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The Worth of the University
By RICHARD C. LEVIN
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Yale University
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Stanford and Yale
When I arrived at Stanford's Wilbur Hall in the fall of 1964, little did I imagine that the day would provide material for a welcoming address to Yale College freshmen thirty-one years later. In this, as in so many ways, Stanford formed me for the life Jane and I have lived. We never left school; we just moved to a different one.
I have been privileged to test Stanford from many perspectives—as an alumnus, as a professional colleague of fellow economists, as a parent of two going on three students, as a parent of a young member of the faculty, and as the president of a rival institution. Stanford passes each test with banners waving overhead.
Yale and Stanford are so very different. Yale is a stronger community. Students live in the same residential college for four years, where responsible adults look after them and care about them. The average Yale undergraduate has a wider circle of acquaintances than her Stanford counterpart and joins more organizations. Alumni are more strongly invested in the place. Intellectual life is more intense, and the commitment to public and community service runs deeper.
But Stanford has its own virtues, just as distinctive and important. After 111 years, it clings to all that is best about the American West. The restless spirit of the frontier survives; the winds of freedom blow. Independence, innovation, and entrepreneurship are prized. Students are irreverent, open, and curious. For the student with a strong anchor, Stanford is an invitation to self-discovery. It was for me. It gave me a running start, and I have never looked back.
Eliot of Harvard
Several years ago, I was asked to deliver a midsummer lecture to a group of university presidents on the subject of leadership. Initially, I planned to draw lessons from the work of the greatest of my Yale predecessors, as well as several presidents with distinguished careers at other institutions. The more I read, the more convinced I became that one leader stands above all others in the history of American higher education. He, alas, was not a Yale man.
Charles Eliot served as the president of Harvard University for forty years, from 1869 until 1909. He was, almost certainly, the most influential university president of his time. I believe that it is fair to say that, cumulatively, the changes he wrought at Harvard had as significant and as enduring an impact on higher education in the United States as the accomplishments of any university president before or since. He became a national figure during the second half of his tenure as a spokesman for liberal individualism and an advocate of school reform. In retirement, he championed continuing adult education through his role in conceiving and editing the Harvard Classics, a multivolume series of the great works of Western civilization.
In the contemporary discussion of leadership—in general management and public life as well as in education—much is made of the importance of vision. We expect good leaders to have a vision, to state it clearly and frequently, and to take actions that advance toward its realization. In these respects, Eliot was truly extraordinary. From the very beginning, he articulated a clear and ambitious vision for transforming Harvard. His vision had three major components. First, he envisioned an undergraduate curriculum with more freedom to choose among a wider variety of elective courses. Second, he wanted to provide greater opportunity for future teachers and scholars to pursue advanced subjects beyond the bachelor's degree, and, third, he wanted to elevate to a higher standard Harvard's professional schools of law, medicine, and theology, and open them only to those who had already completed an undergraduate degree. His ultimate goals were ambitious, but he managed expectations so that gradual progress toward them was regarded as success. He restructured the presidency so that he could spend more time on his highest long-term priorities. He took risks, persevered in the face of initial failure, and understood when it was most advantageous to act on his own and when he needed to build support within the faculty. He selected strong leaders for supporting roles, and he aligned their incentives so that their personal triumphs were institutional triumphs. I will comment on each of these attributes of Eliot's leadership as I tell his story.
Among Eliot's accomplishments at Harvard, the best known was his transformation of the undergraduate curriculum from one that was largely a prescribed set of required courses to a completely unconstrained set of elective courses. In fairness, Eliot was neither the first champion of the elective system, nor was he the first to introduce elective courses at Harvard. But he took the idea to its logical and, indeed, ideological conclusion. In Eliot's view, the well-prepared student should be entirely free to shape his (Harvard educated only men in these years) own education. He railed against the defects of coercion, and supported instead the use of incentives to bring coherence to a potentially unstructured course of study. He seized upon the clever idea of awarding "honors" only to those graduating seniors who took a sufficient number of courses within a single discipline and earned sufficiently high marks. Thus, Harvard under Eliot was the first U.S. university to conceive of the undergraduate "concentration" (as it is still called today at Harvard) or "major" (as it is called elsewhere in the United States), although it did not actually require students to select a major subject.
