“Interview with Harvard’s Legendary Dean Henry Rosovsky” (Huffington Post, January 9, 2016)

Huffington Post


“Interview with Harvard’s Legendary Dean Henry Rosovsky:

The Secret of excellence and the prospects for Asian Higher Learning”


January 9, 2016


Emanuel Pastreich



Harvard University had obtained a remarkable global role since the end of the Second World War. Of course it has been a strong institution for a long time, but if we think back, in 1900, or even in 1930, it was not considered to be on the same level as some universities in England, Germany or France. What exactly was it that allowed Harvard to reach the status that it enjoys today?

The task of building a great university is never simple.

Let me stress one point because it’s so often misunderstood, and we see this in Asia today: To become a world-class university takes a lot of time. There are simply no shortcuts. People tend to assume, and I have encountered this sort of thinking all over the world, that if they just sink enough money into a university, it will emerge in a few years as a first-class institution. But such rapid growth never happens. It takes time; it takes generations.

That said, there are a few clear factors that determine the potential of a university to reach the highest levels of excellence. In the case of Harvard University, it was true that by the time of its tercentenary (300th anniversary of its founding) in 1936, Harvard had already achieved a reputation as a world-class institution. Harvard did not have the stature that it does today.

So what specifically happened between the nineteen-thirties and now? Well the United States became more economically powerful and attracted more resources and faculty from around the world after the Second World War. But one very important development were the innovations introduced by President James Bryant Conant who served as president from 1933 to1953.

What were the specific steps that President Conant took as president to transform Harvard?

Conant became the President of Harvard University in 1933 with a reformist agenda that removed such archaisms as requiring Latin classes. He promoted a more diverse, and a less elite, student body. Harvard admitted women to graduate school for the first time early in his term.

But his biggest contribution was the so-called “up or out” policy implemented in the late 1930s and early 1940s under which professors who did not meet increasingly rigorous demands for research had their contracts terminated after a probationary period lasting eight years.

Up until that time, Harvard had a lot of faculty who were nice people but who could just stay for a lifetime without any particular demands made on them to be intellectually active or productive. Of course some of them were excellent teachers, but there was no meaningful pressure on them to advance.

But “up-or-out” was not capricious. Harvard introduced the now famous ad hoc system whereby a group of experts in the field of the faculty member to be promoted are consulted concerning the stature of that scholar. This move made the opinion within the field, rather than the clubby relationship within the department, the determining factor in the promotion of professors.

Now, you may notice that in my answer I focus on faculty, as opposed to facilities, budgets, endowments or students. I do so because I believe, based on many decades of work as a teacher, a scholar and an administrator, that the quality of the faculty determines the quality of the university. Everything else flows from the quality of the faculty. If the faculty are good, you will attract good students and you will have alumni who will raise funds for you.

There is another innovation at Harvard which I think made a tremendous difference and that is the decision to try to recruit the very best person in the field for an available faculty position. In the period after World War II Harvard literally engaged in world-wide searches for the very best and created a culture in which it was simply unacceptable to hire friends and associates, to make decisions based on personal affections or inclinations.

I remember that culture vividly from my time as a dean. If we had an opening, we did everything we could to convince the absolutely best person in the world to come to Harvard.

Does Harvard University stand out from other major American universities in terms of what it was able to achieve?

I would not say that Harvard possesses any sort of absolute dominance. And I personally do not take the rankings of schools all that seriously. However, I think that Harvard’s global visibility increased significantly in the 1930s and 1940s and that the new commitment to excellence at Harvard spread to other institutions.

At the same time, public image is extremely important in American society and I observed personally that the Presidency of John F. Kennedy did much in the public mind for Harvard. Harvard was an excellent school before Kennedy, but Kennedy embodied a new vision for the United States: a leader who caught the world’s imagination and that reflected on his alma mater, Harvard.

Of course all of these changes took place in an era of increased self-confidence within the United States after the Second World War. The United States went from being a major country to being a super power and Harvard, and other American universities, found themselves also in a very favorable position to hire the best faculty, and recruit the best students, from around the world.

