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John Harvard's Journal

The Provost Meets the Press...

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Harvey v. Fineberg '67, M.D. '71, M.P.P. '72, Ph.D. '80, who had served as dean of the School of Public Health since 1984, was appointed University provost in April 1997. He met with editors of Harvard Magazine at Massachusetts Hall late in October to discuss intellectual collaboration among scholars, the use of information technology, and other issues shaping Harvard's future. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Harvard Magazine: What is it like to go from being a dean to being provost?

Harvey Fineberg: The biggest difference is span of responsibility. A dean has executive authority and responsibility for a faculty--administration of that school, academic programs, and external relations. The provost, after the president, is the second officer of the University who is trying to look out over the enterprise as a whole. To make a corporate analogy, I'd say that the move from being a dean to being provost is like moving from president of Chevrolet to vice chairman at General Motors.

All the authority of the provost--and of every administrative officer and dean --is derived from the president. Before Neil Rudenstine became president, he had served for many years as provost at Princeton, where he had a very successful collaborative relationship with the president. Neil didn't appoint a Harvard provost instantly, but he raised the idea early with the deans, and came to a conclusion about the kind of role that he wanted the provost to play. He has organized the work largely as an extension of his own. For example, we both work on reviewing senior faculty appointments. He concentrates on those that come up through the arts and sciences faculty. He has asked me to review those that come up through those graduate faculties that have ad hoc procedures for making tenured appointments.

Both of us participate in representing the University, and meeting with alumni and friends of Harvard. There is no substitute for the president at many of these functions, but at his request I do go. I have sometimes described it by saying that at Harvard there is God, there is the president, and there is the provost--and there is far more distance between the second and the third than between the first and the second. But operationally, Neil has established this post as a real partnership.

HM: What issues are you focusing on?

HF: The president has asked me to concentrate on three general areas. One is the set of activities reaching across the several faculties, including the interfaculty initiatives and other programmatic areas that are University-wide. Second is working mainly with the vice presidents and the president on the efficiency and effectiveness of the University's central administration: to operate more productively, more economically, more successfully. Third is the full range of information technology and information systems.

HM: Let's talk about those intellectual collaborations across faculties--the formal interfaculty initiatives, the regional centers, the new science initiatives. What intellectual shifts are causing the boundaries to be crossed? What are some of the results?

HF: I draw a distinction between interfaculty or interdisciplinary collaboration as a strategy for academic advancement, scholarship, and education, and interfaculty initiatives as specific subjects or enterprises that have been put into place at Harvard. Sometimes there is too much emphasis on the latter, and not enough appreciation of its connection to the former--the strategy of collaboration as a valuable asset for the University in advancing its program.

At the time the capital campaign was conceived, one component related to five interfaculty initiatives--on the mind, brain, and behavior; children; health policy; ethics and the professions; and the environment. Each one of them is important, but it would be a mistake to ignore the larger array.

Consider the centers focused on geographic regions--most recently, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Asia Center, which draws upon the strengths of country-specific centers like the Fairbank Center, for China, the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, the Korea Institute, and so on. These centers, most of them stewarded by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, to varying degrees self-define their scope academically as embracing disciplines and professions from around the University.

Beyond regional studies, the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, based at the Kennedy School, was defined from the outset as a University-wide endeavor, and there are comparable programs on population, Native American studies, international development, and foreign affairs. When you combine that with the evolving programs in the sciences, you have collaboration, in various combinations, across the several parts of the University.

In other words, Harvard now has a growing family of activities focused by geography, or a substantive problem, or in some other way academically bounded--all of which benefit by bringing together faculty with disciplinary strengths and professional grounding from all around the University.

These activities have several traits in common. First, some of the most exciting intellectual advances are occurring at the interfaces between disciplines, rather than within them. I'll illustrate that with the sciences in just a moment.

Second, when you examine some of these complex social challenges--whether they have to do with the environment, or health systems, or healthy children--in every case it is evident that the complexity of the problems, and the multiplicity of tools needed to deal with them, call for a multidisciplinary, multifaculty approach to finding solutions.

Third, if you look at people's career paths, the kind of training that traditionally focused on a narrow field or profession increasingly doesn't match actual life experiences. People now spend time in business, in government, perhaps in a nonprofit organization--they have different roles at different stages in their lives--so we need to think afresh about the shape and organization of research and teaching across the boundaries of our faculties and disciplines as well.

