Snyder Lecture

Universities need to do better with undergraduates, former Harvard president says

Universities have an enormous influence on society and therefore need to do a better job of educating undergraduates, said Lawrence Summers, the outspoken former president of Harvard University.

Lawrence Summers © ALONSO NICHOLS

Summers, who was Harvard’s president from 2001 to 2006, presented the Richard E. Snyder Presidential Lecture at Tufts on March 14. The lecture, titled “Rethinking Undergraduate Education,” is part of a series endowed by Snyder, A55, the former chairman and CEO of Simon & Schuster. President Lawrence S. Bacow told the audience that the underlying theme for the lecture series is to “look for people willing to swim against the tide of conventional wisdom.”

Bacow introduced Summers as the “outspoken, provocative and maybe even controversial former president of Harvard.” But, Bacow said, Summers also served as chief economist of the World Bank and secretary of the U.S. Treasury as well as a scholar who has made major contributions to the field of economics. “To the finance world he is known as the guy who, with Bob Rubin, saved the economic markets when Asian markets were melting down. To students at MIT, he is known as a brilliant teacher,” Bacow said. “To the current generation of Harvard students, Larry was a beloved president who helped make Harvard far more accessible to the neediest of students. And to fellow university presidents, Larry is someone who has spoken boldly and courageously and challenged Harvard to think about how it could be better.”

Once a year, Bacow said, Boston-area university presidents get together for dinner. “There is no agenda. We just get together and talk. Those dinner conversations were never more lively and interesting than when Larry sat at the head of the table.”

Universities are “central to the future of this country and to the future of this world,” Summers told his Tufts audience, “and no mission is more important than the mission of educating undergraduates.” He said that universities have a “profound influence” on undergraduates because of the people students meet during their four years on campus, the values the institution instills and the knowledge students gain. That influence, he said, has an enormous impact on society.

Summers outlined seven areas of undergraduate education in which he said universities need to do better: make more of an effort to admit lower-income students; encourage more contact between faculty and students; improve the quality of instruction; improve the teaching of science; help students gain a better understanding of other parts of the world; teach ethics and values; and encourage debate.

Equality of opportunity
“Higher education is failing to make a contribution to equality of opportunity,” he said. “If you look at African-American students who have done well on standardized tests, the majority applies to top schools. Low-income students doing well on such tests do not. We need equal opportunity for everyone in this country. Everyone in college should not be studying just with people like themselves.”

Summers said universities should do much more to encourage contact between faculty and students and to emphasize science education. “Our intellectual culture is one in which if you didn’t know about Shakespeare, you’d be too embarrassed to admit it,” yet people aren’t embarrassed if they don’t know about the human genome, he said.

Ideally, he said, no student would graduate without having traveled overseas to gain a better understanding of other countries and cultures, and that universities, in choosing their curricula, shape and influence character and values and must take that into consideration when deciding what to teach.

Evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis will present the next Snyder Lecture this fall.

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at This story ran in the Tufts Journal in April 2007.