted and incorporated into the overall institutional framework. Harvard fosters creativity - academic and otherwise - and such weight is accorded this one factor that it does not matter if some things fall by the wayside.

Harvard also exhibits an institutional ruthlessness in policy-making: presidents appointed young and because they are different from the man they are replacing; academics appointed from the most eminent in the field and always with a view to seeing where the field has shifted or is likely to go - thus giving advantage to those outside Harvard and allowing Harvard to cash in on changes in scholarly fashion; widening access in a deliberate way, even if this should offend alumni or cut across pure meritocratic principles; a huge emphasis on fundraising, with all the difficulties, compromises and ethical questions that such a venture raises, because without substantial financial resources the work cannot be done; and a sustained projection of Harvard as the very best. Above all, a conscious recognition that, for a university to be effective, it must be integral to the contemporary economy and society and engage vigorously with it.

The Kellers conclude that Harvard is a success story: "No institution is without its warts, and we have not sought to hide them. But the bottom line at the beginning of the 21st century is that this dense, complex palimpsest of a university, its original intent of serving the needs of a colonial commonwealth successively overwritten by Brahmin elitism, meritocratic striving and worldly engagement, is one of the most illustrious institutional adornments of American life. Its capacity to adapt to intellectual, social, and cultural change has been the chief source of modern Harvard's success - and the chief source of its problems and discontents."

Making Harvard Modern is a fascinating study. Here, laid bare, are the ideals, achievements and difficulties that are common to all modern universities; and we are shown how Harvard has dealt with them. Not all Harvard solutions are capable of universal application, and some will be disliked. But the positive approach, the vigour, the confidence and the ruthlessness - the determination to stay on top even if it means radical change to do so - are qualities that UK universities need in greater abundance if scholarship is not to ossify and if higher education is to shape the future rather than simply react to it.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust.

Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University

Author - Morton Keller and Phyllis Keller
ISBN - 0 19 514457 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - $35.00
Pages - 578

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