HM: How does that apply to the sciences?

HF: Harvard has recently made major commitments to new science initiatives that extend across the University [see "Big Thinking about Science," March-April 1999, page 65]. If you think about progress in the sciences since World War II, much of it has been premised on the reductionist model of analysis--breaking the problem down into smaller and smaller constituent pieces, going from the organism, to the organ, to the cell, to the molecule, to give an example from biology.

Increasingly, there is an appreciation that you probably need to be doing two types of intellectual work simultaneously. One is analytic and reductionist, and the other is synthetic and integrative: you need not only to break down problems into their tiniest constituents, but also to look at and understand the connectedness on a larger, systematic scale.

The reality is that scientific progress is going to come from fresh insights brought to given fields by people who approach problems with a different set of tools and experiences, who ask a different set of questions from those they encountered in the disciplines they were brought up in. That's manifest in areas like neuroscience and the mind, brain, and behavior initiative. It is also a key premise behind two new science centers in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, dealing with genomics and with the properties of mesoscale materials.

We have an educational need to be able to work more flexibly across faculty boundaries. And in terms of our larger mission of serving society, we need to bring together all the relevant disciplines and expertise that bear on solving these social challenges.

None of this replaces the core importance of disciplines, or the fundamental organization by faculties of the University. Indeed, you could argue that the secret of Harvard's success is its curious combination of formal centralization of authority in the hands of the president, and operational decentralization of responsibility and authority to deans and faculties working to advance their fields. That's been brilliantly successful.

We are trying to complement this, not replace it, by making it easier to permeate the membranes that separate the parts. The evidence of the last decade suggests Harvard is succeeding in making it attractive for people so inclined to work together across the traditional boundaries.

HM: How far along is Harvard in exploring academic applications of the rapidly evolving new kinds of information technologies in the classroom and elsewhere in the educational enterprise?

HF: Let's begin by thinking a bit about technology and education, before addressing information or computing technology per se. In the dictionary definition, "technology" is knowledge applied to a purpose--a pretty broad definition. A book is a learning technology. A piece of chalk is a learning technology. Photocopying had an incredible impact on pedagogic possibility.

Sometimes, however, technology brings into question certain assumptions you never questioned before because there was no possibility of thinking about them differently. For example, before there was the possibility of hearing a lecture, and seeing the accompanying slides, while you are somewhere else, you never had to ask yourself, "How important is it to be part of a class with other people?" Now technology opens that possibility, so you must at least pose the question. In the same way, when printing made books cheap enough to become widely available, how necessary was it for you to hear what professors were saying, as opposed to just reading what they were writing?

My point is, this is not the first time technology has affected education. What's different is that the rapid development and extensive capacity of the new technology pose these questions with greater force to traditional, widely practiced forms of pedagogy at all levels of education.

Typically, with the advent of a new technology, we tend first to think of it metaphorically and practically in terms of a familiar technology. Only over time do we come to understand new technologies in their own terms and and to think about what they make possible. When I went to the movies as a child, a curtain would be drawn back before the film began to reveal the screen. Why was there a curtain? Well, it was a theater. A performance at a theater began with a curtain. In other words, we carry over familiar parts of the technology and apply them to the new.

Now, what about that is relevant to the new information technology? For practical reasons, a class lasts 50 minutes, or an hour and a half, or three hours. If you're learning at a distance, is there something pedagogically valuable in that time frame, or should the instructor rethink the time and pacing of the way material is presented because the technology has different capacities? What would be the meaning of a course in that new world?

There is abundant evidence that computing and information technology is already having a profound effect on the course-learning experience even of students in residence. That's true throughout the University, to varying degrees. One of the cheeriest parts of my job is advising freshmen. I know my advisees are much more likely to send me an e-mail than to pick up a telephone, when they think they may be intruding. You can do a lot by e-mail, and it doesn't diminish the interaction. It may, in fact, enhance it, because you can get over that initial threshold and decide, "We really should get together for lunch to talk about that."

The key, though, is to keep in mind first the mission, objective, and purpose of the educational experience, and only then to think about the ways technology can enable or stretch the possibilities.