When I claimed that Eliot took the elective system to its ideological conclusion, I meant this quite literally. He began with the assertion in his inaugural address that "the young man of nineteen or twenty ought to know what he likes best and is most fit for." We might think of this as an opinion rooted in developmental psychology, rather than political ideology. But later in his career, he began to see the elective system as yet another step in the gradual emancipation of man from tradition and tyranny. Grandiosely, he claimed the system of elective courses was "an outcome of the Protestant Reformation ... an outcome of the spirit of political liberty." He believed it was a natural extension of the freedoms that America granted its citizens in religion, political life, and economic activity. Few educators today would carry Eliot's logic quite so far. Most U.S. universities now offer an abundance of elective courses, but choice among them is typically constrained by requirements that students display some degree of breadth across different fields of study, as well as some degree of concentration on a major field.
Although Eliot's reforms of the undergraduate curriculum were regarded at the time as his primary contribution, I would like to emphasize instead a more enduring contribution, his leadership in transforming Harvard into a modern university. Although this took decades to accomplish in full, what is remarkable is that a vision of what was needed was clear to him upon assuming the presidency at age 35, and the most critical steps in the transformation were all taken in his first decade of service.
To understand what Eliot accomplished and how he accomplished it, one has to begin with a sketch of Harvard in 1869. Though a university in name, Harvard was then a small undergraduate college, enrolling about 150 students in each class, surrounded by a relatively young "scientific school" and three loosely affiliated professional schools of law, divinity, and medicine. The president had focused historically on the college, where he typically taught classes and preached sermons in the chapel. The Lawrence Scientific School commanded some presidential attention, since it had been founded only two decades earlier and frequently came into conflict over laboratory space and equipment with the older, more established, and wealthier college. But presidents before Eliot had paid little or no attention to the professional schools, which had very small, self-governing faculties and were mired in complacency. For example, the language describing the Law School's entry requirements and course of study had not been altered by one word in twenty years, and the School's annual reports, submitted to the president by its three faculty members, had contained the following sentence for ten consecutive years: "There have been no new arrangements in relation to the organization of the School or the course of study." Harvard's faculty was the most distinguished in the nation, but Yale had a better claim to being a national institution. Only 30 percent of Harvard's students came from outside New England, compared to more than 60 percent of Yale's.
To this parochial, college-centered institution, Eliot brought a transformative vision. Like others in his time, such as Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins, Eliot took inspiration from the superior training in research offered by German universities. But unlike Gilman, he did not seek to replicate the German model. Just months before he was offered the Harvard presidency, he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly magazine:
[A] university, in any worthy sense of the term, must grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England or Germany in full leaf and bearing.... When the American university appears, it will not be a copy of foreign institutions, or a hot-bed plant, but the slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits.... The American college is an institution without a parallel; the American university will be equally original.
Eliot was correct to say that the evolving American university would be original, but he erred in characterizing it as "a slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits." He made it happen faster than he himself imagined possible.
Eliot's vision of an American university involved three central elements: an undergraduate college devoted to general education without premature specialization, opportunity for those with an undergraduate education to pursue advanced study and research in the arts and sciences, and a set of professional schools such as law, medicine, and divinity for those who had already experienced the rigors of a broad and general undergraduate education. To get from the Harvard of 1869 to this ideal model of an American university required moving the institution in two different directions: toward the European model of graduate education in the arts and sciences, and away from the European model of early concentration on professional education.
Modern university presidents would recognize instantly what Eliot perceived as one of the greatest obstacles to the realization of his vision: the demands and expectations that, as president, he spend much of his time engaged in activities that contribute only minimally to the advancement of the institution. He tackled this problem courageously; he immediately freed himself from the president's traditional pedagogical and disciplinary obligations by creating the position of Dean of Harvard College. This gave him the time to preside, not simply at meetings of the College faculty, but at meetings of the faculties of all the schools. And meet they did. Eliot's biographer, Henry James (a nephew of the famous novelist), indicates that in his first year the faculty of the College met forty-five times, while the scientific school and the professional school faculties met forty-four times. Eliot often extended these meetings until eleven in the evening, encouraging free discussion and asking questions designed to explore the minds of his colleagues about changes that he was contemplating. Thus, he prepared the ground for reform, knowing that the faculty's support would be necessary for much that he hoped to accomplish.
