Derek Bok: The View from the Top

bok3_cropWe’re extending the conversation on higher education in America with the man who gave just that august title to his own fresh take on a troubled subject. Derek Bok is the only two-time president of Harvard University, which is to say he has twice reinvented the management of the oldest, richest, maybe the best university in the country. First time was 1971 during the Vietnam War campus uprisings. Second time, 35 years later, Derek Bok was asked back in 2006 after Lawrence Summers was ushered out of the job early. So he’s a qualified fixer of the university system; at the same time he personifies the high Ivy Establishment, the very top of heap.

He doesn’t blush about the quarter-million dollar price-tag on a Harvard BA. And he resists my bleating about student debt. The national average is under $30,000, he notes. Those infamous 6-figure loan burdens are are “outliers” and “self-inflicted wounds,” he says, given the amount of available financial aid and alternative schools and programs. Bok says the economic bonus for completing a degree is at historic highs in this country, but he sounds disturbed by that, too — by the fixation on high costs and big career payoffs.

Not for past loans but for the future, Derek Bok would like to make college debts “income contingent,” that is, sharply discounted for people who don’t seek (or find) big salaries for their work – in teaching, say. I found him disarmingly candid on a trend as worrisome as the money issues. Students on American campuses are not studying nearly as much as they used to; they’re not learning as much either! So says the honorary chairman of the board, Derek Bok, with a Cambridge view of Boston and the rebuilding of the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River.

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  • Bok’s candor is indeed refreshing, given his position. Somehow, it sounds like Chris and Derek have established rapport, prior to this conversation.

    It’s rather remarkable how much credit Bok gives to non-Harvard institutions. Unlike many exchanges with university administrators, this one wasn’t a marketing effort towards enhancing a specific university’s brand and reputation. Of course, Harvard has enough “reputation capital” to spend on thinking larger thoughts.

    Then, there’s the whole issue of the goals of “higher education”, as assessed via ancient and old ideals. Here, Thorstein Veblen’s 1916–1918 memorandum could prove useful, though current debates tend to get quite circular. The trend toward “vocational schools” was already on Veblen’s radar 100 years ago, and it still has a significant impact on how people perceive academic institutions.

    What gives me pause, though, is that we may be talking about peculiarities of a system which will shift radically in the not-so-distant future.

    To my mind, academia is likely to go through a full-fledged “identity crisis” in the next little while. Sure, there have been multiple crises through recent institutional histories and campus talk is full of panicked talk of budget. But, at least until very recently, discussions of the changing role of universities and colleges in a postindustrial context have focused on implementation details instead of deep innovative thinking about knowledge construction.

    Analogies abound. Journalism has been through a deep crisis, for a number of years, long after media consolidation had made this crisis predictable. The recording industry might arguably be the first one to have gone through this type of crisis and, though it still sustains itself, it has changed radically since the “Napster Revolution”. Similar things have happened to publishing and even retail. People “blame the Internet”, yet the Internet itself was built in the same context which led to Licklider’s well-known memos, back in 1962. Crises have been looming for a longtime and easily-dismissed early postmodernists may eventually get vindicated.

    Academia‘s crisis might be different, but I doubt that it’ll be avoided. Weak signs (including several comments in this ROS series) point to an increased awareness of deeper problems in global academia than neoliberalism and credentialism. The Catholic Clergy might reach its crisis moment quicker than academia, surprisingly enough, but academia’s tectonic shift might bring other “industries” with it.

  • Alan

    Hi Chris,
    President Bok’s cavalier attitude about the student debt situation indicates a less than full understanding, and an elitist viewpoint. For every student who borrows $ for a university education, there are a set of parents who are also probable borrowers. Many middle class parents who have not been able to save the $200+k for a private college have raided 401ks, taken 2nd mortgages, obtained Plus loans, etc. So the crisis also involves whole families with strained budgets, restricted ability for retirement (thus possibly limiting the job market for new graduates), foreclosures, etc.

    • Michael Tomasson

      Very much agree. I’m afraid the rapport Mr Lydon and Bok share prevented rigorous dissection of the views expressed. No doubt Mr. Bok is hugely intelligent and his experience is invaluable. He was also part of the establishment that has brought higher education in this country to the brink of collapse. There’s no fat I could find to cut.. and student debt isn’t really a problem were shocking views that should have been challenged aggressively.

  • Michael, Chris did challenge Derek Bok and quite persistently. The takeaway from the interview is as you suggest – there’s a lot of people in this game who are either impervious to the truth of what’s happening or they’re just not affected by it…