In the public mind, across the world, today, when you think of an outstanding university, you will almost certainly include Harvard.

In China, Korea, and Japan There’s been a major increase in the level of research done at notable universities and efforts to improve education in English in China, Korea and Japan. And yet, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been invested, these universities still do not seem to have reached the level of Harvard. What are your thoughts on what has been done by universities in East Asia to reach that stature?

There are many reasons that universities in East Asia have not reached the positions that they had hoped for. After all, we must remember that modern East Asia did not begin with Confucius. In fact the experience of modern education in East Asia is relatively short and granted that time scale, many universities are doing fine. There are, however, many challenges to Asian universities which I do not need to reiterate. But let me note two factors that are sometimes overlooked. First, academic freedom, in all senses, is much more critical to the success of a university than how much money is spent on infrastructure or on hiring big names. Faculty need to have the space to pursue the research that they are passionate about and the also need to have the freedom to express their opinions in the university, and in the society as a whole.

Equally important for the promotion of excellence in the university is an emphasis on shared governance. The faculty needs to be involved directly in the process of running the university and in the setting of priorities. Shared governance is often the critical element that is missing in Asian universities, no matter how talented the faculty may be. Either it is ministries of education that are trying to run things, or in private institutions–those who control the funds. Neither group knows much about teaching and research.

I chaired a review committee of Seoul National University about fifteen years ago and I identified many problems concerning shared governance, problems that I have observed in Japan as well. Ministries need to step back and give faculties some breathing room.

Korean universities pass down demands from the office of the president that are based on directives from the Ministry of Education. The new rules declare that in order to be promoted, you have to fulfill certain requirements that can be evaluated by someone who knows nothing about your field. For example, the number of articles in SSCI journals. Few of the people making these policies have ever been a professor.

I see more and more of these “objective evaluation criteria” being used by universities and the problem extends far beyond East Asia.

If we want to identify the great success of American research universities, and that success goes far beyond Harvard, we have to come back to the question of governance. Excellence requires a firewall between trusteeship, or government ministries, and the academic decision-making process. This American concept of shared governance wherein the faculty are engaged in running the university as part of a collaboration with the other stakeholders. I draw a contrast between American shared governance with “the dictatorship of ministries” wherein policy and direction for the university is ordered by bureaucrats who have never taught a class.

It is equally unreasonable to run a university as a “participatory democracy,” the approach to governance that once existed in Europe. That approach in European institutions of higher learning was appealing to professors because it was democratic. But those institutions also suffered because they lacked an executive decision-making process; making changes became virtually impossible.

I think the strong point of American research universities is the manner in which trustees, presidents and other senior executives retain a considerable amount of decision-making authority while at the same time maintaining a culture of open exchange and participatory debate. The president can act as the CEO and make a firm decision about the long-term development of the institution, but he or she does so in constant consultation with the faculty. It may not always work this way, but the greatest advances occur when governance is truly shared.

Let’s talk for a moment about the rankings “racket.” Many universities in China, Japan, and Korea have tremendous potential. But their presidents are obsessed with where their rankings stand. And then there is the ministry of education bureaucrats who do not know anything about teaching but follow the college rankings like the Dow Jones index. I have seen a lot of damage done by rather short-term thinking. What are your thoughts?

The rank of a university is similar to an index number say like the NASDAQ index. I don’t understand how you can take an institution like Harvard, Stanford, or Michigan, and represent it by an index number. The concept makes no sense. That doesn’t mean that the top fifteen institutions in the ranking somehow don’t belong there at all. But what is the difference between number two and number eight in any meaningful sense? As an administrator who worked to build a complex university, I find the assumption slightly offensive. We need to be committed to excellence, not to lists. As academics we have pretty good judgment about the quality of institutions that cannot simply be measured by counting the number of papers published or patents received. Outsiders who swoop in to count beans and make up lists based on statistics have little sense of what excellence is.

