Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Derek's Bok's Book Harvard President Calls for Universities to Address National Needs

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Derek's Bok's Book Harvard President Calls for Universities to Address National Needs

Article excerpt

UNIVERSITIES AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA. By Derek Bok, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 135 pp., $14.95

ASSESSMENTS of Derek Bok's presidency at Harvard usually mention his steady leadership; his success in building the endowment; and the implementation of the widely praised core curriculum. Often overlooked are the contributions he has made to American higher education through his extensive writings.

Every year, Harvard's annual report has included a long essay by Bok addressing a major issue facing Harvard and, by extension, most other colleges and universities. He has also written two books - "Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University" and "Higher Learning" - that address the condition of higher education in more general terms. His most recent book, "Universities and the Future of America," examines the role of universities in helping the nation improve its economic competitiveness and address its social problems.

Given the unparalleled excellence of US research universities, and the importance of these institutions in post-industrial societies, one would reasonably expect that America would be economically dominant and socially unsurpassed. But this is not the case. In Bok's words, " ... we lead most industrial democracies in ignorance and in many of the pathologies of modern civilization while lagging behind in the rate of economic progress."

Bok asks whether universities are doing all they can to help improve national economic growth and social progress. He concludes that they are not. He writes: "Again and again, universities have put a low priority on the very programs and initiatives that are needed most to increase productivity and competitiveness, improve the quality of government, and overcome the problems of illiteracy, miseducation, and unemployment."

In explaining why universities behave this way, Bok argues that they are too responsive to the outside world. They do what their constituencies want and are willing to support, which is not necessarily what the nation always needs. This is not a common view - universities are generally regarded as isolated ivory towers - but Bok makes a good case. For example, investment banking and management consulting were the "hot" business school specialties in the 1980s. The nation needed more emphasis on manufacturing processes and human relations, but these areas did not attract students, talented faculty, or outside funding. …

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