HIID, Dismantled

For many years, Harvard has moved gradually but consistently toward globalizing its mission and outreach, with new international programs in the...

For many years, Harvard has moved gradually but consistently toward globalizing its mission and outreach, with new international programs in the schools and new or expanded academic centers that focus on Asia, Latin America, and other regions. But in January, Provost Harvey Fineberg announced that the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID)--one of the University's first, and largest, foci for international work--would dissolve. In so doing Fineberg took the recommendation of a report by a special task force on HIID's future (see "Preview of a Review," November-December 1999, page 80). Rather than continuing HIID as an affiliated or allied institution, or separating it from Harvard, the report advised dismantling the institute, reducing its $35-million budget, and redistributing an unknown fraction of its projects and personnel within the University.

HIID was established in 1974 to provide economic and financial advice and consulting, primarily to government officials in developing countries in Asia and Africa. In the intervening decades, its programs broadened to include issues such as education, the environment, and health care in developing economies. And its geographic scope became worldwide, embracing new challenges such as the transition to markets in China, Russia, and eastern Europe. Today, HIID has 159 employees overseas and at Harvard; another 25 persons hold joint appointments within the University.

Finding "genuine structural issues" at stake, the task force recommended that HIID's activities "be significantly reduced in size and more closely linked with the University's educational mission"--suggesting a budget of only $15 million to $20 million per year and a professional staff of about 25, including those abroad.

The task force, which included three faculty members (a former HIID director among them) and was chaired by the associate provost, Dennis Thompson, noted first that several Harvard professional schools are now, or soon plan to be, involved in development studies, and all of them rely much less than before on HIID staff for their teaching. Second, "HIID has not been subjected consistently to the kind of academic review and oversight that other units and schools have experienced." Third, there were "uncertainties of foreign operations on this scale," a phrase that alludes, in part, to the 1997 imbroglio involving violations of HIID rules by project staff in Russia--an incident that cost HIID $14 million of a $57-million grant and remains the focus of a Justice Department investigation (see "Harvard in Russia: Conflicts of Interest," July-August 1997, page 63). "The difficulties with the Russian project...are anomalous," the report noted, but added, "...they do highlight the unforeseeable risks inherent in a worldwide enterprise such as HIID, however well managed." The chief rationale was that HIID's activities "are not sufficiently integrated into the University's core functions of teaching and research," unlike academic programs in the schools and regional centers.

One of those programs, the Center for International Development (CID), was created by HIID's director from 1995 to 1999, Stone professor of international trade Jeffrey Sachs. Established in mid 1998 to conduct academic research on development issues, rather than HIID-style consulting services, CID was seeded by present and future transfers of up to $13 million from HIID's endowment--half its value at the end of 1998. Sachs resigned from HIID last May to direct CID; the task-force review began shortly thereafter.

Understandably, HIID's impending demise dismays its proponents, and has unsettled its staff. "There's a lot of uncertainty about what the schools will be taking," says Donna McGee, HIID's assistant director for human resources, adding that all active projects will run to their normal ending dates and that plans are in place to retain the administrative staff through December.

The three faculties most likely to absorb the remnants of HIID are the Kennedy School, the School of Public Health, and the Graduate School of Education. But no public commitments have yet been made, and cultural issues loom large in the shift from a consulting to an academic enterprise. HIID has never been an easy operation to run, says senior associate Richard Goldman, an institute affiliate for 25 years who directs the organization's macroeconomics group. "You are doing applied economics--not necessarily cutting-edge research--in the rather sloppy context of developing countries." In the field, development consultants must make decisions quickly when foreign governments with little interest in a lengthy review process want to act. The schools will need to create alternate career structures for faculty who spend significant time abroad working on development tasks rather than pursuing research; they cannot be held to the same tenure standards as regular faculty.

Despite these challenges, "Harvard does not want to be so cautious that it does not take risks," says Thompson. "But those risks have to be proportionate to the contribution to the University's central mission. In the last five years, HIID grew bigger than it has ever been. By itself, that's not a problem, but being bigger and not integrated with Harvard's core functions is."

Since several HIID projects are ending this fall, "It's almost an ideal environment for rebuilding," says Goldman. "Almost any arrangement for HIID could work as long as the schools really want it to work. But there has to be some real positive energy and a serious commitment. I'm not at all convinced that commitment is there."

"Over the years there have been many attempts--reorganizations, changes of directors--to relate HIID projects more closely to research," says Thompson. "Each time it didn't quite work." Whether it works this time will depend on how the schools respond to HIID's dissolution.

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Harvard Portrait: Judith Grant Long

The associate professor of urban planning studies sports facilities and their impact.

The Way of The Blockbuster

In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule.

Picture-book Publisher

Claudia Bedrick ’85 of Enchanted Lion Books offers an international array of stories to young children.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults