Beyond the presidency

Lifetime in learning helps Shapiro shape new role

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Itwas an hour into a seminar on bioethics and public policy, and the professor was stoking the debate. How do democracies protect the rights of those with minority views, he asked. What about students who promote their perspective by staging a sit-in in the office of a university president?

"It's a fundamentally violent act," said one young man, asserting there was no clear line between breaking rules and causing physical harm.

President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro

President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro is teaching junior/senior seminar on bioethics and public policy and co-teaching a graduate-level course on academic research ethics, in addition to serving on national and state committees, delivering lectures and conducting research.

"I think it's selfish; I don't necessarily see it as violent," countered another.

The students traded ideas, showing no unease that the professor at the center of the table was Harold T. Shapiro, who in his 13 years as president of Princeton University and eight as president of the University of Michigan faced more than one student sit-in and accumulated a wealth of experience in managing opposing views.

In the two years since he stepped down from the presidency, Shapiro has been drawing on his background in small ways and large. He has immersed himself in teaching, research and public service and is quickly building a new set of accomplishments in each of those areas.

With joint appointments in economics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Shapiro has become a popular professor, teaching one course and co-teaching another in addition to advising several seniors on their thesis projects. At the same time, he chaired a national panel to review the organizational structure of the National Institutes of Health. He worked on one committee and is currently serving on another to study and restructure the medical education system in New Jersey. He delivered three Kerr Lectures on the role of higher education in society at the invitation of the University of California and assembled the series into a book. And he launched a major research project in collaboration with his wife, Vivian, to examine the history of rare book collections in university libraries.

"I've been busier than I ever thought I would be," Shapiro said in a recent interview at his office in Wallace Hall.

'Leadership at its best'

As an economist, Shapiro's research had focused on statistical analysis, but his interests began to shift in 1996 when President Bill Clinton appointed him to chair the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which produced major policy recommendations on cloning, stem cell research and other issues. So when he announced in 2000 that he would step down the following year as Princeton's 18th president, Shapiro said he would focus on teaching and researching in the field of bioethics.

A larger sense of purpose

Soon after passing on the presidency to Shirley M. Tilghman, however, Shapiro found the scope of his activities grew quickly. The University of California had just established an honorary lectureship in honor of its former president Clark Kerr and selected Shapiro as the inaugural lecturer. He spent two weeks visiting the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses, attending classes, meeting students and delivering a series of lectures, which he titled "The Transformation of the Antebellum College: From Right Thinking to Liberal Learning"; "Liberal Education, Liberal Democracy and the Soul of the University"; and "The University and the Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Progress."

Preparing the lectures gave him an opportunity to "put down in a coherent way" ideas he had been developing for years. He compiled the lectures into a book called "A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society," which the University of California Press will publish early next year.

The next unexpected call came from the National Academy of Science, which asked Shapiro to chair a committee to analyze and make recommendations concerning the organizational structure of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the major funder of academic research in the biological and medical sciences in the United States. Through 27 somewhat autonomous institutes and centers, the NIH disburses $27 billion a year in research funding.

Formed at the request of Congress, the committee was charged with sorting out a thicket of ideas and agendas concerning the institutes, including the view of some who believed the NIH was unmanageable and should be greatly consolidated. The 20-member committee itself represented a wide range of views.

"It was not obvious how it was going to turn out," said Gil Omen, a committee member and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. Frances Sharples, the staff director of the committee, said she marveled at Shapiro's willingness to let debates play out even when it was not clear they were heading toward resolution. "He had the wisdom to let people wander in this wilderness but then, at the appropriate time, push them to make a decision," Sharples said.

Alan Leshner, who served on the committee and is the chief executive officer of the American Academy of the Advancement of Science, did not know Shapiro before the first committee meeting but was immediately impressed with how he managed the process.

