In its 350th year, Harvard marches on. President Bok prefers to `chip away' at challenges

THE amiable old square has yielded some frontage to discount drugstores, indoor malls, and an automatic teller arcade. In ``the yard'' next door, a small shantytown protesting the university's policy on investments in South Africa seems almost genteel compared with the rancor of Vietnam protests more than 15 years ago. As it celebrates commencement today, and prepares for a 350th anniversary celebration this fall, Harvard University marches on through the change. The institution that early settlers once supported with contributions of wheat or wampum now has the largest endowment of any American university, and the academic stature to match.

The university's influence in the centers of power stands undiminished as well. Even under President Reagan, ``you've got more than twice as many Harvard faculty members with presidential-level appointments'' as during the Kennedy years, observed Derek Bok, Harvard president, in a recent interview in his quaint Colonial offices.

Mr. Bok came to office amid the turmoil of Vietnam, after three years as the youngest Harvard law dean in memory. A lawyer by training and an experienced labor mediator, he has a lack of pretense and a nuts-and-bolts air not uncommon on law faculties.

Bok spoke to a number of issues facing American higher education: the way student loans push graduates into high-paying jobs, even when they would prefer the path of service and lower pay, and the drift toward ``quantitative'' thinking in fields such as government, with a corresponding neglect of history and values.

To some critics, Bok has appeared the prototypical lawyer qua college president, one who reconciles opposing forces, a man more of process than of vision. He does tend to speak of ``chipping away'' at problems, and ``balance'' is one of his favorite words.

Yet Bok has become perhaps the most visible university president in America, his annual reports the source of regular ``Bok says . . .'' headlines in the nation's press. One year, he took the American legal profession to task for being long on litigation and short on justice. ``There is far too much law for those who can afford it, and far too little for those who cannot,'' he wrote. Bok has chastised business schools for ignoring ethics, and more recently warned the education community against a headlong rush to computers.

In conversation, he is very much the author of his annual reports: thorough and judicious, not given to sparkling turns of phrase -- but not one to duck an issue, either.

As the shantytown in Harvard Yard suggests, the university does not fit the stereotype of today's campus as a hotbed of self-seeking careerists.

``They make my own college career look pretty lazy by comparison,'' Bok says of today's students, noting that 50 percent of Harvard's undergraduates participate in ``significant'' community activity of some kind, according to one survey. He acknowledges, however, that the nationwide trend toward ``careerism'' does show up at Harvard in a marked increase in the proportion of students planning business careers, and a corresponding drop in those choosing teaching or kindred occupations.

Harvard tries to counter this trend by telling students about opportunities in public service, and through a program that prepares them for a teaching certificate. But rising tuition costs pose a deeper problem.

Harvard's enormous endowment insulates it to some degree. Two-thirds of the student body receives financial aid, and Harvard is one of the few colleges that admit students totally without reference to their ability to pay, Bok says. But even here, students often borrow heavily to make up the gap between a partial scholarship and the $16,000-plus cost of a year in Cambridge.

One answer is to change the student loan program to assist students who choose low-paying occupations. When he was dean of the law school, Bok says, he helped develop a program through which the school defers loan payments for graduates making less than $25,000 a year.

Bok says he thinks the federal student loan program should go a step further by defining eligibility not just according to a student's family income, but according to his or her career plans as well. Why, he asks, should taxpayers provide the same subsidy to a law student who will start at $65,000 on Wall Street as to a future public school teacher, who might start at one-third or less of that amount? ``We need to recognize that people going into affluent fields don't need to be subsidized,'' he says.

One of Bok's intellectual concerns is what he sees as a drift in academia toward ``quantitative'' thinking -- the clothing of thought in mathematics to give it an appearance of certainty -- with a corresponding neglect of questions of values. Economics is almost totally the domain of ``computer jocks,'' and even in fields such as government and philosophy, the journals show heavy doses of obscure algebra. The problem burst out of academia last year when Harvard denied tenure to Paul Starr, author of the much-acclaimed ``Social Transformation of American Medicine.'' According to university officials, Harvard denied tenure partly because it wanted someone of a more quantitative bent.

Bok supported that decision. But he worries about the quantitative bias nevertheless, especially at the Kennedy School of Government.

The Kennedy school has been a signal success of Bok's tenure -- a routine stop for presidential candidates, a training center for newly elected congressmen, and overall, one suspects, a noticeable revenue booster for the Washington-Boston shuttle. Critics have noted, however, a tendency at the school toward the kind of technocratic computer analysis that David Stockman once put to creative use. And Bok agrees.

History shows, he observes, that ``human affairs are infinitely more messy than these [computer] models and technical apparatus would have one believe. . . . Life is just not that simple.''

While students need to understand these models -- as much to appreciate ``their weaknesses and limitations as much as their strengths'' -- they also need to gain ``a sense of human values, the lessons of history, the best of the constitutional tradition -- those qualities and perspectives I think all of us would like our public servants to have.''

But history and values are more elusive than number crunching, and they don't have the macho aura of certainty -- much prized in academia -- that a computer printout suggests. Here, as elsewhere, Bok says ``balance'' is the key.

``This is a problem that works itself out in intellectual field after intellectual field,'' he says. ``But the aim is not to decide that one [school] of thought is the school of thought and then cast the department entirely in that image. Harvard has always resisted that. You can think of the Chicago School of Economics. But you don't think of the Harvard School of Economics.''

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