Raising Academia's Ethical Sights

During his 20 years at the helm, Harvard University's president has emphasized moral issues

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ASK Harvard University president Derek Bok why he's retiring next spring after 20 years as head of the oldest and best-known university in the United States, and he responds with a deep and infectious laugh. ``If I stayed one more year,'' he says, relaxing on a sofa during a recent hour-long conversation in his office, ``I would have had to the face the fact that there are people graduating from the college who would not even have been born when I started.''

``I think you retire,'' he adds in a more serious vein, ``when you begin to get a little feeling of repetition, and also when you have the feeling that, on principle, new blood and new creativity would be good for an institution.''

Few of Mr. Bok's peers and colleagues would accuse him of standing in the way of creativity. Cornell University president Frank H.T. Rhodes, who has served on numerous committees with Bok, calls him ``a model of what educational leadership is at its best'' and praises his ``thoughtful, balanced, perceptive, and constructive'' assessment of the issues facing higher education. And Columbia University president Michael I. Sovern, who has described himself as ``an unabashed admirer'' of his Harvard counterpart, calls Bok ``a principled leader who has exemplified the highest values in American education.''

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BOK'S two decades at Harvard, which began when the nation's campuses were still in turmoil over opposition to the Vietnam War, have not been without controversy. While raising the endowment from $1 billion to $5 billion, he has been criticized for not fully divesting the university's investments in South Africa. In 1989, he lost a hard-fought battle against the unionization of the university's clerical workers. And the John F. Kennedy School of Government - established under his leadership and now preeminent in public-service education - still disturbs some faculty members, who feel that its success has come at the expense of other, more scholarly fields.

But his most valuable legacy, according to educators contacted in recent weeks, lies in two areas: his pithy, widely read annual reports to the members of the Board of Overseers, which Prof. Robert Coles of Harvard calls ``a brilliant series of appraisals of enormous significance,'' and his emphasis on moral issues.

Both these threads come together in his latest book, ``Universities and the Future of America'' (see review, Page 12). Like his annual reports, it focuses on a pressing issue: the failure of America's universities to respond to such social needs as economic competitiveness, poverty, and public education. And in keeping with his leadership in building an ethical component into the Harvard curriculum, it places a strong emphasis on what he calls ``moral education.''

In Bok's mind, these two threads are tightly intertwined. Answers to the nation's social problems, he explains, cannot be sought ``only in developing the knowledge for policy solutions.'' Needed in addition is ``a strengthening of individual virtues, ethical virtues, civic virtues on the part of individuals - especially the kinds of influential individuals who flow through our colleges and universities.''

``If you just think about ideal solutions to the problem of poverty and crime and welfare and competitiveness, without worrying about the basic attitudes and dispositions of those individuals, you're probably going to fail,'' he says.

Bok, who freely attributes several of his ideas to his wife, ethicist and author Sissela Bok, agrees that it's hard to know ``where ethics leaves off and civic virtue begins. One is a concern for the community, the nation, and one's sense of obligation to participate as a voter. The other is more personal - one's ethical obligations to others. But they are related. And there are a great many signs that should worry us a lot about their vitality in the country.''

The university, in his view, provides an important forum for restoring that vitality, in part because college-age students are often ``trying to experiment with various personas and trying to figure out what kind of a person they want to be.'' Bok questions whether the university is ``doing enough to impress upon them that one aspect of the kind of person they want to be has to do with the degree to which they live up to moral standards.''

From his years of watching university faculties, Bok feels that as individuals ``they set rather high examples'' of ethical standards. The problem, he explains, is that too often the opportunities for teaching moral lessons are overlooked. Such teaching can happen ``in innumerable kinds of encounters that take place in the university,'' he says, adding that ``we could do an awful lot to transform those encounters - without preaching and being censorious and stuffy - into useful moral lessons.'' As examples, he cites the way institutions administer rules of conduct, dispense financial aid and require repayment of loans, and coach athletic teams.

``We just haven't paid enough systematic attention to those opportunities. It's not that we do anything that's unethical - it's just that we don't do nearly as much as we might to impress on students the seriousness and the importance of this side of their lives. And that's where I think the progress can be made.''

Bok acknowledges the difficulty of striking ``this delicate balance'' between moral education and mere indoctrination. But he insists that there are a handful of what he calls ``universal principles'' upon which that balance can be built. ``Nobody would regard the university as somehow transgressing that boundary if the president, faculty members, administrative bodies, and so forth continue to emphasize the importance of keeping your word or not hitting your roommate. That is not regarded as indoctrination at all.''

But can a modern university faculty, frequently suspicious of anything resembling absolutes, agree that there are such things as ``universal principles''?

``You will always find in every community of intellectuals some people who love to play with controversial ideas, and who will try to say that everything is contextual and so forth,'' Bok concedes. But he adds that ``the vast majority - even of the Harvard faculty - would agree with what I say: that although there may be arguments at the margin, there are fundamental working principles of ethical behavior which are important, and we're not indoctrinating our students by making a conscious effort to make them understand, appreciate, and live by those principles.''

For Bok, that last phrase is crucial. While he strongly backs the need for academic courses in moral reasoning and professional responsibility, he says they are not enough. He distinguishes between ``the ability to distinguish intellectually for oneself what the right thing to do is'' and ``the kind of character and will to put that intellectual conclusion into practice.''

``Most people who deprecate courses in moral reasoning do so by saying, `That isn't going to make people more honest, and no one really should claim that it will.' On the other hand, even very principled people, if they're completely addled about what is right and wrong intellectually, may have the best character in the world, but the principles they're going to act on may be extremely erratic. So you need both.''

Putting ethics into practice, he says, sometimes requires resetting priorities - a point he illustrates by citing medical research. The nation, he says, spends $1 billion on cancer research with ``very few results.'' Yet while much of the problem is caused by smoking, the nation spends only ``a few million dollars figuring out the psychology of addictions, so we can have more effective ways of getting people to stop smoking. So we do have some funny priorities.''

And in contrast to spending for medicine, which he says has a great ``emotional hold on the American people,'' there is comparatively little research support ``in the fields of education, public administration, poverty research, schools of social work.''

While he notes that universities alone can't restructure the nation's priorities, he worries that ``universities haven't called attention to the problem more and argued more eloquently. Our tendency has been more to take the distribution of money for granted and deploy our efforts where the money is most plentiful.''

Thinking about his own career as a university president, he notes that ``success or failure is defined in part by how much money you raise, not what you raise the money for. And there you are, again, holding yourself hostage to the prevailing set of values in society. And it's precisely those values that account for the fact that a number of these problems exist - they are problems of neglect.''

WHAT'S next for Bok?

``I'm deliberately holding any opportunities at bay until sometime next spring, so I'll have plenty of time to figure out who I really am and what I want to do. I still have a chapter of my active life to live.''

Will he continue writing?

``Oh, yes, I'll always write,'' he says. And then, with another burst of laughter, he notes that ``life with Sissela would be intolerable if I weren't writing - because she's so much engaged in it that it's really marvelous when we are both working on our projects at the same time. So I wouldn't want to give that up.''

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