The importance of the University’s mission has been heightened by the challenges of our times, President Drew Faust said Thursday (Sept. 24), but Harvard must foster a new culture of collaboration across the University in order to meet those challenges.
“What we do here can make a great difference,’’ Faust said in a speech that took the place of the president’s annual welcome-back letter to the community. “While much of the world’s focus is so often on near-term results, we have a distinctive opportunity to take the long view — to see the issues of the moment in the light of history, and with eyes on a horizon beyond tomorrow’s headlines.”
Faust told the audience in Sanders Theatre, and those watching her on a live Webcast, that institutions of higher education were uniquely positioned to contribute to the global conversation about economic uncertainty, health care inequality, and even religious and cultural strife.
“At a time when higher education faces new financial constraints, our work here has never mattered more,’’ she said.
Setting the tone for the new academic year, Faust said that attracting and supporting top faculty, students and staff, promoting cross-disciplinary collaboration, and investing in cutting-edge research in the sciences and the humanities would continue to be priorities for the University even as it works through one of the most challenging financial periods in its history.
But she looked back frankly on the past academic year, when Harvard’s endowment dropped by $11 billion, prompting a series of cost-cutting efforts that included a reduction in the number of staff, “many of whom had served Harvard ably for years,” she said. While the steps taken by the University improved its position heading into the current academic year, it is still necessary to continue to reduce expenses, she said. “It will be a long time before the endowment recovers its steep losses,’’ she added.
At the same time, she noted a number of initiatives already under way that would foster collaboration and help save money in areas such as technical support and procurement. “Local decision making is important for certain things we need,’’ she said. “When each of us has discretion to decide which of 30 different shades of crimson to put on our business cards, we’ve carried things too far.’’
Adversity, she noted, is said to make one stronger, and she added that the financial constraints that the University has faced should be an incentive to re-examine some of the elements of Harvard’s famously decentralized administration.
“We must embrace the opportunity, and the necessity, to work more efficiently and cooperatively,” she said. “It means finding new ways, in a time of financial constraint, to benefit from what people in each part of Harvard can offer one another. In short, we must dedicate ourselves — individually and collectively — to harnessing the power of a more unified Harvard.”
Smart collaboration should enhance the quality of education and research across the campus, she said, as the University prepares students to become citizens of the 21st century.
“We need to engage the world, locally and globally — as responsible citizens committed to public purposes, as students and scholars ready to help solve complex problems with rigor and imagination, as people who live by the ethical standards we teach, as individuals who repay the privilege of being in a rare place like this by using our knowledge to help advance the well-being of people in the world beyond our walls,” she said.
The new General Education curriculum, and work being done to enhance health care around the globe, were prime examples of University-wide partnerships, she said.
“Whether our endowment is $37 billion or $26 billion, there is a wealth of intellectual opportunity within this university. Much of it lies in probing deeper and deeper within the disciplines,’’ she said. “But much of it lies in breaking out of our usual boxes and tapping into the resources we might find not just across the hall, but across the street, or across the campus, or across the river. We need one another to do our best work.”
After her remarks, Faust took questions from members of the audience, both in the crowd and online, about everything from nuclear disarmament to the nature of the Harvard presidency. One online viewer asked if there was any way members of the staff could offer suggestions for helping Harvard meet its financial constraints.
“The answer to that is there ought to be,” Faust said. Fashioning a solution on the spot, she encouraged members of the Harvard community to e-mail suggestions to her office.