By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

My 45th Harvard reunion

steve kelman

A young person standing outside the big classroom where members of Harvard's Class of 1970 were coming for various symposia at our reunion might think that perhaps little had changed in the 45 years since my class, which rode the wave of the student protests and radicalism of the sixties, had graduated. Current Harvard students created a corridor through which participants came into the reunion classroom, each one holding up a sign demanding that Harvard sell stock in fossil fuel companies held by the university's endowment. Some of the reunion participants sported buttons reading DIVEST HARVARD.

A closer inspection, however, would have shown that times have in fact changed. Compared to the protesters of the sixties, the students of 2015 were polite and well behaved. Not only no clenched fists or shoving, but no sounds at all – they silently stood on two sides of those entering the classroom, keeping a space for participants to enter the classroom.

I was surprised to hear only one mention of Students for a Democratic Society, the radical organization that played such a central role in left-radical protest in my undergraduate days, in any event I attended at this reunion. (By contrast, the SDS was discussed a lot at my 25th reunion.) Reflecting the changed political preoccupations of activists in the current era, one of the more-visible members of the reunion was a quite attractive woman who, it turned out, had undergone a sex change operation from male to female several years ago. And reflecting changes in the larger world since 1970, the moderator of one panel, responding to a question about why repair work on a modest bridge over the Charles River connecting Cambridge with the Harvard Business School on the other side of the river had already taken three years and was not yet done, declared: "In China it would have been done in three months."

I very much enjoyed the Q&A with Harvard President Drew Faust at the reunion. She noted that Harvard's financial aid to undergraduates had risen from $62 million in 2003 to $170 million today; Harvard aims to allow every student coming from a family with an income under $150,000 a year to attend Harvard for free. She also noted that the university is seeing a noticeable decline in humanities majors.

Other highlights:

  • Harvard is continuing to experiment with online courses that have potential audiences of millions of people around the world. However, university officials are noting an increased demand for more personalized, human complements to straight online lecture content. Many students want the opportunity to ask questions to faculty. In some cases, people taking a course who live in a certain city are arranging in-person meetings to discuss the material. "There is a desire for human contact" in an online world, an observation that may have relevance to some government online apps.
  • Faust opposed divestment of stocks in fossil fuel companies, stating that the endowment should not be used as a political weapon and that such use could threaten privileges universities have as non-partisan institutions. While clearly not everyone in the audience agreed, Faust's statement was applauded by part of the crowd.
  • "It is such a disservice to say that higher education should only be about vocational issues." (Here, lots of applause. I suspect you can't be a Harvard president if you don't agree with this statement.)
  • Finally, a quotable quote: "There is a lot of conversation about how failure is good for you. It is hard to convince our students of that."

In my next blog I will discuss the class survey that was presented at the reunion.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 26, 2015 at 1:26 PM


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