Commentary Magazine

As Goes Harvard. . .

Harvard University has been much in the public eye in recent years, especially during the brief but eventful presidency (2001-2006) of Lawrence Summers. Two well-known law professors were accused of misusing the words of others in books they had written, and a famous professor of economics was charged by the U.S. government with fraud while working on a Harvard project. In the first case, a university committee decided that the acts fell short of plagiarism but amounted to a scholarly transgression, and the professors were compelled to apologize. In the second, the university took no action against the professor involved, but the government won its case and Harvard had to repay $26.5 million.

More famous than either of these incidents were those involving Summers himself. In one, he tried to encourage a well-known member of the Harvard faculty to channel his energies from rap music and stumping for presidential candidates into more scholarly activities; outraged, the professor left for another citadel of learning. No less newsworthy was Summers's raising of the painful issue of anti-Semitism on college campuses, including Harvard itself. A couple of years later, in a luncheon speech, he indulged in some analytical musings on why so few females have become outstanding scientists. For daring to address this last issue in particular, he stirred up a wasp's nest of feminist fury, to which he responded first with futile attempts to explain himself and then with a failed effort to buy off his attackers. Thanks to these and other perceived transgressions of the unspoken code of presidential conduct, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences hit him in March 2005 with a vote of no-confidence, and not long afterward he was forced to announce his resignation.

Professorial wrongdoing, presidential bungling, pitched battles in the culture wars, faculty rebellion at the nation's oldest and most famous university—all these overshadowed what may well have been the most important educational issue broached during the Summers years and, perhaps, the real reason for faculty disgruntlement. This was the president's attempt to revise the undergraduate curriculum.

The effort started with a bang. Early in his tenure Summers called for “the most comprehensive review of Harvard's curriculum in a century.” The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, rising to the challenge, promised a fully satisfactory answer to the question: “What will it mean to be an educated woman or man in the first quarter of the 21st century?” But after three years of work by a faculty committee, the chief author of its report admitted that it lacked any special direction, while a student critic lambasted it as “60 pages of stunningly bland and half-baked recommendations that straddle the line between unspecific and impossible.”

The dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis, would seem to have agreed with this assessment. In a recently published book on the decline of Harvard, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,
1 he cites the excuse offered by one member of the faculty committee: “the committee thought the best thing was to put a row of empty bottles up and see how the faculty wanted to fill them.” Lewis responds, acidly:

The empty bottles could be filled with anything so long as the right department was offering it. . . . But there is absolutely nothing that Harvard can expect students will know after they take three science or three humanities courses freely chosen from across the entire course catalog. The proposed general-education requirement gives up entirely on the idea of shared knowledge, shared values, even shared aspirations. In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes, or Shakespeare.


Does it matter that Harvard's curriculum is a vacant vessel? It is no secret, after all, that to the Harvard faculty, undergraduate education is at best of secondary interest. What is laughingly called the Core Curriculum—precisely what Summers sought to repair—is distinguished by the absence of any core of studies generally required. In practice, moreover, a significant number of the courses in Harvard College are taught by graduate students, not as assistants to professors but in full control of the content. Although they are called “tutors,” evoking an image of learned Oxbridge dons passing on their wisdom one-on-one, what they are is a collection of inexperienced leaders of discussion or pseudo-discussion groups. The overwhelming majority of these young men and women, to whom is entrusted a good chunk of a typical undergraduate's education, will never be considered good enough to belong to Harvard's regular faculty.

But this does matter, and the reason is that how Harvard deals with its undergraduates is of great importance to other colleges. Harvard's antiquity, the high quality of its faculty and student body, its wealth, and its prestige have made it a model to be watched and emulated. When Harvard adopted a program of “General Education” after World War II—the forerunner of today's debased Core Curriculum—it changed the character of undergraduate education throughout the country.

So it is intriguing and instructive that Harvard's former dean should be castigating the curriculum produced by the Harvard faculty—a curriculum that, he believes, exposes Harvard as “a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection with its principal constituents.” And it is equally intriguing that Derek C. Bok, a former and now again, in the wake of Summers's departure, the current president of Harvard, should have released his own troubled look at the same subject.

Since his first Harvard presidency (1971-1991), Bok has been a kind of self-appointed national troubleshooter, identifying and suggesting solutions for problems social (The State of the Nation), political (The Trouble with Government), and educational (The Shape of the River, written with William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and Universities in the Marketplace). Now, in Our Underachieving Colleges, Bok acts as both diagnostician and healer, wielding social-science statistics and professional studies to trace the etiology of today's illnesses and to recommend palliative treatments for what he has discovered. In his analyses he is inveterately as polite, restrained, and solicitous as he is gentle and tentative in his proposed treatments. If he betrays moments of truculence, it is only in responding to critics who, unlike him, find the patient to be very sick indeed, or who hold the patient to blame for his own plight, or who recommend painful and intrusive remedies.

