Harvard Ushers In New President

Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard University's incoming president, discusses his plans for helping the oldest college in the United States provide a liberal education best suited for the complex modern world

SINCE its founding in 1636, Harvard College has been at the forefront of American education.After World War II, under President Nathan Pusey, Harvard diversified its student body by recruiting bright minority and working-class youths from across the United States, edging away from the image of East Coast privilege of its past. In the 1970s and 1980s, under President Derek Bok, Harvard weathered the tests of student unrest, gender balance in enrollment and faculty, and the ebb and flow of government contracts and funding. Today, Harvard University will install Neil L. Rudenstine as its 26th president. Here the Monitor's editor, Richard J. Cattani, Harvard '58, interviews Mr. Rudenstine, Princeton '56 and Harvard PhD '64, about the changing course of higher education.

What does "a liberal education" mean today?

We have to help students to be much more adaptable intellectually - that is, we have to help them to think about the whole world in a way that's going to demand, over time, the capacity to deal with quite accelerated change in a complexity of systems. There's a capacity now to think about, learn about, and be impressed by what is happening all over the world, at any given moment - and to be able to get to any part of the world at any given moment almost instantaneously. Students have to think about what forces are in motion at what speed and velocity, and how to deal with them. Between now and 1945 or 1950, there's been a dramatic change. And it's going to keep on this way ...


... for a while, yes, because wherever you look every piece of the puzzle is moving. We have the capacity for much more complex instantaneous communication. Pretty soon we will have every conceivable thing wired in all together: telephones, video, fax. Already a scholar at Harvard can collaborate on a book or an article with somebody in Hungary or India, because of global computer systems and networks, in a way that even 10 years ago - let alone 20 or 30 years ago - would have been impossible. It's changing the nature of what we learn and how we learn it. It's changing the rhythm of life. And it means that people are going to have to be able to factor in, if you will, velocity and the capacity both to comprehend and to understand what to do with whole systems.

Economic systems, communications systems, government systems ... ?

All of the above. Take trade problems and international economic development. In this interlocked world, if you want to do something to an economy it's no longer bilateral or even a trilateral situation. If you look at Eastern and Central Europe, or the Soviet Union, or any number of other places, you're literally talking about how do we change a whole system. And the expectation that you can do it is also much greater. A liberal education is a set of habits instead of a frame of mind, a set of aptitudes, and a capacity to adapt in an intelligent way.

We used to talk about a "core curriculum" for a liberal education. Is it more "process" today?

We still have people doing natural science and the humanities and the social sciences. That's all part of the core; if anything, that part's been tightened up. There are, in some ways, more requirements. One thinks of them as areas where on the one hand you need to learn a great deal just to have some body of knowledge that you're in command of, so that you know where you came from and where you are. But as we teach those things now we put as much emphasis on how to go about doing it as on learning what it is.

Have the changes around the world the last year or two impacted the university?

Enormously. On everything. The faculty's lecture notes are totally outdated. Their sense of what's happening is out of date. The books that they've used as tried-and-true texts for a long time are still good books, but they're outdated. That means the faculty, and their students, feel the need to be out in the field. They can't teach their subject unless they know what's happening. Twenty years from now when we look back we will see that this space, from somewhere in the 1980s to somewhere around 2010, will have been a transforming period in terms of what people think of as knowledge.

Must you position Harvard for that transition?

We have to. Whether we think of it in terms of the library system or the computing system, or the rhythm of people's lives, and how we do our research.

You're attempting to reorganize the administration?

To some extent. Yes. We're trying to get more intercommunication, more collaboration, more coordination, among the university's schools and departments. The only way to do that is to try not to centralize the place, because that would be impossible. But to get some kind of a woven fabric, some kind of a matrix system, some kind of a more linked system than we now have. That's academically, because there are different topics, different fields right now that are being dealt with in different schools without a lot of coordination - say, in K-through-12 education, or environmental studies, or health-care issues, or international studies. These things are being discussed and studied and taught in the Kennedy School [of Government], in Arts and Sciences, in the School of Education, in the Business School, depending on what the issue is. And meanwhile, there isn't any central coordinating agency to get the people to sit down and say, well, you're doing this, that, and that. If we put it all together, is there a Harvard program in K-through-12 education, or do we just have bits and pieces out here with different schools doing what they can? And would we have something stronger and more effective if there were a Harvard program? Not to make a new department or a new school, but to have a regular way in which these people intercommunicated.

Is there still a place for individual genius on a campus preoccupied with systems?

There's a place for genius. But it's harder to identify, isn't it? If you think now, how many people would you say are known internationally because they are "geniuses"? It would be interesting to try to name them; 40 or 50 years ago you probably could have picked out a few. Einstein. Or in the arts, T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost were cultural, international heroes. It's not clear to me that would be the case now.

As an English professor as well as president, will you teach?

I'm going to try. At the moment my schedule is such, pretty much from whatever it is in the morning before breakfast until 10 or 11 at night - six and seven days a week - that I'm not sure whether teaching, at least any good teaching, would fit in. There's no question I enjoy it.

You are holding off Harvard's big new fund-raising program a year or so?

First of all, you don't just go ask for money. You take a building-block approach. You start out figuring out what you need, and whether you really need it. And as each of those things is tested, you see how much it costs, and then you build up. Then you find out what it is you have to raise. So I'm looking for some university-wide themes. Should we, for instance, be investing more in K-through-12 education, in terms of the professional schools, the training of people, and research?

What is the economic climate ahead for Harvard and the nation?

We will continue in the same situation we've been in since about 1969 or '70, i.e., an era of relatively scarce resources, except for the moment between 1982 and 1987. That means relatively scarcer resources for everybody, including universities. It means more thought being given to how we manage what we have. And it means a greater and progressive squeeze on a lot of things. It's one reason, for instance, why university costs are as high as they are.

Greater coordination ...

No question.

... not more money ...


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