As a general observation, we might think separately about those technology applications that reinforce, strengthen, and/or enhance existing programs, on the one hand, as distinct from the new possibilities that technology opens up in terms of extending the reach of education in ways, and to audiences, that were not previously imaginable. Those are both relevant, important questions for us. How we come to grips with these questions now--with the faculty, the deans, and, ultimately, with the president and the governing boards, will have very far-reaching consequences for Harvard.

HM: What applications are working, and how are they changing the University's educational processes?

HF: There is a lot of experimentation. Look at the Business School model over the last three years, for example. All the core teaching material is on an Intranet: if you're enrolled in the M.B.A. program, you log on to get your assignments. The cases are still mainly printed, but a growing number utilize technology like video. Reading an interview with a plant manager is very different from actually looking at it, seeing when the person squirms, and how his expression changes. You get different insights.

In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences [FAS], H.T. Kung [Gates professor of computer science and electrical engineering] has for several years taught a collaborative distance-learning course with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, in which students in both places are involved simultaneously in collective discussion and learning. And the Business School has deployed a kind of hybrid executive program for participants in Asia. They began with group sessions in Singapore, proceeded to do individual work from their homes over the Internet, and then reconvened in Boston for the conclusion of the course. Looking at experiments like these, which use a variety of technologies and course formats, I'd say we're in an extremely active learning phase of what works and what doesn't.

Across those experiments, it is clear that good teaching will still be the fundamental asset of a learning environment. What constitutes good teaching may be broadened, in the same way that lectures call upon different skills than seminars. We have to discover what it is that constitutes good teaching with that technical capacity, and we will. That, in turn, will become over time part of the skill set that one searches for, and cherishes, and nurtures, among the faculty.

HM: Do you expect technologically enabled distance learning to emerge first, or principally, in the Extension School? What about applications to the College and graduate courses in FAS?

HF: Well, the Extension School, largely, is already the projection of FAS courses. It evolved when teachers in Boston approached President Lowell to request Harvard's help in refreshing their skills in the subjects they were teaching. Today thousands of people participate in Extension every year. The idea of Harvard having courses available to the public is venerable. So the challenge, again, is for us to sort out where the new applications will make the most sense.

Another dimension of this is our communication and involvement with alumni. The new technology offers exciting ways of strengthening the engagement of alumni, increasing their familiarity with intellectual life at Harvard, and enriching their own lives. We already have the Post.Harvard e-mail-forwarding service, and the MyHarvard Web portal, which is very attractive and appealing. Again, the technology isn't the driver or the objective, but it may be an enabler. Previously we couldn't imagine cheaply reaching thousands of alumni instantly. Now we can.

HM: Turning from the classroom and the laboratory, you mentioned efficiency and productivity in the University's operations--not just installing new systems thorough Project ADAPT, but a variety of efforts. What are your administrative and operational priorities?

HF: Whatever else Harvard may be, it is a large business. Our annual budget is about $1.8 billion. It's a far-flung enterprise, with multiple units operating mainly in Cambridge and Boston, but also around the world.

Like many other enterprises, it exists in a much more complicated world than it did a generation earlier--partly because of scale, but also because of the regulatory environment and legal expectations, and because of the complexity of its objectives and operations. Much of the infrastructure that may have served well in an earlier era is no longer up to the task. Over the last six or eight years, while responding to these challenges and raising new resources through the Campaign, Harvard's central administrative expenses have been kept at a much lower pace of growth than expenses for the University as a whole. That is a credit to the determination and efficiency of the vice presidents who collectively lead the central administration.

During that time we have been working on Project ADAPT, which, in its first phase, has totally replaced the University's core financial systems, essentially succeeding a system that had been in place for 50 years--from an era when Harvard, for example, had virtually no federal grants. The initial implementation has been remarkably smooth. There was not a day of disruption of the University's financial function. It is true that the system is still limited, can be cumbersome, and needs to be enhanced, particularly in such areas as grants management. We will accomplish that.

The next major phase of that project will reach out to the human-resources components of our operations. That will also be very complicated, but I think it will benefit from what we learned with the financial systems.

Once up and running, ADAPT is not really a separate project. It simply becomes the way we conduct our business. So ADAPT dissolves into the way we do our financial management. And it will ultimately be simply the way we track and manage recruitment, appointment, promotion, compensation, and data systems about people who are here.

