Campus & Community

Facing the challenges of tomorrow

long read

Facing the challenges of tomorrow:
Dean Jeremy R. Knowles cites space, how to apply resources, as key issues

January 24, 2001

Dear Colleagues:

As I begin this year’s report on the state of the Faculty, knowing that it will be relatively cheerful, I must not immediately launch into a litany of successes and statistics, but think – first – about our goals. The Constitution of Massachusetts was written by John Adams in 1780, and he began Chapter V with: “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties . . . it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them: especially the university at Cambridge . . .” Without dwelling on the seductively parochial last phrase, Adams’ introductory sentence reminds us why we’re here. Since my letter this year will focus more than usually on the opportunities that are before us rather than on the means of achieving them, it is important that we keep our purpose in mind.

Sharing this concern, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford wrote recently of “the danger of entrenched success,” and he sounded a gentle alarm (for that institution, at least) about the need “to pause and think about what are the core values that [one] must protect.” “It is important,” he said, “that universities don’t maul those functions, ethos and values simply for short-term advantage.” For us in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, “entrenched success” is a financial stability that must not simply allow us to go about our businesses more expansively and with greater confidence. In my letter last year, I aimed to focus our thinking along more strategic lines when I asked: “How should we invest our new resources to transform the educational experience of our undergraduates and graduate students and to improve the scholarly lives of the faculty?” The answer was clear: we must increase the number of professors in the Faculty, while keeping the number of undergraduates constant and the number of graduate students steady. (I then briefly mused on some of the possible consequences of such an increase in the professoriate: of faculty-led seminars for the freshmen, of research apprenticeships for the graduate students, and [less controversially] of more leaves for the faculty.) An increase in the number of faculty colleagues was, indeed, part of our plan in 1992 when the goals for the Campaign were being set, but we neither met our target of 40 new professorships, nor did the Faculty grow. So this must now be our primary goal, and I should like for a moment to elaborate on the challenges of achieving it.

First, do we have the resources? Only a decade ago, we faced daunting deficits and the need to make difficult decisions among programs that had been born in more exuberant times. We trimmed our activities, and we learned to live with lower expectations for a less expansive future. The educational aspirations of our students and the creative ideas of our colleagues bubble up continually; they don’t wane with the nation’s economic indicators. Yet those aspirations and those ideas could not be buffered from what was going on beyond Johnston Gate, and we had to bring our programs into line with the income that fed them.

Today, we look out upon a different world. A world made better – for Harvard especially – by the great generosity of our alumni/ae and our friends, and by the impressive performance of those who manage our endowment. Could we have imagined, just nine years ago, that the Faculty would by now be able to show a multi-million dollar surplus (the first for well more than a decade), and that the percentage of our total operating budget coming from the endowment would have risen to 40 percent in the financial year just past? The Faculty is in excellent health. We enjoy deep pools of applications from students of superb ability and talent, we have managed to continue to improve our libraries and laboratories and classrooms, and we continue to attract splendid new colleagues to the Faculty. We have been able to make major new investments both in undergraduate financial aid and in graduate student support, we have taken steps to improve the compensation of our junior colleagues, and we have embarked on a major reshaping of our facilities. The budget is sound. No longer do I have to mimic Fiorello La Guardia (“There are three reasons why I can’t do this. The first is that we have no money. And the other two don’t matter.”). The question is not so much whether we have the resources, but rather how to apply them.

How we shape this opportunity is critical. We must be sure that the investments we make are sustainable, and that we don’t embark on programs that will improperly divert the Faculty’s resources when the national economy takes a less happy turn. We must avoid the temptations of a current boom, so we can be sure to escape the pain of a subsequent bust. With that caution, what is our largest challenge? Unquestionably, it is space.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences has at its heart a residential college, and we must necessarily situate most of our teaching and research space within the ambulatory reach of our undergraduates. Classes, sections, libraries, laboratories, and the faculty, must all be accessible, and on foot. Only the occasional trip (perhaps to the Harvard Forest for ecological biologists, to the Concord Field Station for animal behaviorists, or to Dumbarton Oaks for Byzantinists) is acceptable. Otherwise, what is needed for teaching and research must be here, in either real or virtual form. Space for expansion in Cambridge is so limited that we must continually ask whether a particular function (from book cataloguing to network maintenance to graduate student housing) really needs to be within a five-minute walk of John Harvard. For we all know that our Cambridge neighbors are increasingly concerned about our hopes and plans, and we must realize that some of them might remember that solemn utterance of President Lowell (even though he was thinking of money, not space, at the founding of the Harvard College Fund in 1925): “Of the needs of a University, there is, indeed, no end.”

