Saturday, November 3, 2007

Ambitious Imaginings
Inaugural Address of Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard Presdent

Mr. B., foolishly perhaps, thinks that the writings of a president are a good indication of the job that person is likely to do. Thus it was a pleasure to read the inaugural remarks of Dr. Faust. Most of her remarks are applicable not only to Harvard but to other great universities in the US, especially the University of Minnesota.

opinion piece by OurProvost ["Universities as places and spaces of imagination"] recently appeared in the Minnesota Daily. The contrast between the two pieces is striking.

Excerpts from Dr. Faust's address are quoted below, the whole address may be found at the link:

Unleashing our most ambitious imaginings

President Drew Faust

Yet universities like Harvard and its peers, those represented by so many of you here today, are beloved by alumni who donate billions of dollars each year, are sought after by students who struggle to win admission, and, in fact, are deeply revered by the American public. In a recent survey, 93 percent of respondents considered our universities “one of [the country’s] most valuable resources.” Abroad, our universities are admired and emulated; they are arguably the American institution most respected by the rest of the world.

How do we explain these contradictions? Is American higher education in crisis, and if so, what kind? What should we as its leaders and representatives be doing about it? This ambivalence, this curious love-hate relationship, derives in no small part from our almost unbounded expectations of our colleges and universities, expectations that are at once intensely felt and poorly understood.

From the time of its founding, the United States has tied its national identity to the power of education. We have long turned to education to prepare our citizens for the political equality fundamental to our national self-definition. In 1779, for example, Thomas Jefferson called for a national aristocracy of talent, chosen “without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition of circumstance” and “rendered by liberal education ... able to guard the sacred deposit of rights and liberties of their fellow-citizens.” As our economy has become more complex, more tied to specialized knowledge, education has become more crucial to social and economic mobility. W.E.B. DuBois observed in 1903 that “Education and work are the levers to lift up a people.” Education makes the promise of America possible.

My presence here today – and indeed that of many others on this platform – would have been unimaginable even a few short years ago. Those who charge that universities are unable to change should take note of this transformation, of how different we are from universities even of the mid 20th century. And those who long for a lost golden age of higher education should think about the very limited population that alleged utopia actually served. College used to be restricted to a tiny elite; now it serves the many, not just the few. The proportion of the college age population enrolled in higher education today is four times what it was in 1950; twelve times what it was before the 1920s. Ours is a different and a far better world.

At institutions like Harvard and its peers, this revolution has been built on the notion that access should be based, as Jefferson urged, on talent, not circumstance. In the late 1960s, Harvard began sustained efforts to identify and attract outstanding minority students; in the 1970s, it gradually removed quotas limiting women to a quarter of the entering college class. Recently, Harvard has worked hard to send the message that the college welcomes families from across the economic spectrum. As a result we have seen in the past 3 years a 33 percent increase in students from families with incomes under $60,000. Harvard’s dorms and Houses are the most diverse environments in which many of our students will ever live.

Let me venture a definition. The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future.

By their nature, universities nurture a culture of restlessness and even unruliness. This lies at the heart of their accountability to the future. Education, research, teaching are always about change – transforming individuals as they learn, transforming the world as our inquiries alter our understanding of it, transforming societies as we see our knowledge translated into policies – policies like those being developed at Harvard to prevent unfair lending practices, or to increase affordable housing or avert nuclear proliferation – or translated into therapies, like those our researchers have designed to treat macular degeneration or to combat anthrax.

We live in the midst of scientific developments as dramatic as those of any era since the 17th century. Our obligation to the future demands that we take our place at the forefront of these transformations.

Universities are, uniquely, a place of philosophers as well as scientists. It is urgent that we pose the questions of ethics and meaning that will enable us to confront the human, the social and the moral significance of our changing relationship with the natural world.

Higher education is burgeoning around the globe in forms that are at once like and unlike our own. American universities are widely emulated, but our imitators often display limited appreciation for the principles of free inquiry and the culture of creative unruliness that defines us.

The “Veritas” in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we – and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry – challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.

We are able to live at Harvard in a world of intellectual freedom, of inspiring tradition, of extraordinary resources, because we are part of that curious and venerable organization known as a university.

It is not easy to convince a nation or a world to respect, much less support, institutions committed to challenging society’s fundamental assumptions. But it is our obligation to make that case: both to explain our purposes and achieve them so well that these precious institutions survive and prosper in this new century.

Sounds like Harvard is in good hands. Live long and prosper, President Faust.

Ciao, Bonzo

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