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Drew Gilpin Faust: Inaugural address as president of Harvard

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Ms. Faust, the new president of Harvard, is a Civil War historian by training.]

... A number of inaugural veterans – both orators and auditors – have proffered advice, including unanimous agreement that my talk must be shorter than Charles William Eliot’s – which ran to about an hour and a half. Often inaugural addresses contain lists – of a new president’s specific goals or programs. But lists seem too constraining when I think of what today should mean; they seem a way of limiting rather than unleashing our most ambitious imaginings, our profoundest commitments.

If this is a day to transcend the ordinary, if it is a rare moment when we gather not just as Harvard, but with a wider world of scholarship, teaching and learning, it is a time to reflect on what Harvard and institutions like it mean in this first decade of the 21st century.

Yet as I considered how to talk about higher education and the future, I found myself – historian that I am – returning to the past and, in particular, to a document I encountered in my first year of graduate school. My cousin Jack Gilpin, Class of ’73, read a section of it at Memorial Church this morning. As John Winthrop sat on board the ship Arbella in 1630, sailing across the Atlantic to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he wrote a charge to his band of settlers, a charter for their new beginnings. He offered what he considered “a compass to steer by” – a “model,” but not a set of explicit orders. Winthrop instead sought to focus his followers on the broader significance of their project, on the spirit in which they should undertake their shared work. I aim to offer such a “compass” today, one for us at Harvard, and one that I hope will have meaning for all of us who care about higher education, for we are inevitably, as Winthrop urged his settlers to be, “knitt together in this work as one.”

American higher education in 2007 is in a state of paradox – at once celebrated and assailed. A host of popular writings from the 1980s on have charged universities with teaching too little, costing too much, coddling professors and neglecting students, embracing an “illiberalism” that has silenced open debate. A PBS special in 2005 described a “sea of mediocrity” that “places this nation at risk.” A report issued by the U.S. Department of Education last year warned of the “obsolescence” of higher education as we know it and called for federal intervention in service of the national interest.

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....
Read entire article at Harvard University website

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