Derek's Bok's Book
Harvard president calls for universities to address national needs
UNIVERSITIES AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA. By Derek Bok, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 135 pp., $14.95 ASSESSMENTS of Derek Bok's presidency at Harvard usually mention his steady leadership; his success in building the endowment; and the implementation of the widely praised core curriculum. Often overlooked are the contributions he has made to American higher education through his extensive writings.Skip to next paragraph
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Every year, Harvard's annual report has included a long essay by Bok addressing a major issue facing Harvard and, by extension, most other colleges and universities. He has also written two books - ``Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University'' and ``Higher Learning'' - that address the condition of higher education in more general terms. His most recent book, ``Universities and the Future of America,'' examines the role of universities in helping the nation improve its economic competitiveness and address its social problems.
Given the unparalleled excellence of US research universities, and the importance of these institutions in post-industrial societies, one would reasonably expect that America would be economically dominant and socially unsurpassed. But this is not the case. In Bok's words, `` ... we lead most industrial democracies in ignorance and in many of the pathologies of modern civilization while lagging behind in the rate of economic progress.''
Bok asks whether universities are doing all they can to help improve national economic growth and social progress. He concludes that they are not. He writes: ``Again and again, universities have put a low priority on the very programs and initiatives that are needed most to increase productivity and competitiveness, improve the quality of government, and overcome the problems of illiteracy, miseducation, and unemployment.''
In explaining why universities behave this way, Bok argues that they are too responsive to the outside world. They do what their constituencies want and are willing to support, which is not necessarily what the nation always needs. This is not a common view - universities are generally regarded as isolated ivory towers - but Bok makes a good case. For example, investment banking and management consulting were the ``hot'' business school specialties in the 1980s. The nation needed more emphasis on manufacturing processes and human relations, but these areas did not attract students, talented faculty, or outside funding. As a result, most business schools gave short-shrift to these areas.
Bok also believes that academic values limit the university's responsiveness to the nation's problems. University priorities are shaped by an underlying academic consensus about the kinds of intellectual work that is most important and prestigious. Bok also considers whether or not universities are doing enough to help students adopt high ethical standards and a strong sense of social and civic responsibility.
Bok concludes that most universities do not pay enough attention to these issues. There are plenty of examples: Courses in ethics are not well established, supervised community service is too rare, rules of conduct are not carefully explained, students are rarely involved in designing and shaping the rules, and universities rarely make serious efforts to explain their own actions in addressing moral questions.
Fixing the shortcomings, Bok maintains, requires two things. First, universities need better leadership from those who run them. Second, outside groups need to stimulate universities to respond to national problems. Trustees, professional groups, and philanthropic organizations are all well-positioned to play this constructive role.
Bok does not provide much guidance about how to change the academic values that limit institutional flexibility. Calling for better campus leadership is easy, but most university presidents already have extraordinary burdens in merely running their institutions. Moreover, few university presidents see themselves as playing a major role in the academic affairs of their institutions - about 2 percent, according to one recent study.
The difficulty of the solutions aside, Bok's book offers a clear and honest assessment of American higher education and its potential additional contributions to national well-being. What makes the book especially valuable is that it finds a middle ground between critics who think America's colleges and universities have been irrevocably damaged and supporters who see little reason to change anything.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. American higher education is the envy of the world, but there is much that could be done to improve it. In this short volume, Derek Bok has helped define what's good about American universities and what's not - and what needs to be done to make them better.