With a wise eye on the distant future, the Corporation last spring authorized the purchase of another 50 acres of land in Allston. While there is much to be done there before any significant construction can begin (from consolidation of a number of the different parcels that Harvard owns, to decontamination of the soil in some areas, to the re-routing of easements, roads, and railway tracks), this land will provide welcome breathing room for the University as a whole. The considerable costs are likely to be covered by a new Infrastructure Fund, to which all the Faculties will proportionately contribute. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences will presumably benefit significantly from this important acquisition, both directly and indirectly.

Closer to home, Dean Nancy Maull is leading a major planning exercise for the last significant piece of land close to the Yard: the North Precinct. (This is the area bounded by Kirkland Street, Oxford Street, Hammond Street, and Kirkland Place.) Dean Maull has consulted with the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, all the relevant science departments (Physics, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Earth and Planetary Sciences, and in the social sciences, Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology), as well as (for geographical reasons) East Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Sanskrit and Indian Studies, and the Harvard-Yenching. The goal is to shape a plan that, by avoiding the higgledy-piggledy construction of buildings to satisfy immediate needs, will both make maximum use of the space for classrooms, libraries, laboratories, and collections, and ensure that the whole area will have an attractive coherence and scale. We are planning to replace the existing unsightly parking lots with an underground garage, and to construct (ultimately) more than 500,000 square feet of academic buildings in a landscape that is more open to our neighbors, and scales down to residential proportions along Hammond Street. The Accelerator building and the old Cyclotron structure will be removed to make way for new research and teaching laboratories. In addition, we have begun to explore the possibility of moving most of the collections of the Peabody Museum, and the ‘public’ collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Geological Museum, and the Botanical Museum, to much more suitable quarters in a new building, perhaps across the river. Museum exhibition space would be one of a mix of campus uses that the University would discuss as part of the community land use planning process. For example, the glass flowers and many of the animal specimens and skeletons could be more attractively displayed and much better appreciated by the public, and the collections of the Peabody could be more accessibly stored, preserved, and exhibited, in a new building. If this proved possible, we could both share the treasures of our museum collections more widely, and liberate space that is close to the Yard for teaching and research.

The academic need to increase the size of the faculty is what drives the planning for the North Precinct and elsewhere. But there are other needs, too, such as those for graduate student housing, for student rehearsal and performance space, for renovation and extension of our buildings (for History, Music, History of Art and Architecture, and others), as well as for projects that are very far along such as the Center for Government and International Studies. The cost of all these projects, when they are added up, amounts to a very large number. It is for these essential purposes that the budgetary surplus this year (and those that we hope for in the coming years) must be sequestered. We shall not neglect our ongoing needs: to bring new colleagues to Harvard, to raise senior and junior faculty compensation, to examine our leave policies for senior faculty (which is on the agenda for consideration by the Resources Committee), and further to improve undergraduate scholarship aid and graduate fellowship support. But in the spirit of carpe diem, we must grasp this chance to shape the space that a larger faculty will need in the years ahead.

So much for our goals. Is there anything we shall not do? In prosperous times, ideas abound for the use of good fortune, yet we must avoid trying ‘to do everything, but nothing well.’ We must resist the sirens, for example, of conceivably profitable distance-learning collaborations (either with corporations or with other universities) unless it’s clear that such efforts will further our educational purposes; we must turn back those who would have us increase the size of the College if that would dilute or degrade what is one of our most important assets; and we must understand that we have an opportunity to recognize new intellectual opportunities and to reshape the Faculty, as distinct merely from proportionately adding to it. For more than a year, I have been discussing with the Academic Deans and with the Chairs of a number of departments, both the needs of our existing departments and the opportunities presented by a changing intellectual landscape. These analyses will continue, for I believe that we must aim to create about six new faculty positions every year for the next 10 years.

With proper planning, with carefully targeted fund-raising, and with a cautious eye on our priorities, we can make this a redefining moment for the Faculty. The Resources Committee will, as always, be critical in helping to set our priorities and in guiding the implementation of them.

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