July 31, 2014
Dear Harvard College Student,
Greetings! Whether you are spending time with family, working at a summer job, studying abroad, or training for the upcoming season, I hope you are enjoying your summer. Before you know it, you will be making plans to return to Cambridge for the start of the academic year. In the meantime, as I settle into my new office in University Hall, I want to begin a conversation with you about Harvard College that I hope we can continue throughout the year.
Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to talk at length with students, faculty, and staff about their experiences at Harvard and their vision of what a Harvard education can and should offer. The deep intellectual engagement, the creative thinking, and the serious commitment to Harvard’s role in shaping the future of our world that I have encountered across this diverse learning community inspires me.
As dean, I want to work with you to ensure the College continues its mission of providing a transformative experience – intellectually, socially and personally – for all students through a liberal arts and sciences education. The transformative power of your college education depends in part on conditions the institution creates—our faculty and the courses they offer, the House system, the variety of student activities, and our advising and fellowship programs. But the quality of your education is ultimately determined by the decisions you make about how to spend your time on campus. And the choices you make now set the pattern for the choices you will make after college and the kind of person you will become. With that in mind, I want to pose a question to you that I have been wrestling with, based on what I have heard from our community so far: How can we encourage each other to stretch beyond our comfort zones and to make choices that help us establish patterns for the lives we want to lead?
While we all recognize the benefits of taking courses that challenge us in new ways, of writing papers in which you tackle difficult questions rather than something familiar, and of working hard to find common ground with people whose ideas are different from our own, it is not always easy to make those choices. Over the past few months, I have talked to many of you about the tensions between your aspirations and your real concerns about economic security, family expectations, and what it means to be successful in our society. A number of you have shared with me the ways that concerns about graduate school admissions or preparing for a career seem to narrow your academic and extracurricular options. I have no prescription for what your college education should look like, nor do I have one solution to how to shape that education in ways that help you stretch beyond very real expectations, fears of failure, and economic realities. These are real dilemmas, and they are an important part of a much larger conversation about your Harvard education that I want to have with you this year.
I believe that how we support you in your chosen path here at Harvard is at heart not just of our promise for your education but also of Harvard’s mission to educate citizens and citizen-leaders who go on to contribute to the well-being of society. When you are able to learn from each other, to question your own deeply held assumptions, and to find ways to connect from different backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines, you are developing habits of collaboration and productive discourse that you will take with you when you graduate. As a society, we will not solve increasingly complex global problems if we approach them from any one, narrow perspective. Meeting these challenges requires a capacious vision. It requires an understanding of the intersections of science and culture, psychology and history, government and economics, the arts and global communication. Nobody arrives at Harvard with such breadth of understanding. But when we learn to see behind each other’s eyes, we become a community that is more than the sum of its individual attributes, and we create possibilities for an alternative future that we would never have imagined.
We have the highest aspirations for you, as I know you have the highest aspirations for yourselves. I look forward to seeing you when you return in August and to working together to create the type of community that will set pattern for the way you want to live your lives and the difference you want to make in the world.
Dean of Harvard College
P.S. I’ve begun to visually document my journey – our journey – on Instagram, and I invite you to follow along.