I’ve been told that in some places a president is dismissed, even driven to suicide, because the ranking of the university went from #176 to #201. To me that is an absurdity.

In some respects increasing the overall concern for education in a society is much more critical than raising the budgets for the universities. And certainly raising the amount paid to faculty, and the number of courses offered is much more important than building athletic facilities or administrative offices made of marble.

The faculty know what they need to develop and they need to work with an administrator with the authority do get it done. To define everything in terms of these index numbers is ridiculous.

English is not the primary language for universities in China, Korea, and Japan, but they are being evaluated on the basis of publications in English and courses taught in English. For example, KAIST in Korea recently forced through an entirely English-language curriculum and made all its teachers conduct courses in English. The impact for students and teachers was not entirely positive. And many universities have started assessing professors on the basis of publications in English language publications–that includes professors of Korean literature and language! I do not think these regulations have increased the quality of scholarship.

The question of how much English should be used in international research universities is one with which I am extremely familiar. I would even say I am deeply puzzled by this trend. I am not certain what the correct answer should be. On the one hand, there is no question that English – frequently bad English – has become the universal language of scholarship. It is clearly a tremendous handicap for people outside of the United States, Britain, and Australia and a few other countries because few of them are native speakers, but we demand that they present and publish in English. I suppose the situation varies from field to field. If you’re a mathematician, your proficiency in English may not be such a problem. If you’re in the humanities or social sciences, there is no doubt that it is a handicap for you.

But there seems also to be a tremendous risk to indigenous cultures if we insist that all scholarship be conducted in English. We are, for example, dealing with ancient and very highly-developed cultures in Korea, Japan, China and the Middle East. What is the impact on cultural and scholarly vitality forcing everyone to do their work in English? I do not have an answer, but this issue has been very much on my mind.

Any final points you would like to make about how Asian universities should go about creating world class scholarly traditions?

I have not been able to give a concrete answer to the question of how the nations of Asia can create their own unique liberal arts traditions that are not simply the importation of a Western model. The question is a critical one and the answer must come from Asian universities themselves.

Simple imitation of what goes on in the United States, or somewhere else, is ultimately not a solution to the challenges that China, Japan or Korea face. An educated Korean, Chinese, or Japanese should have a strong knowledge of the culture, history and literature of his or her own country. Just knowing about Western learning is not sufficient to maintain a vital intellectual environment.

Finally, it is important to think about the admissions process. There are many in East Asia who simply judge students on the basis of national tests. The top universities in the United States do not do that, and for good reason. We need a careful process for admissions that take all sorts of factors into account: different intellectual strengths, artistic expression, economic standing, social background, ethnicity, regional representation and designs a class as a balanced whole. Asian colleges would do well to use a broad range of criteria in selecting students and move beyond the unproductive “examination hell. ”

But, before we in America critique East Asia, we must also recognize that we are–unfortunately– taking on some of the same characteristics. Getting in the top institutions has become far more difficult and the value placed on one school over another in terms of education and careers has been much exaggerated.

I have a granddaughter who is preparing to go to college. I say to her: “It really doesn’t matter that much which school you go to. It does not determine your whole life.” And she looks at me, smiles, and says: “Yes, I understand, grandpa.”

But I can tell that she doesn’t believe me for a moment. I hate to see this obsession with “top schools” become a self-fulfilling phenomenon. I fear that the university mania is slowly making its way to the United States.


Henry Rosovsky is an economic historian, specializing in East Asia, and Harvard University administrator. From 1973 to 1984 and 1990 to 1991, Rosovsky served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, where he was previously a Professor of Economics and chair of its Department of Economics. He also served as Acting President of Harvard in 1984 and again in 1987. After stepping down from the dean’s position served on the the Harvard Corporation, until 1997, the first Harvard faculty member to do so in a century.

Rosovsky is widely known as one of the most effective administrators at Harvard who has played a central role in determining Harvard’s direction for decades. He shared his perspectives on university administration in a highly readable book entitled, The University: An Owner’s Manual.


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