Monday, March 12, 2 p.m. ET

Books -- 'Excellence Without a Soul'

Harry Lewis
Author, Harvard Professor
Monday, March 12, 2007; 2:00 PM

In an excerpt  from his book, "Excellence Without a Soul," Harvard professor Harry Lewis writes: "The great universities are respected and certainly prized in America, but the public regards with increasing skepticism the values they represent and their failure sometimes to represent any values at all. As their cost zooms towards $50,000 per year and their intellectual content becomes more estranged from anything comprehensible to ordinary citizens, they will be regarded as sources of economic security for their graduates but not of intellectual or personal inspiration."

Lewis was online Monday, March 12 at 2 p.m. to discuss whether or not America's top universities have put the professional success of their students ahead of instilling values and a responsibility for society.

A transcript follows.

Lewis is a professor of computer science at Harvard College and has been on the Harvard faculty for 32 years. He was Dean of Harvard College between 1995 and 2003 and chaired the College's student disciplinary and athletic policy committees.

Harrisburg, Pa.: How did universities used to install values that they no longer are doing?

Harry Lewis: Universities used to find it more natural to talk about civic responsibility, and about the moral obligations democracy imposes on its citizens. That spirit infused the post-WWII curriculum at Harvard and a lot of other places. At a less grandiose level, it used to be easier than it now is to tell students when they had done something wrong and to punish them for it. Now we tend to operate within quasi-legal disciplinary systems, with narrowly prescribed rules of conduct for students and procedure for the disciplinary system, and there is less freedom on the part of administrators to make judgments. A third point in response to your question is that places that still have religious affiliations are less hesitant to espouse values than purely secular institutions are --- though I have been invited to speak at a number of religiously affiliated institutions about my book, because they realize they are becoming more secular in both their students and their faculty, and are trying to figure out how to hang on to their sense of moral mission in spite of those changes.

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Lansing, Mich.: One quaint practice in higher education I'd like your views on is that of universities defraying, at least in part, the tuition of faculty children. Why should I support through my tuition dollars the cost of a well-paid professor's son or daughter? Can you tell us how this is done at Harvard (i.e., is it a full ride if the child attends Harvard and some equivalent amount for attending another institution)?

Harry Lewis: Not the practice at Harvard (and I have had the privilege of paying Harvard a lot of money as a result!). Where it is the practice, I suppose the argument goes that lot of businesses provide what is essentially extra compensation by giving in-kind things they produce that other people would have to pay for. Among the problems with the practice you describe is that it can be a windfall for people who have children that is not available to people who don't, so is discriminatory in a way that doesn't make any sense I can see.

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Bethesda, Md.: To what extent do you believe that problems and rising costs in higher education stem from faculty tenure? To many people, the guarantee of a job for life for the happy few who receive it reinforces the concept of the ivory tower.

Harry Lewis: I am a big fan of tenure, as if I did not have it, I doubt I could have expressed the views I express in my book and still have a job today! A lot of nontenured folks lost their jobs under the last Harvard administration. I actually don't think tenure has much to do with the costs of higher education. Tenure is unrelated to how much you actually pay people; if someone was drastically underperforming, you could freeze or even cut their salary, even if they had tenure.

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Geneva, N.Y.: Dr Lewis:

My daughter, who is a freshman at Dartmouth, jokingly tells me the favorite major there is "pre-wealth" (not her, thankfully!)...yet there is also a strong commitment to service and outreach. Can these two trends coexist among colleges that describe themselves as among the elite?

Harry Lewis: Great question. Yes, the two spirits can exist simultaneously, because universities are not top-down places, where everyone must sing the same tune. But what the leadership says, and implies, and how the leaders act remains important. Those things send signals which students do hear. It would be great, for example, for a dean or a president, observing exactly what your daughter observes, to talk about it, and analyze it morally, and express some institutional ambition, for example, that those who are fortunate enough to become wealthy because of the privileged education they have received, have a moral obligation to see that others get the same opportunity, or in some other way to turn some of their successes back to the benefit of society.

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Denver: Do you believe that this characteristic in colleges/universities is a reflection of our society's apparent preference for success over all else? What is there in our society that prizes "soul" or ethics?

Harry Lewis: A very fair point. I talk a lot about the consumerism and soullessness of higher education, but you are correct that these merely reflect trends in society. But that is not the end of the story. Universities used to be considered among the institutions that stood for the best in society, not the average. They were supposed to be inspiring, in the way no one thinks of a TV station or even a political party as something that is supposed to inspire. As universities have acted more and more like businesses, they have lost some of the old spirit that they were dedicated to the service of society, and should reflect the best of the human spirit, not whatever happened to be going down at the moment. -- Good schools still have "soul," and good families. I wonder what others think about your last question.

