The State of Harvard

"The State of Harvard," review article in The Public Interest, No. 101 (Fall 1990), pp. 113-123.


HARVARD is either the best American university or close to it, and according to Henry Rosovsky, two-thirds of the world’s best universities are American. Rosovsky was dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard from 1973 to 1984, and his deeds of fiscal, administrative, and curricular reform were so widely admired that the presidency of Yale was reportedly, and of course unsuccessfully, dangled before his eyes. At Harvard he was both loved and feared in a way to make one doubt Machiavelli’s maxim that a prince must choose to be one or the other. After leaving the deanship he was made a fellow of the Harvard Corporation, a signal honor.

This combination of bests spells authority, and Rosovsky has written a book, The University: An Owner’s Manual, that is the most authoritative answer to recent critics of American higher education such as William Bennett, Allan Bloom, Lynne Cheney, and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. The book is authoritative in the best way, too–calm, reasonable, approachable, and firm while written in a most engaging style that takes the edge off its refutations, leaving the weight. But it does not convey the main truth about American universities today.

If I take issue with the dean, it is with reluctance, not to say trepidation. I am a tenured Harvard professor, who as department chairman had a minor share in his administration. Like him, I love Harvard wisely and not too well: just a little more than it deserves. So I am going to make use of my tenure to criticize his book, and while I am at it, I will take a swipe at a recent pronouncement by Harvard’s president, Derek Bok.

Rosovsky’s book is a “must read” for all who want to know how American universities are run, but it is particularly useful to political scientists and to professors of all kinds. To political scientists he reveals a self-conscious political sense somehow given or acquired without the aid of political science. To professors he shows how they look to someone who is obliged to govern them. Rosovsky, an economist by profession, says that one of his advantages as dean was his appreciation of the economic concept of “trade-offs.” The real┬áchoices are not to have or have not, but to have more or less. A passionate difference in principle that seems unbridgeable can in fact be accommodated with a cool analysis that makes both sides happy, or satisfied, or “satisficed,” with less. But unlike most economists Rosovsky understands that the desire to be passionate must also be included in the accommodation, so that as many as possible can feel that they have won. The trade-off analysis that convinces the economist will infuriate the partisan to whom it seems like superior indifference. The solution, therefore, is not to teach everyone economics but to practice vagueness.

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