Bill Gates Discusses Improving Education, Public Health at Harvard

The Microsoft founder told a packed crowd in Cambridge about his college days, his experiences eradicating global disease, and where he hopes to see American public schools go in the future.

Bill Gates

Photo via AP/Jose Luis Magana

In a wide-ranging discussion at the Harvard Science Center, Microsoft founder Bill Gates touched on the sweeping themes of his work in computer science, public health, and education, while also outlining the goals he still hopes to surpass.

Gates, who received nothing short of a hero’s welcome from the packed crowd, fielded questions first from Frank Doyle, the dean of Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and then from students in the audience. The discussion—punctuated with knowing laughter and the click of smart phones and cameras capturing the moment—also veered into Gates’ experience at Harvard College, which never actually ended with a diploma.

“I wish I’d been more sociable [at Harvard],” Gates said to laughs. “There were these things called men’s clubs, and I never would have known they existed, but [former Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer decided I needed to have some exposure to, I guess, drinking, so he got me punched for the Fox Club.”

Though Gates may have dropped out of Harvard, education is an issue he not only holds close, but has also devoted vast resources to for nearly 20 years—to little avail. Despite the fact that the Gates Foundation pours hundreds of millions of dollars each year into American education, Gates said the needle on teacher and student outcomes has yet to move as dramatically as he’d hoped.

Gates maintained that he is “committed” to improving education, though stagnation in school funding and the politicization of the issue have made progress more challenging. His foundation aims to better the learning outcomes and career trajectories of low-income and non-white students with a focus on areas like teacher preparation, social-emotional learning, and innovation. And yet, despite nearly two decades of work, Gates still sites education as the single biggest domestic challenge he’d like to tackle.

“This is a country that has, essentially, a credo of equal opportunity more than anything else,” Gates said. “The only way we really execute equal opportunity is by having a great education system.”

In addition to improving schools, Gates discussed his efforts to better public health. He celebrated the great strides his foundation has made in helping decrease the global mortality rate for children under five years old, and was optimistic that the number of children who don’t reach their fifth birthdays will continue to trend downward. Gates now has sights set on eradicating polio and then malaria, but he offered a broader vision for what the students in the audience would someday accomplish.

“The easy problems are not the ones you’ll get to work on,” Gates said. “This is a fascinating time to be alive… In your generation, cancer, infectious disease, so many things will be solved. And the societal framework of how you avoid polarization and how you maintain trust—those things will also see some brilliant breakthroughs.”