Harold T. Shapiro Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing Role of University Presidents: Conversation with Harold T. Shapiro, former President of Princeton and of the University of Michigan, March 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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As you look back now at having been president of both Michigan and Princeton, are you satisfied with the way the undergraduate curriculum has adapted as the world has changed so much?

I would say I'm partly satisfied. In higher education, in general, the graduate curriculum is in better shape than the undergraduate curriculum. One of the reasons I went from the University of Michigan to Princeton was a desire to think about, carefully, the undergraduate curriculum. I thought I'd have a greater opportunity to do that at Princeton than at Michigan. There have been some very encouraging changes. But has the adaptation been quick enough and good enough? The answer is no. Our knowledge and our understanding of the natural world and our understanding of the human condition have preceded much faster than the undergraduate curriculum has changed in general. So we have some catching up to do.

What sorts of things would you like to see happen?

I would like to see the focus all across the curriculum shift in a way that more quickly reflects our rapidly increasing knowledge base. Any biology course that looks the same as it did ten years ago misses some critical points. The same thing is actually true in literature, and even in economics. The scholarly frontier and our understanding of the human condition is moving apace. And, generally, curriculum developments are lagging.

I don't want to paint too bleak a picture. Things are moving at the undergraduate level. But I think they need to move a little faster.

If student were to watch this tape, how would you advise them to confront the challenge of their own education?

The main thing I would tell students is when you enter college, you have to think of yourself as taking responsibility for your education. Generally, university rules are so complex you can always find someone to sign off on almost any course you want to take. You can create your own education. But more importantly, you're in charge. You will have some great teachers, some teachers that aren't so great, but all those experiences will become important if you take charge of your education. You've passed the high school stage where someone else is in charge, and now you have to take charge and take full responsibility as an adult.

Now, if you go to any of the large number of great schools, like Cal or other places, you will find a lot of assistance in that. The faculty will take your education seriously and so will many others. You'll have a lot of assistance, but at the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for your own education. When you get an assignment, you can either just do it or you can take responsibility and make it as wonderful and as broadening an experience as you possibly can. It's that attitude that you are responsible. There will be help where you can get it, but you are responsible in the end. [That] is the most important thing I have to say.

If you look back at your career in administration, what do you see as the most difficult challenge, the most difficult problem that you had to navigate, and that you were most satisfied with when it was accomplished?

It's difficult to pick out any one particular initiative. I would say the main thing is to keep focused. Decide on a small number of important things and just keep relentlessly at them. No single leader in higher education can do more than focus on a modest number of problems and contribute to change.

I've been very lucky. I didn't accomplish anything alone. I accomplished it sometimes by luck, sometimes while working with other people, sometimes just by the nature of circumstance, sometimes because I had a good idea that worked out in its time. You need a lot of things to make something happen. But you have to keep focused on a small number of big issues and not get distracted on today's latest controversy. [That's] the most important issue.

If students were to watch or read this interview, what theme might they find in the story of your intellectual journey, both as a scholar and as an administrator of a university?

I think they would find respect for students, understanding that at the end of the day their interests are probably our primary concern. I think they would find respect for scholarship and for the university's role in that arena. Those have been the two animating facts of my own devotion to universities. But they would also find what I've tried to understand, namely, that we are trying to have an undergraduate or graduate experience that will serve the kind of society we aspire to be. That our goals and our aims are directly related to the kind of society we would like to live in, and that we ought to design everything towards that end, including our students' curriculum and who they are, and what kinds of people they are.

Educational reform for me, educational change, is a kind of mini - social protest movement, saying that we could be in a better place, we ought to be in a better place, and we can do something about it through educational and scholarly programs.

Does this sense of your priorities go back to that uncle that you talked about at the beginning?

Well, I don't know. Probably to some extent it does. I ended up as an adult having very strong disagreements with his particular solutions, but he got me to think about the problems.

On that note, Professor Shapiro, thank you very much for joining us for this conversation and coming to the campus to give the Kerr Lectures.

Thank you. It's a great honor to be here.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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