Eliot also moved quickly to prepare the way for both an expansion and a greater integration of the schools into a single university. Employing a judicious mix of top-down authority and bottom-up persuasive talent, he acquired a significant quantity of adjacent land (a top-down initiative), and he persuaded the faculties to put all schools on a common academic calendar and, soon thereafter, to open all courses to any student in the university.
Let us now consider how Eliot managed the evolution of Harvard toward graduate education. He first articulated a very clear vision of what he hoped to accomplish. I hesitate to say this so bluntly, but what he wished to do was imitate Yale! He noted that the Lawrence Scientific School founded at Harvard in 1846 had been intended to permit advanced study beyond the bachelor's degree, but in fact the overwhelming majority of its students were simply pursuing bachelor's degrees in scientific subjects as an alternative to attending Harvard College. For the few graduates pursuing further study, there was no organized program or formal course of study. Yale, by contrast, had formalized postgraduate study by creating the Department of Philosophy and the Arts in 1847 to offer advanced instruction in philology, philosophy, and natural science. In 1869, Eliot wrote: "The history of the development of the Department of Philosophy and the Arts in Yale College is so full of instruction as to justify ... dwelling upon it at some length; it is at once an epitome of the past history of scientific instruction in this country, and a prophecy of its future."
In 1860, Yale became the first university in America to offer the Ph.D. degree—which was earned after two years of study by evidence of high attainment in two branches of learning. Only candidates with the bachelor's degree, or those who passed an equivalency examination, were eligible to undertake doctoral studies. By 1869, Yale had awarded thirteen students the Ph.D., causing Eliot to opine: "This legitimate success at Yale, on a really high level, if also on a modest scale, points the way to improvements which ought soon to be made at all the more important American 'universities,' which will then better deserve their ambitious title." I have yet to discover in the writings of any other Harvard president such generous praise of Yale.
There is a lesson in this, for Eliot's willingness to learn from the experience of others is another mark of his greatness. An outstanding leader should recognize and acknowledge the deficiencies of his institution and be willing to borrow and adapt superior practices employed by others.
Determined to create an organized course of advanced study, worthy of those who had already graduated from Harvard College, Eliot displayed in his first years two other attributes of a great leader: a willingness to experiment and perseverance in the face of failure. His predecessor, Thomas Hill, had instituted what were called University Lectures. These were short courses taught by scholars from both Harvard College and outside, and they chiefly provided an opportunity to expose graduates and undergraduates alike to advanced ideas, mostly in the sciences. Eliot decided to adapt this institution to his purposes. He invited the most distinguished intellectuals in Boston and New Haven to give two series of lectures—one philosophical and one literary. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, James Russell Lowell, and William Dean Howells were among the distinguished lecturers, who were compensated by charging those who enrolled $150 for each series, an amount equivalent to the prevailing annual tuition of Harvard College.
Eliot declared the lectures intended for advanced students, but open to the public, including women. This was a bold and risky experiment, but because the University Lectures were already in place and were not considered part of the curriculum of the college, or any of the other schools, Eliot was able to introduce his new scheme from the top down, without faculty approval.
There is another lesson in this; it is easier for a president to initiate new programs and even new schools than to modify existing ones, which would typically require faculty approval. Today, at least in America, only the most courageous president would attempt to reform an existing curriculum from the top down; curriculum reform is almost always the work of a faculty committee, which can be encouraged from the top but rarely directed. Thus, when I initiated a comprehensive review of the undergraduate curriculum at Yale in 2001, I put the task in the hands of a forty-two-member committee of faculty and students. I met with the committee several times and pointed them in what I considered the right direction, but they reached their own conclusions. By contrast, in areas previously uncharted by Yale—such as advanced education for mid-career professionals—I have been able to create entirely new programs strictly from the top down. The Yale World Fellows Program, which brings together emerging leaders from around the world for an intense period studying global issues, is a case in point.
Excerpted from The Worth of the University by RICHARD C. LEVIN. Copyright © 2013 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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