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Big Man on Campus

Larry Summers is bucking the faculty and trying to remake undergraduate education at Harvard.

12:00 AM, Jun 12, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered the address at Harvard University's commencement ceremonies. This year Ernesto Zedillo, past President of Mexico, provided the featured address at Harvard's 352nd commencement. Except he didn't.

Zedillo did indeed deliver a speech: a workmanlike defense of international institutions, including, of course, the United Nations. President Zedillo, of consequence primarily because he was not corrupt and was relatively more committed to democracy than his predecessors, felt free to lecture a smallish crowd on the dangers of something he called aggressive unilateralism. Others might call this the closing of children's' prisons and the uncovering of war crimes, but Zedillo was there to upbraid the Bush administration--though his speech, like his presidency, will be remembered, if at all, only for its having ended without much noise.

The buzz was that Zedillo was a late fill-in for a suddenly unavailable Tony Blair (persuasive to a Harvard crowd scratching its head in disbelief that a former president of Mexico was the best they could do), but it is possible that Harvard's new president, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, had purposefully tanked the main event in order to up the attention paid the undercard--Summers's own speech, only the second commencement day address he has given in office.

The audience of new graduates, parents, and reunion goers, may have been befuddled by Summers lengthy remarks, but the faculty were paying attention. With this speech, Summers has left no doubt as to his intention to shake up the Crimson community. Harvard's deans are disappearing faster than Iraq's WMD as Summers has pursued regime change on the Charles (and the way is being paved for the physical transfer of the law school from its historic digs to new land acquired on the far side of the river). Indeed, Summers has launched a review of undergraduate education itself at Harvard.

EVEN CASUAL OBSERVERS of elite academia know of the thorough-going decay within its ranks, with its attachment to absurd theories and rejection of anything like a traditional core curriculum. For a quarter century, undergraduates have been fed a diet based on intellectual junk food that will eventually cripple the eater. The faculties of elite institutions have become less and less important in circles with any claim to influence. The hard sciences continue to be hard and continue to thrive, but the rot in the departments associated with cultural and political leadership is hard to disguise.

Summers skipped over this debate entirely, an encouraging sign that he will not waste years arguing over whether the parrot is dead. But how to conduct the crafting of a new policy on undergraduate education?

I suspect the key was in Summers's most interesting anecdote. For years, a course titled Fine Arts 13 was available to Harvard undergrads as a survey course and introduction to the world of art and history. It is no longer offered and Summers lamented not only its passing, but also the objections he anticipates to the resurrection of such a course: Faculty won't want to teach it. He did not provide detail as to why they wouldn't but he did mention that one of the university's leading art historians had reacted to the idea of a return of Fine Arts 13 with a "mixture of consternation and hilarity."

Just the hint of a revival of art history in a survey setting is enough to get the pulse racing because it suggests that undergrads might once more have to actually immense themselves in human history and human excellence to graduate.

The downside is that Summers mentioned not only resistance from entrenched faculty, but also a process ahead that sounded like committeesledbydeansandconsultingbroadly. That's a recipe for killing reform in the cradle. An advisory committee made up of preeminent faculty, public intellectuals, leaders of industry and philanthropy, and genuine creative geniuses would be a fine idea, but not an inside-baseball, department-politics-ridden exercise in budgeting by other means. A blue-ribbon panel which Summers personally selected and chaired and which worked from individual experience, not staff-generated reports, could shake higher education to its foundation if it set out to design a model for the core curriculum for a new millennium.