We’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.