Such naysayers, among whom Bok names the late Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, (1987) have no end of complaints:

As they see it, discourse on campus is seriously inhibited by the orthodoxies of political correctness. Affirmative action has undermined the integrity of faculty hiring. The great canonical masterpieces have been downgraded to make room for lesser works whose principal virtue seems to be that they were authored by women, African Americans, or third-world writers. The very ideals of truth and objectivity, along with conventional judgments of quality, are thought to be endangered by attacks from deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists, and other literary theorists who deny that such goals are even possible.

These would seem to be serious concerns indeed. But they do not worry Bok. In the first place, he writes, the critics are one-sided polemicists who in general see “little that is positive about the work of universities or the professors who teach there.” For another thing, if the critics' indictments were “anywhere close to correct, prospective students and their families would be up in arms. . . . [and] students would hardly be applying in such large and growing numbers.” Not only is this not the case but, according to surveys, the great majority of recent graduates say they are satisfied with their college experience. Parents, too, do not complain, and alumni demonstrate their contentment by giving increasing gifts to their alma mater.


So if everybody is happy, why the need for this book? As it turns out, the need is great. Even though Bok has scant interest in the issues that preoccupy the most perceptive of the critics—a politicized faculty, threats to freedom of expression, the absence or the actual suppression of a balanced exchange of ideas—when it comes to “how much students are learning,” and “what is actually being accomplished in college classrooms,” he too sees trouble, and plenty of it, in the beautiful groves of academe:

Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy. And those are only some of the problems.

It seems, in short, that our colleges are “underachieving” after all—and that even their supposedly happy clients know it. Fewer than half of recent graduates, according to Bok's ever-ready statistics, think they have made significant progress in learning to write, and some think they have actually regressed. Employers confirm this self-assessment, complaining that the college graduates they hire are inarticulate. As for critical thinking, “The vast majority of graduating students are still naïve relativists who ‘do not show the ability to defensibly critique their own judgments' in analyzing the kinds of unstructured problems commonly encountered in real life.” In the area of foreign languages, fewer than 10 percent of seniors believe they have substantially improved their skills and fewer than 15 percent have progressed to advanced classes. Nor are the results any better in general education, the great battleground of the critics. According to one study, only about a third of seniors report gains in the understanding or the enjoyment of literature, art, music, or theater. Bok goes so far as to quote Daniel Bell's judgment of the typical curriculum as “a vast smorgasbord” amounting to “an admission of intellectual defeat.”

Beyond the measurable shortcomings in the intellects of college graduates are deficiencies of character. According to Bok's findings, recent graduates lack self-discipline. Employers complain that they are habitually tardy, lazy, and unable either to listen carefully or to carry out instructions. Bok blames this, too, on their undergraduate experience: grade inflation has undermined standards and professorial laxity has encouraged negligence. “If undergraduates can receive high marks for sloppy work, routinely get extensions for assignments not completed on time, and escape being penalized for minor misconduct, it is hardly a surprise that employers find them lacking in self-discipline.”


The picture drawn by Bok is an astonishingly dark one. What, then, to do? One obvious answer, pressed by many critics of the current campus scene, is to readjust the arrangement that has allowed faculty members to devote more and more time to their research and less and less time to teaching.

When I went to college a half-century ago, my professors taught five courses a semester and met classes for fifteen hours a week. At Penn State, where I began my own career, I taught four courses. When I moved to Cornell in 1960, it was down to three. At Yale we teach two courses a semester, and in the hard sciences only one. The top universities today offer at least one semester off for every seven semesters taught; in my day, it was a semester every seven years. In sum, today's college faculty meet no more than half as many classes as their predecessors a half-century ago.

Bok, however, has a different view. The problem, he insists, is not how teachers fill their time but their reluctance or refusal to assess what students are actually learning, or to examine their own performance with an eye to improvement. What this calls for, he writes, is a program of reform “quite unlike the ones advanced by either the well-known critics of the universities” or the faculty committees that have plainly not been doing their job. With the aid of empirical research, Bok asserts, professors will learn how to achieve better results.

He gamely offers a number of suggestions. At the prodding of their presidents, for example, colleges could undertake continuing “evaluation, experimentation, and reform.” They could offer professors seed money and released time for trying new and better ways to teach. They could hire better-qualified, full-time instructors instead of the graduate students and academic gypsies who currently teach subjects disdained by the regular faculty (like writing and foreign languages). From the other side, student evaluations could be made more probing. Ph.D. programs could be made to include better preparation for teaching. And so forth.

