Campus & Community

The future is now for FAS

long read

In Q&A session, Dean Smith outlines campaign goals and lessons learned

Following the launch of The Harvard Campaign last month, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) plans in the weeks ahead to outline its own fundraising goals and priorities. Leading the way will be FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, who took office in 2007, shortly before a global financial crisis that had an unprecedented impact on Harvard’s largest School. In the years since, Smith has balanced a projected $350 million combined operating budget deficit, while maintaining the size of the faculty, increasing financial aid, and launching some important initiatives, including renewal of the College’s undergraduate Houses.

Late this month, he will launch the Campaign for Arts and Sciences. Smith recently spoke about the priorities for the coming campaign and his vision for the FAS.

GAZETTE: It’s been nearly seven years since you took the helm of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Can you describe where you see the FAS as being today, and where it’s headed in coming years?

SMITH: I think the FAS is in tremendous shape right now intellectually. Although institutions of higher education as a sector are facing some shared financial pressures, stemming from both global economic instability and a weak federal funding environment, among other things, I think the FAS is managing those fiscal challenges.

Intellectually, we have seen a re-emergence of initiatives that are being developed organically through our faculty. The work of researchers like Dan Schrag and Dan Nocera, for example, has generated a great deal of excitement around issues of energy and the environment. With their leadership, we are beginning to pull together the many resources we have — both in the FAS, but in the professional Schools as well — to address very important questions in that space.

These efforts, however, aren’t limited to science and engineering. The faculty working groups that [Dean of Arts and Humanities] Diana Sorensen has put together, and the work they have done on the arts and the humanities, have given us a voice on the national and international stage on the future of the humanities. They are rethinking the curriculum and how we should be bringing this thinking to young students as they’re choosing a concentration.

Going forward, I hope we will continue to be viewed as we are today: as an institution with broad-based excellence across many scholarship areas. But I also hope we get to the other half of our mission: to be known for our emphasis on teaching and learning, and for helping to answer the question of what higher education should look like in the 21st century. That needs to go beyond just curriculum and into the ways we are interacting with students in the classroom. What should our students be doing before they get to the classroom? How do we understand whether they are learning the material, and ensure they retain it? Those are the sort of questions Harvard can be a leader in answering.

GAZETTE: You have made teaching and learning a priority in recent years, and it’s also a central theme of the FAS campaign. How do you see teaching and learning fitting into the FAS mission?

SMITH: In my opinion, teaching and learning are central to our mission. We should be putting as much effort into those areas as we put into our research. I have dedicated a great deal of my deanship to supporting teaching and learning efforts.

This is a particularly important time for Harvard’s voice to be heard on these subjects. There are a number of questions being raised about higher education’s place in the world today, and I absolutely think Harvard should be a leader in answering those questions. Over its history, Harvard has been a leader in the education “space.” Our faculty’s work on the “Red Book” in the 1940s influenced a large number of institutions across the nation and, eventually, around the world. I think we’re at a moment like that again, where we should be stepping up. It’s a different moment, with different questions being asked, but Harvard has done this in the past, and we should be doing this again.

We can bring a range of expertise to the table that is unique compared with our peer institutions, and we have made changes to our institutional support structures to make information about the latest research on pedagogy and neuroscience available to more of our faculty, so those who are interested in doing something new and creative in the classroom know where to start. I have also strengthened the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, so when someone has a creative idea we can measure whether it had an effect on the learning of our students. That kind of assessment needs to be built in from the beginning

Today, we’re building on the combined knowledge of what’s happening in this space, but we haven’t had the institutional structures to do that in the past. We can then stand up and say to the world, this is what we’re working on, this is what we have found — you may want to adapt it for your student base or your particular curriculum, and this is how we can help.

GAZETTE: Last year saw a major controversy in the FAS regarding academic integrity and other issues. What can the FAS do to recover from that, and what can administrators do to restore trust with the Harvard community?

SMITH: On the trust issue, briefly, I think we are addressing that by getting out and talking — through conversations, discussions, and meeting with people. There’s no better antidote than bringing people together for honest, straightforward, face-to-face conversations, and that’s been happening.

The larger issue, I believe, is academic integrity, and it’s not new. It’s been bubbling in academia for at least 10 years, with a number of people working on honor codes and similar issues. I’m proud of our community for having the hard discussions, for being willing to say we’re not doing as well as we should be.

We need to consider how we can better communicate our standards of academic integrity, and why it’s important, in ways that are effective and that address the relentless change we see in the world today, and the ways technology is changing how people work and collaborate. We have also become a much more international community in recent years, and we know that the concepts of intellectual property and what you can and can’t use without attribution — there are vast cultural differences in the world.

We need to dig into this, as our community has always dug into hard problems, and that’s what has happened over the past year. The answers are not always easy, they’re not going to come quickly, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

GAZETTE: House renewal has also been identified as a campaign priority, but it’s something you’ve been working on for some time. How important is House renewal in Harvard’s educational mission?

SMITH: I believe strongly that residential education — the kind of education we have happening not only in our classrooms, but outside the classrooms, especially in the Houses — is critical for building the kinds of experiences and learning opportunities that will allow our student body to be successful and outstanding citizens in the 21st century.

