Quiet so far in the search for another president of Harvard. I’m a nominee. My friend Peter Agoos, Harvard class of ’75, received a note from the university, seeking thoughts and people to serve. He replied proposing me.
I may not have a Harvard degree, but my certificate from the three-day Harvard Negotiation Project workshop takes care of local academic credentialing. And I live in Cambridge, albeit two or three degrees of separation from what’s known here as The Great University. Walking to work in Cambridge, grocery shopping, riding the T provides plenty of data, though, on what the next president must strive for.
Kindness. Simple kindness, consideration for others, is in short supply at Harvard. Traffic jams everywhere today because Harvard is shredding the streets -- due, so we are told, to power needs of new science buildings. (Does Harvard need more power? Great interview question for the search.) No detour signs. Not even police to smooth the way at intersections. Or one of those flashing signs, “Practice Traffic Calming.”
The university’s attitude toward local public schools floats between patronizing and condescending. I do know several from Harvard's Eta ThetaChapter of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority set up tutoring in a nearby public school. And I know a dean who one day berated a member of his staff in daylight on a residential street, with witnesses. False accusations. No apology, from dean or university. A Harvard maintenance truck just stopped to let me cross the street. Driver, though, not on tenure track. Why not free ice cream and, say, a Rolling Stones concert every year for the average people who put up with all this?
A research question around Cambridge is to clock “On first meeting, how long does it take Harvard graduates to tell you they went to Harvard?” Or, “How long can Harvard graduates go without mentioning they went to Harvard?” Less than three minutes either way is the mean. Why, the next president must ask, do people of such wattage keep leaping for every spotlight, for the rest of their lives?
I’d like to think I can make a difference. Perhaps I can move the conversation along by disclosing here the three-point, two-day plan for my presidency.
On the morning of the first day:
Point One: Eliminate tuition, forgive all student loans and shut down all university fund raising, forever.
Declare, “If a community this brilliant can’t get along for another 350 years on the $24 billion we have, well, then, money’s not the problem here. Let’s live off that endowment. Without debts, our graduates can become public school teachers instead of investment bankers.
“I, for one, won’t be able to sleep at night taking in hundreds of millions a year in tax-deductible donations Harvard doesn’t need in an era when federal Pell Grants for poor students everywhere are again frozen at $4,050. Who knows better than Harvard the pittance a Pell is for anyone seeking a great education? This Pell amount covers just 88 percent of the Harvard undergraduate dining hall fees. We all know that Harvard, as a global leader, cannot keep consuming federal resources at the expense of poor students across the nation.”
A break for lunch, then back to work.
Point Two: Mandatory, random drug and alcohol testing for all tenured faculty, deans and students with a GPA of 3.8 or higher.
Harvard must reestablish for this new century the integrity of its scholarly work. The sports drugging scandals, the latest being the Tour de France fiasco, have shattered our collective faith in excellence in all fields, not just athletics.
No responsible Harvard president could dismiss this potential explanation for the outstanding performance of the university’s staff and students and hope to gain any respect from the world’s top community of scholars. Why risk the hundreds of millions of dollars to Harvard in grants from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense? The FAFSA application for federal student financial aid already asks about drug convictions. Can other agencies be far behind?
Any Harvard leadership guru would concur that’s initiative enough for one day. Home for dinner.
On the morning of my second day:
Point Three: I resign for the good of the university, with a press conference in the Yard, state troopers at my side.
“First, I do apologize to the Cambridge community for the night of riots, fires, sirens and looting. I didn’t get much sleep either. An impartial panel from Yale Law School will assist Cambridge police in determining how many rioters were Harvard faculty. I have only done what must to be done, however, to ensure excellence for the future of this great university. My actions pave the way for my successor, who won’t have to pretend that Harvard needs money or worry that academic results are juiced.
“Yes, over there, from Agence France Press. No, I can’t account for the fact that looters left behind the sheep’s milk cheese at every single gourmet store. Yes, there, from CNN. My severance? Sure. This morning I signed those proceeds over to Friends of the Bunker Hill Community College Library, a couple of miles from here. Have you ever noticed that the Harvard T station has heat, Dunkin’ Donuts, four walls and a roof? Bunker Hill students wait outside. As soon as the Harvard and the Bunker Hill libraries are at parity, my payments revert to Harvard. Thank you very much. We all look forward to the future of this great institution.”
Now, I imagine in this presidential search that vast crevasses and deep canyons stretch between mere nominees and the actual candidates for the long haul. Here’s the beauty of my presidency: In that pool of real candidates, the ones who’d take the job after my work are the ones who will do the best job for everyone.
Of course, I’d waive my oil portrait for the ages. Just frame my photo ID.
Wick Sloane's Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil's Workshop, will appear occasionally.