Raising Academia's Ethical Sights during His 20 Years at the Helm, Harvard University's President Has Emphasized Moral Issues

Article excerpt

ASK Harvard University president Derek Bok why he's retiring next spring after 20 years as head of the oldest and best-known university in the United States, and he responds with a deep and infectious laugh.

"If I stayed one more year," he says, relaxing on a sofa during a recent hour-long conversation in his office, "I would have had to the face the fact that there are people graduating from the college who would not even have been born when I started."

"I think you retire," he adds in a more serious vein, "when you begin to get a little feeling of repetition, and also when you have the feeling that, on principle, new blood and new creativity would be good for an institution."

Few of Mr. Bok's peers and colleagues would accuse him of standing in the way of creativity. Cornell University president Frank H.T. Rhodes, who has served on numerous committees with Bok, calls him "a model of what educational leadership is at its best" and praises his "thoughtful, balanced, perceptive, and constructive" assessment of the issues facing higher education. And Columbia University president Michael I. Sovern, who has described himself as "an unabashed admirer" of his Harvard counterpart, calls Bok "a principled leader who has exemplified the highest values in American education."

BOK'S two decades at Harvard, which began when the nation's campuses were still in turmoil over opposition to the Vietnam War, have not been without controversy. While raising the endowment from $1 billion to $5 billion, he has been criticized for not fully divesting the university's investments in South Africa. In 1989, he lost a hard-fought battle against the unionization of the university's clerical workers. And the John F. Kennedy School of Government - established under his leadership and now preeminent in public-service education - still disturbs some faculty members, who feel that its success has come at the expense of other, more scholarly fields.

But his most valuable legacy, according to educators contacted in recent weeks, lies in two areas: his pithy, widely read annual reports to the members of the Board of Overseers, which Prof. Robert Coles of Harvard calls "a brilliant series of appraisals of enormous significance," and his emphasis on moral issues.

Both these threads come together in his latest book, "Universities and the Future of America" (see review, Page 12). Like his annual reports, it focuses on a pressing issue: the failure of America's universities to respond to such social needs as economic competitiveness, poverty, and public education. And in keeping with his leadership in building an ethical component into the Harvard curriculum, it places a strong emphasis on what he calls "moral education."

In Bok's mind, these two threads are tightly intertwined. Answers to the nation's social problems, he explains, cannot be sought "only in developing the knowledge for policy solutions." Needed in addition is "a strengthening of individual virtues, ethical virtues, civic virtues on the part of individuals - especially the kinds of influential individuals who flow through our colleges and universities."

"If you just think about ideal solutions to the problem of poverty and crime and welfare and competitiveness, without worrying about the basic attitudes and dispositions of those individuals, you're probably going to fail," he says.

Bok, who freely attributes several of his ideas to his wife, ethicist and author Sissela Bok, agrees that it's hard to know "where ethics leaves off and civic virtue begins. One is a concern for the community, the nation, and one's sense of obligation to participate as a voter. The other is more personal - one's ethical obligations to others. But they are related. And there are a great many signs that should worry us a lot about their vitality in the country."

The university, in his view, provides an important forum for restoring that vitality, in part because college-age students are often "trying to experiment with various personas and trying to figure out what kind of a person they want to be. …