We started this process officially in 2008, but it was a topic of discussion among the leadership of the FAS as far back as 2007. In fact, when I took office, one of the first things that appeared on my desk was a review of the state of our Houses. One of the reasons this was such a priority for us was that, physically, some parts of the Houses, such as heating systems and electrical systems, needed work.

As an eternal optimist, I decided that if we were going to tear some walls out, the right question to ask was where we should put them back that will best support the programs that run through our House system, and support the needs of the students, as well as other issues like safety and accessibility. One challenge for this type of project was how to balance the history of the Houses with modern needs — how could we make this still feel like a Harvard House, but have the conveniences — and support the needs of today’s students, and hopefully generations of students to come.

Our first test project, Old Quincy/Stone Hall, opened last month, and has received nothing but glowing feedback. The spaces look wonderful, but more importantly, they are working right for what the students want and need, the programs we’re trying to run, and what the House masters and tutors are trying to accomplish.

GAZETTE: One of the other challenges you’ve faced in recent years was the financial crisis. Despite large drops in revenue, you made a point of maintaining financial aid budgets. Why?

SMITH: Shortly after I took over in 2007, I put in place a number of initiatives to more strongly direct how we were using our revenues and other resources in support of our academic plans, so when the financial crisis hit, we were already heading in the right direction.

The financial crisis was still a major shock to the system. It had a huge effect on our endowment, which at that time provided more than 50 percent of the annual revenue coming to the FAS. We had to put together a plan to deal with reduced revenues, and it was a decision of mine to say everything is on the table except financial aid. I felt strongly that we had to find a way to continue to fund that, and to keep that program headed in the right direction.

We had done a tremendous amount to invest in financial aid and have it truly help talented students realize that they could come to Harvard and take advantage of the opportunities we have here, and not be held back because of their family’s particular financial circumstances. It was having such a huge impact on our students and the kinds of talent we were bringing here that it was clear we didn’t want to interrupt that in any way.

When you sit with some of the students — every year we have a dinner that brings together students who receive financial aid with the donors who provide the funds for their particular scholarship, and that is one of the most heart-warming events. We ask two students to stand up and talk about their particular circumstances, where they come from, their aspirations, and how financial aid is enabling them to realize their dreams going forward, and it’s just an amazing event. You see those sorts of things, and you know you’re doing the right thing.

GAZETTE:  You also kept the size of the faculty stable.

SMITH: Yes.  In the years before the crisis, the faculty identified the need to hire more tenure and tenure-track faculty members, in part because we needed to reduce the ratio of students to faculty. At the beginning of the crisis, we had approximately 100 more faculty members than a decade previously.

We decided early on that maintaining the size of the faculty was critical, both to support teaching and learning [and] to support the ongoing intellectual enterprise.  As a result, we never stopped searching or hiring.  Although those activities certainly slowed during that period, we are back to precrisis levels.

GAZETTE: Can you outline where things stand with the search for the next dean of Harvard College, and how interim Dean Don Pfister has done since stepping into that role?

SMITH: First of all, Don is fantastic. Being in an interim position is always difficult, but he’s dug into the situations — both the opportunities and the challenges — in front of the College, so I’m extremely thankful for his service to the College and to our students.

Don is a citizen of this institution in so many ways. He is an outstanding teacher in the classroom, but he’s also a former House master, and his experiences as someone who has been part of our community for a long time have been particularly helpful to draw upon.

In regards to the search, I spent time this summer talking to faculty, College staff, and some of our alumni leaders. Those conversations are continuing this fall. I have a faculty advisory committee that has already met once to talk about what the opportunities and challenges are for the College, and how those translate into skills we might value in the next College dean.

I’m also talking with students. I met with the Undergraduate Council last week. And there are a number of student town halls planned in which I will meet with students across the freshman Yard, the river Houses, and the quad Houses to hear their thoughts on what qualities and characteristics they feel will be important for the next Dean to have.

At this point, I have hesitated to specify what characteristics I might be searching for because I want to hear from others. But there are some obvious ones. We want someone who understands the College and who cares deeply about the students’ experiences both in the classroom and outside the classroom, and who enjoys sitting down and talking with them.

Right now we have a very clear calendar for the consultation phase of the process, but frankly that’s the easy part. Then the hard work of trying to whittle down the names and do some interviewing will begin, and it will be a very individualized process. So I couldn’t give a timeline for the back end of this type of search.

GAZETTE: Are there any lessons you feel you’ve learned since taking over as dean?

SMITH: There are a lot of lessons. Every day brings something new. I will say I undertook this job not pretending I would understand all the pieces of it. The FAS is a wonderful organization, but it’s also a very large and complex organization. Over the last 6½ years, I have tried to be a student of the FAS, and spend time exploring parts of it that I have not been to before. Everywhere I go, our faculty and staff are incredibly generous with their time, and are excited about the things they’re working on, and how it will have an impact on the education of our students, or on the generation of new knowledge.

One of the other lessons I’ve learned, especially as we enter into this campaign, was about the impact Harvard has had on the world beyond Cambridge. I had known that Harvard has an exceptional alumni base who care about what we do. But when I talk with those individuals and hear their stories about the effect this institution has had on them, or the interactions they’ve had with our faculty, staff, and students, it takes you to a new level of appreciation for the impact the FAS has on so many people.