1996: Excellence and Equality

One of the big events of the fall was, of course, Harvard's tumbling from its #1 position in the US News and World Report ranking of colleges. Actually, I am pleased that this was not really that big a story in Cambridge, though it probably sold a few magazines nationally. Here there have been just a few stories on this subject. Some of them were merely dismissive --- implying that the change in ranking said more about the magazine than about Harvard. But others have searched for an ``answer,'' and have tried to propose how we can learn from our fall and can improve ourselves as a result. Is our fatal flaw that our classes are too big? (If so, this problem could be solved easily, I guess, by shutting people out of all those courses that are big because people want to take them, and forcing a few more students into Akkadian and other such undersubscribed opportunities.)

I rather suspect that not everyone here was actually unhappy with the rankings --- for example, I'll bet the development office is happy that Harvard is not #1 in financial resources. How could you ask people to give money to that place, wherever it is? I am rather surprised not to have seen it proposed somewhere that Harvard fell from #1 because of its change of Deans about 15 months ago; I predicted broadly that I would be the Dean under whom Harvard would fall from #1, though I confess that I did not expect to effect this transformation quite as swiftly as I have. I guess I should be glad that there is no statistical ranking of Deans. But certainly the best comment on how we can learn from this reversal of fortune came from the two Poonies who wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times last week. Harvard was learning a good lesson in humility, they noted, and was improving rapidly in that department as a result; indeed, if we kept it up, we would soon be #1 in humility just as we are in everything else.

I had occasion to think about Harvard's excellence recently when I was approached about Sarah Craig. Sarah was the wonderfully talented freshman who was tragically killed by a drunk driver last spring. Her family and friends were devastated. Sarah showed extraordinary promise and seemed to be going straight up in the world. Everyone in this community who knew her was deeply affected by her senseless death, and even those of us who got to know her only posthumously grieved as we learned about her life.

The drunk driver who caused Sarah's death is up for sentencing, and I was approached by a student who asked me to write the judge to urge a stiff sentence. The rationale was easy to understand. Sarah was a person out of the ordinary; it would be a travesty of justice if this driver got the usual, too-lenient sentence given to drunk drivers. As Dean of Harvard College I had an opportunity to impress on the judge the seriousness of the tragedy, and to show that Harvard takes care of its own.

It was at this point that I realized that I could not write the judge. If we believe that all human lives are created equal, then, it seems to me, taking one life must be as terrible a thing as taking another. There is nothing that the Dean of Harvard College, or anyone else at Harvard, or anyone in the criminal justice system for that matter, can do to take care of Sarah now.

We are born equal. It seems to me that while we are on this earth we have an opportunity to make it better, and to make ourselves better. Those of us who are privileged to spend time in wonderful places like this one have a better opportunity than others to make a difference in the world --- and as a result, a more serious obligation to do so. We should strive for excellence, we should want to be #1. But not so that we can get closer to heaven; rather, for the benefit of others who will follow us on earth. For nothing defines the human condition more than our return to equality when we pass on.