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Philadelphia: Is excellence a criteria for these hoary institutions? Judging by the products, I perceive many gentlemen's "Cs" for notable sons of donors who betray even a high school sophomoric level of education. Have you ever been pressured, subtly or otherwise, to provide a passing grade to a uneducable dolt?

Harry Lewis: I have never been pressured to give any student a good grade (or a bad one either) by anyone except the student or the student's parents. I suspect I am better off at Harvard in that regard than are faculty at some other schools.

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Fairfax, Va.: One of the arguments in favor of tuition benefits for faculty children is that they can help to offset low faculty salaries, which are much lower than what the same qualifications would bring outside academe.

Harry Lewis: Absolutely true; I just think benefits that do not favor people with families are fairer. That is an arguable point, however, and one on which my feelings are not all that strong.

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NYC: If university presidents are hired primarily to be fundraisers, with academic leadership taking a distant second at best, how can one expect academe to be a pillar of values?

Harry Lewis: Well, that is a big hypothesis. Fundraising is important to be sure, and very likely the primary criterion in some places, but it would be overbroad to say it is everywhere the primary criterion. And even if it were, being a good fundraiser is not incompatible with being a good person. In fact, big donors are usually not stupid, and they don't like doing business with people who seem sleazy to them. But I think the interesting angle on your question is: what do the governing boards who hire presidents think the job really is? What are they looking for? Even when it is not fundraising per se, I think too often it is probably the capacity to bring fame and fortune to the institution in one way or another --- that is, they may think it more an external relations job than an internal relations job, including education.

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D.C.: A fundamental question I have about instilling values in higher education is: whose values are you talking about? Those with the loudest voices, the most money, best publication record?

Harry Lewis: Fair point. Someone told me that neither liberals nor conservatives liked my plea here, because the liberals think the values would be the Ten Commandments, and the conservatives think the values would be those of the liberals who are over-represented on university faculties! But there are some values that transcend such distinctions, such as honesty and kindness, the obligation we all have to try to leave the world a better place than we found it, and, since I am talking about American universities here, the value of human freedom and self-determination on which our democracy is founded. It is sad that even such values sometimes seem too "controversial" for university leaders to want to espouse them publicly -- or when they do, that they are honored in the breach.

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Haslett, Mich.: Professor Lewis, do you think American universities are doing enough to make education accessible to Americans of all income levels, and is this problem related to the perception of universities as having a lack of values? Is university education at top schools primarily for the elite and privileged?

Harry Lewis: This is a disputed issue, but here is my take on it. The top universities actually do a much better job at making their education accessible to low income families than the next tier of universities do. At Harvard, for example, everyone who gets in and needs scholarship support gets it, and no one gets scholarship support on the basis of academic or athletic "merit." Harvard is completely free for students with family incomes of less than $60,000. Against this you have the practice of "merit scholarships" at many universities, where students can receive large payments for their academic or athletic talent, whether or not their families can afford to pay for their education. Since most of those universities do not have enough money to go around, the result is that some students have to turn down admissions offers for lack of scholarships, while others are getting scholarships even though they don't need them. There was a good Sam Allis column in the Boston Globe about this yesterday. The reason for merit scholarships is that universities are competing to rise in the US News rankings, so they want to improve the average test scores of their students, and are prepared, in effect, to buy students with high scores in order to raise their averages. So there is a kind of competitiveness that drives the system which doesn't connect much to any educational ideal I can think of.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Lewis,

It appears clear that students may have to choose between a solid, critical education and a strong, respected credential. Small (and often less-expensive) schools offer student-focused environments that elevate learning and critical thinking and interactive pedagogy. Big and prestigious schools are expensive, but they offer students a respected and thus valuable credential that can take them far in the a status-conscious culture.

On this basis, how are parents and students to choose? It may seem like a common-sense choice to go for the less-expensive and more student-focused education, but the pull of status is enormous and respected credentials are often very well rewarded.

What do you think?

Harry Lewis: There is no one answer to that question that is correct for every child and every family. You have to know your children and you have to know the college as much as you can (neither of which is as easy as it sounds!). My own children chose to attend a top research university and I am glad they did it, but not because I wanted them credentialed or because they were big on credentials. The piece of the equation you don't mention is the incredible academic and extracurricular opportunities available at those big universities, for students ambitious enough to seek them out and make the best of what is available. I see that over and over again in my life here within the Engineering school at Harvard. I am able to place students in labs and courses and part time jobs that are unlike anything they could have in a small college, and that changes their lives. It sometimes is Excellence Without a Soul, but even without a soul, excellence is nothing to sneeze at!

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Washington, D.C.: A lot of the things you talk about seem to reflect realities of society, not just what's going on at schools. So who bears the responsibility to change universities? And who can?