But would any of this work? Bok himself tacitly admits that the prospect is unlikely. In the end, he writes, it is the “lack of compelling pressures to improve undergraduate education” that helps explain professors' “casual treatment” of the purposes of undergraduate education, “their neglect of basic courses that develop important skills, their reluctance even to discuss issues of pedagogy, their ignorance of research on student learning, and their unwillingness to pay attention to much of what goes on outside the classroom.” He illustrates the underlying problem with an anecdote from one university where an official slipped a new question into the standard form used by students in general-education classes to evaluate their teachers. The new question asked how much the course had improved the student's skill in thinking critically and analyzing problems. Fewer than 10 percent reported a significant improvement. Bok comments:

With such a huge majority indicating that the general-education curriculum was failing to achieve its principal objective, one would have thought that the faculty and administration would rouse themselves to review the problem thoroughly. . . . Instead the troublesome question was dropped from the evaluation forms and did not appear again.

But Bok declines to see where this evidence leads. To be sure, he concedes in his best we're-all-gentlemen-here tone, reformist presidents and deans are likely to meet resistance and even “rebuffs” from their faculty. But “most professors are thoughtful, conscientious people. They will not defend an untenable position indefinitely once the issue has been raised.” In fact, however, what this book convincingly shows is that most faculties lack precisely that requisite sense of professional responsibility, and are instead the major obstacle to improvement. If it were otherwise, the problems Bok identifies would not exist.

It is not as if he is unaware of the real issue, which is much more insidious than his descriptions imply. “The weaknesses of undergraduate education may be real,” he writes at one point, “but they serve important faculty interests” (emphasis added). Just so. What he is getting at are the simple realities of power on college campuses over the last three or four decades. You might think that presidents, provosts, deans, or trustees, with a broader view of the purposes of the institution, could see to it that the faculty became more cooperative. But Bok makes it clear that administrations are largely powerless in this respect, and so are boards. “Ultimate power over instruction and curriculum rests with the faculty,” with administrators and trustees paralyzed by “fear of arousing opposition from the faculty that could attract unfavorable publicity, worry potential donors, and even threaten their jobs.” Nor should we expect many college presidents or deans to take up the good fight. I am not aware that Bok himself ever attempted so daring an effort in the twenty years of his presidency—which may explain why he enjoyed so peaceful a time.

Inaction in the face of declining educational quality is thus guaranteed. There is no upside to reform initiatives, since “success in increasing student learning is seldom rewarded.” There is only a downside: the surest way for a president to get himself fired is to cross the faculty. If nothing else, recent events at Harvard should have driven that lesson home.


Both Harry Lewis and Derek Bok have entered a devastating judgment on contemporary university leadership—more devastating, and more self-incriminating, than they appear to know. For all their hand-wringing, and for all their veiled criticism of faculty committees and even of professors as a class, neither of these seasoned administrators is prepared to level a direct indictment of the real rulers of colleges and universities today. In this sense, they remain servants of the system whose results they ostentatiously deplore.

Lewis, in fact, is bitterly critical of Lawrence Summers, who as president of Harvard at least tried to shake things loose. By contrast, he is greatly admiring both of Bok and of Bok's successor Neil Rudenstine, during whose soothing tenure little occurred to ruffle faculty feathers even as the shortcomings chronicled by Lewis were growing inexorably in number and intensity.

This is not a battle over the control of academic turf. The turf itself is at stake. The twin purposes of a university are the transmission of learning and the free cultivation of ideas. Both are entrusted to the faculty, and both have been traduced at its hands. An imperial faculty that responds to well-founded complaints about the curriculum by, in Lewis's words, “relaxing requirements so that students can do what they want to do,” thus leaving professors free to teach only what (and when) they feel like teaching and—though Lewis does not mention this—to select as colleagues only those who share their narrow political perspective, is no longer serving the purposes of higher education. It has instead become an agent of their degradation.

As things stand now, no president appears capable of taming the imperial faculty; almost none is willing to try; and no one else from inside the world of the universities or infected by its self-serving culture is likely to stand up and say “enough,” or to be followed by anyone if he does. Salvation, if it is to come at all, will have to come from without.



1 Public Affairs, 305 pp., $26.00.

2 Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton University Press, 424 pp., $29.95.


About the Author

Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale, is the author of Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, and, most recently, The Peloponnesian War (2003), drawn from his earlier four-volume history of that conflict. Mr. Kagan served as dean of Yale College from 1989 to 1992.