We've also worked hard on the whole area of what we call "risk management"--an effort to understand how Harvard's legal and contractual obligations can potentially produce risks to the University. How we mitigate that risk obviously involves our general counsel and audit functions, but also such factors as environmental management, which are handled increasingly by coordinating responsibility across the whole University.

Strengthening the quality of our work force, along with its diversity--that's a very important and growing emphasis.

Finally, no one can overstate the importance of public and community relations to Harvard today. Our operations are so intertwined with support from the national government in the biomedical sciences, for example. The same is true for student scholarship support. Nearer home, this factors into the ability of the University to reshape itself physically within our communities in Cambridge and in Boston. These issues all demand a significantly enhanced capacity to manage Harvard's public face.

So everywhere you look, running Harvard has become more challenging from the point of view of the demands made on management by this large, far-flung, complex, multifaceted enterprise that is working under increasing pressures from the external environment--legally, socially, politically. It's extraordinary that the University has managed as well as it has when its administrative budgetary growth has been so sharply constrained.

HM: You've just come back from Asia. Among the elements making Harvard more complex is its global scope, with international studies, international students, and rising interest in getting out into the world to do research. Where is Harvard headed internationally?

HF: There is no doubt that Harvard aspires to have a global scope. It attracts students from all over the world. In many of its academic and professional programs, an international focus is a very natural, and even a necessary, component. I would certainly include the fact of globalization of business as one example. And traditionally, for example, the School of Public Health has always been internationally minded. A significant fraction of its students, and of Kennedy School students, come from outside the country. And the fastest-growing component of the Law School is its international-law programs. International thinking, or global mindedness, from an educational point of view is really quite central today.

How you fulfill this opportunity in practical terms is a continuing challenge for Harvard. To what extent do you establish an international presence, and in what locations? To what extent do you embark on collaborations for partnerships with institutions or industries abroad? In what ways do you permit or encourage student experience in parts of the world outside of the United States?

My trip included a visit to the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies, a collaborative arrangement of a dozen universities that enables students to study, in depth, for a year or a semester, the language and culture of Japan. Examining collaborations like that is part of our ongoing development of international programs.

HM: Even as the University expands around the world, it obviously is also thinking about what it needs to do locally. What challenges face Harvard in creating needed facilities in its central campus?

HF: In the last century, Harvard has, on average, gained about a million square feet of buildings per decade. If you examine maps from early in the century, you see that what were previously large blocks of open space within cities, or on the river, are now occupied parts of Cambridge or Boston or the University.

Our ability to think about continued growth, insofar as that is necessary to fulfill our mission, means that today we have to be much more systematic, proactive, consultative, and deliberate in our planning and development of future physical space.

For the last year our associate provost, Dennis Thompson, and our vice president for administration, Sally Zeckhauser, have cochaired a physical planning committee [see "South by North Harvard," September-October 1999, page 67]. Their work has been absolutely salutary in helping us think about the future development of the University in fresh ways. In particular, I found very instructive the committee's notion of what they call "academic precincts," as distinct from schools or faculties. That gives you a fresh insight into both the opportunities and the constraints on further development of physical space. We have to continue that process for all the reasons I've cited.

HM: With the capital campaign ending and the year 2000 beginning, what are the principal points on your agenda for Harvard's future--its chief intellectual and operational challenges and opportunities?

HF: A few things are pretty clear. One is that the sciences and engineering/computing science are going to be in rapid evolution and development at Harvard--partly because of technological advance, partly because of the new way of thinking, both analytically and synthetically, that I described earlier. There are growing opportunities here across the faculties and departments--FAS, the medical and public health schools. This is going to be a critically important development for us.

Second, information technology will be a very substantial and important area--affecting education, research, and administrative functions.

Globalization, the international reach of the University--the mix of students, the content of our curriculum, the experience of faculty in different parts of the world--will be very important, too.

I believe that in educational terms, fresh thinking about the interconnectedness
of experience across the professional schools--for example law, government, and business--will be increasingly important. So will the lifelong-learning concept, and the reality of what that means for our alumni and the function of the University--that is going to be a very important area for us in the coming years.

In the postcampaign era, the president is embarking on an exercise with the deans and the governing boards to think through these thematic emphases for the University as a whole, and the ways in which we can most effectively make progress on them. In terms of planning and strategic development, that will be the hallmark of the postcampaign phase under Neil's leadership.