"It was a committee of very well-known and often highly opinionated people," Leshner said. "Harold demonstrated an astounding ability to provide consensus-building leadership. The final product, I think, made everyone on the committee feel as if they had had important input and accomplished something of significance. And that, really, is an example of leadership at its best."

The committee ultimately delivered 10 major recommendations for improving the NIH's effectiveness, but concluded that the cost of large-scale restructuring would outweigh any benefits. The report was widely covered in the press and is being published in book form by the National Research Council.

Although that committee's work is finished, Shapiro has not escaped wrestling with contentious public issues. In March 2002, New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey appointed Shapiro to a committee charged with finding ways to increase the distinction of medical education in the state. That committee, chaired by Roy Vagelos, former chief executive of Merck, recommended the creation of a single research hospital system that links the state's medical schools with universities. Shapiro now serves on the successor committee, which is charged with implementing the idea.

Not all Shapiro's projects are so steeped in public policy. Shortly after stepping down from the presidency, he decided to revisit in earnest an interest in rare books and special collections that began at the University of Michigan. He recalled coming across an ancient papyrus that was the earliest known transcription of the gospel of St. Paul. "I thought to myself 'What on earth is this doing in south central Michigan?'" Shapiro said.

The more general form of that question -- "How and why did university libraries become collectors of rare books?" -- has now become the theme of a research initiative that Harold and Vivian Shapiro dubbed the Davies Project after Samuel Davies, the fourth president of Princeton who established the University's first library card catalog.

"Now, the answer may seem obvious," said Shapiro, "But in my own judgment it is not clear why universities would continue to dedicate significant resources to collecting rare books." Far from arguing against the practice, the Davies Project is meant to establish a thorough understanding of the many ways -- either serendipitous or planned -- that these collections became what they are. The project has led to at least two published papers with several more in development.

For Stephen Ferguson, Princeton's librarian for rare books and special collections and a collaborator on the project, the research has been "a revitalizing experience" because it examines practices that have gone unquestioned for decades. "It's really a maze of interrelated questions and that's what makes it fascinating," Ferguson said.

Although it is driven by Shapiro's "immense curiosity about the world," said Ferguson, the Davies Project is not devoid of policy implications in its own way, particularly as digital collections arise and universities consider letting go of some printed collections. "The better informed you are when the tough decisions about budgets come, the better the decisions you are going to make," Ferguson said.

Making connections

The crucible in which all these activities come together is the classroom. Last year Shapiro taught a freshman seminar on bioethics and public policy, which he started while president. This year, he changed the course to a junior/senior seminar on the same subject and also is co-teaching a graduate-level course on academic research ethics with assistant professor of sociology Sara Curran.

His students describe the same combination of open evaluation of ideas and insistence on critical thinking that characterizes his work in public service.

Sonali Shah, a 2003 graduate who was in Shapiro's course as a freshman and was his advisee as a senior, said she appreciated his meticulous reading of drafts of her senior thesis, which compared the health care systems of the United States and Canada. When she wanted to make a bold argument about income having less effect on quality of care in Canada than in the United States, he helped her see that the data was not strong enough to support her conclusion. "He really made me feel comfortable not necessarily taking a strong view" and yet having a stronger paper in the end, she said.

In a recent session of his seminar, Shapiro probed students for their thoughts about stem cell research, abortion and the ethics of dissent, letting them cast about for answers and test arguments. While he barely made reference to it, the weight of his own experience seemed apparent as he gently pressed students to refine their language and focus their thinking.

"My own experience is that in public policy 80 percent of the problems come from lack of clarification of what it is you are talking about," Shapiro told the students. "Certainly it's not true for all problems, but for a large number if you clarify what it is you are talking about people come much closer to agreement."

Making connections between aspects of his work and life experiences has been one of the opportunities Shapiro has valued most about his post-presidency life. He said he also appreciates having more control over his schedule and focusing on projects of long-standing interest that had taken a back seat to presidential duties.

"The mix of teaching and research and public service has been extremely rewarding and reminds me why I got into this academic life in the first place," he said.