Harry Lewis: Different universities have different governance structures and are responsive to pressure from different directions. In private universities, alumni tend to have influence, both because they are represented on governing boards and are often elected to governing boards by their fellow alumni, and also just because the university keeps asking them for money so can't be totally unresponsive to what they are saying. At a number of private universities, there have been governance crises when the alumni are too ignored. I'll insert a plug here for ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which is sponsoring a panel on which I am speaking about core curricula in D.C. tomorrow. State universities have a different governance structure and I am less clear how to influence it. But in private universities, alumni/ae should have a role in keeping the eyes of the leadership on larger ideals, because the leaders get plenty of pressure for short-range thinking from their short-time customers, the students and parents. -- Whatever the answer is to your question, the answer is not the federal government. I am not in favor of federal government intervention in higher education.

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Reston, Va.: If universities used to stand for the best in society and now stand for just the average, maybe that's partly because so many more people attend universities now. It's now the educational standard for the average person growing up, so it's going to be more average. Of course universities (as well as communities, families, individuals, etc.) should strive to become better than they are, but let's face it, math deems that everything and everyone can't be above average.

Harry Lewis: Universities are supposed to be transformative. The fact that they educate an ever larger percentage of the population doesn't mean they can't raise the level of their students across the board. But they have to accept that that is their role, to make people better --- both better educated, and even wiser, to use an old fashioned term. By the way, let's not misunderstand what the good old days were like, say the first part of the 20th century. It was an extreme privilege to attend places like Harvard and few people got to do it. But you didn't have to be particularly smart in those days, you just had to be lucky in your birth. Those days are largely gone. Universities are much more like meritocracies now than they were in the days when they were heavily populated by aristocracies.

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Newark, Del.: Has the detachment between professors and students been exacerbated in recent years? How is today different from 10, 20, 30 years ago?

Harry Lewis: The competition for academic jobs has gotten more intense, and you win today mainly on the basis of your publication record. The incentives and rewards are largely weighted towards research productivity. Dean Theda Skocpol at Harvard recently chaired a committee on the role of pedagogy in the tenure process, with some pretty sobering stories; I think you can get it via the Harvard Web site. The irony is that we actually wind up with a lot of nice people as professors here anyway, because people tend not to go into universities if they don't like the idea of dealing with students. The reason the hiring and promotion criteria got that way, by the way, was with every good intent. It was a conscious effort to get away from the "one of the boys" way of thinking about academic qualifications, which tended to work against hiring unconventional thinkers, and also against hiring people who were not like the "boys" because they were gay, Jewish, female, etc. But it's my view that the attempt to make faculty hiring some kind of objective science has gone rather too far.

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Princeton, N.J.: I went to MIT and Columbia in the '50s, taught at Penn and Stony Brook and visited Harvard and Oxford. I lived in Princeton for 25 years and have had some contact with students. My two daughters recently graduated from Union and Wellseley. During all this time, there have been students interested only in making money, there have been students only interested in doing interesting things (one of my daughters and me), and there have been students who wanted to save the world (my other daughter). The percent of students in the different groups may have changed at various times, but basically as the French say, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

Harry Lewis: No doubt there have long been some of each and there have been better and worse leadership. But if you read Harvard's curricular report of 1945, "General Education in a Free Society," and compare it to Harvard's curricular report of 2003, you cannot but think the spirit of the university has changed for the worse. -- Happily, there is also a 2006 curricular report here, which tries to recapture some of the idealism of the "General Education" report.

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Washington, D.C.: Is the cost of college being unfairly marked up or has it simply been undervalued for many years? Harvard already owns more property than anyone else in Cambridge and has the largest endowment, but still has a high sticker price. Why?

Harry Lewis: A research university is an expensive place to run, and while most of us who work in them can think of places they could save money, it actually should not be too surprising that the costs are as high as they are. Check with your state authorities what the annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner is! Add to that number the cost of libraries, laboratories, and professors, and the top universities start to look like a bargain. That said, I hope that one or two universities will start to freeze or lower their prices. And I hope the place that decides to do it first is Harvard! (Princeton froze its tuition this year, but raised its room and board rate by more than 10 percent, so the total cost went up about as it does in most years.)

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Lewis,

What are the differences in business focus versus service-to-society focus between colleges, mid-tier universities, and the elite universities? Given these differences, is it possible for the elite universities to recover? What will it take?

Harry Lewis: I am not sure that this way of slicing the pie gets at the differences. I think it is more a function of leadership, and of tradition. I think a more materialistic or more humane emphasis is possible in any kind of institution of higher learning. The problem is that since the figure of merit on which all colleges and universities are ranked nowhere take into account the kinds of values I wish they espoused, the ones that are trying to rise in the rankings have an incentive to go after dollars and test scores and faculty research credentials, rather than other things which will actually matter more to undergraduate education, broadly defined. In that sense the top research universities, which are already highly ranked, could most easily demonstrate their commitment to other values. And I think a lot of people would give them a lot of credit if they did, whatever US News might think about it!

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Harry Lewis: It's been fun. My apologies to those I did not get to. I have to go to (what else?) an important committee meeting!
- Harry

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