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John Harvard's Journal

Getting Centered

September-October 2002

Almost unnoticed, much of the University's scholarly work has migrated from departments and individual professors' offices to dozens—perhaps hundreds—of freestanding centers (and institutes, projects, and programs). These entities enable faculty members to explore new areas of inquiry quickly and to collaborate across disciplinary lines. But the centers may also deflect attention from teaching priorities; they may evade appropriate oversight; and, like all academic entities, they exhibit a tendency to ossify, morphing from the temporary to the eternal. Thus academic centers are facing scrutiny by deans hoping to strike the proper balance between intellectual innovation and organizational overload.

First, consider the dimensions of the phenomenon. Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor emeritus, recalls that during his graduate studies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, members of the history faculty were affiliated with one extra-departmental center, on Russian studies. Today, he notes, there are at least 10, including centers for Afro-American studies, East Asia, European studies, Japan, Korea, Latin America, the Middle East, international studies, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, which has been his own scholarly home. Elsewhere in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), there are centers for everything from textile research to genomics and microscopic structures.

More broadly, the index of University websites yields a list of nearly four dozen "centers"—from FAS but also from the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), the School of Public Health (SPH), and elsewhere. Many more appear in the index under names tied to the centers' subject or that of their financial backer. The KSG operates 10 centers, each with multiple research programs. The Graduate School of Education lists nearly 30 research programs and centers. The medical school has a dozen centers (for eating disorders, neurodegeneration and repair, and so on), plus institutes and divisions, alongside its eight basic-science departments. The law school, planning a capital campaign, identified 18 faculty research centers, programs, and projects for which it seeks support. The provost's office now oversees a dozen University "interfaculty" initiatives, some of long duration, some launched under President Neil L. Rudenstine; one coordinates three separate human-rights centers in the law school, KSG, and SPH.

Bailyn cites the centers' advantages. First, he says, they "enrich Harvard" by bringing intellectually vibrant people to campus from around the world—lecturers, fellows, participants in seminars. Second, the centers serve as sponsors or homes for "organically developing scholarly activities"—such as the international seminar on the history of the Atlantic world that Bailyn has developed since 1995.

But he also notes "contradictory effects." Even as a department pursues its essential functions—renewing its member scholars, and determining the curriculum—locating its professors in diverse centers can be "dispersive." For all the varied, special research the historians can now undertake, Bailyn says, "The department doesn't cohere as it did before." He cautions that the centers "shouldn't drive the inner core of the place, the faculty's own research and teaching." The benefits of associating with a center's fellows, for instance, probably accrue more to graduate students than undergraduates. And the centers' foci may be apart from a scholar's initial, or principal, interests: some research in which historians participate at the centers is "policy driven" (as was the Russian studies operation at the outset of the Cold War).

Those academic issues, along with the recognition that centers vary in the soundness of their funding and governance (see "Developmental Troubles"), have begun to spur decanal interest in hitherto unsupervised growth. In a conversation shortly after he concluded his service as FAS dean on June 30, Jeremy R. Knowles ticked off a list of five concerns about the centers: function, funding, space, accountability, and lifetime.

"It's useful and helpful to cut the intellectual cake at a different angle," he began. For example, bringing people together to examine problems in international relations "allows the faculty and students to have more than one life"—as, say, historian and Asian specialist. But with the arrival of fellows and the building of programs, Knowles said, "How often is the question asked, 'Does this enrich our primary mission of teaching and research?'" If not often enough, a center can turn into a vehicle through which "Harvard is giving much more than it gets" from visitors. And there is the "distraction" from departmental obligations that Bailyn cited.

As to funding, Knowles, like all deans, worries about permanent endowments—versus flexible project monies—for a field of inquiry that may prove to be less than permanently important. (And project grants, of course, may fail to cover operating overhead.) A related concern, given the continuing growth in Harvard's employment (of late, several hundred new positions per year in the schools), is where to put everyone—especially with constraints on growth in Cambridge and with Allston providing only a very long-term solution (see "Allston Update"). Space, Knowles said, "is not a free good," posing hard choices over accommodating more faculty versus a center's staff or visiting fellows.

Both issues relate to governance. An FAS dean not only has dozens of academic departments to oversee, but also the directorships of each center, and, through them, their financial integrity, compliance with regulations, and so on. The problem worsens with interfaculty centers, where accountability is unclear. "The more they proliferate, the more work and concern it is to scrutinize them," Knowles said. "And what is their lifetime?" Compared to a department, where there is periodic structured outside review, and the discipline of recruiting professors, centers are in a gray area.

Better, Knowles said, that centers should "earn their continuance"—and to that end, broad changes are afoot. When FAS authorized the centers for genomics and mesoscale structures, Knowles required them to withstand review by outside experts within five years, and to demonstrate that their work can attract outside funding.

The School of Public Health has made those conditions general, broadened them, and applied them to all its existing centers—15 last year, now reduced to one-third that number. Dean Barry R. Bloom said that he and his 10 department chairs felt that several centers were "centrifugal." Although they focused on worthy projects in areas like children's health, they did not relate to the school's basic disciplines, nor contribute to funding faculty positions, teaching, and financial aid.

So SPH developed guidelines to insure that a center is engaged, as Bloom put it, in "multidisciplinary approaches to solving important problems." The criteria require that a center pursue a mission not accomplished by existing departments or centers, that it be truly interdepartmental or interfaculty in nature, and that its agenda engage multiple faculty members. Any center must be governed by a business and academic plan, subject to regular written progress reports, and must undergo five-year reviews by outside experts. And their charters will be for similar five-year terms.

Within SPH, the result was planned shrinkage: five centers now report to Bloom, and are being scheduled for external reviews; the others, judged too narrow in scope, report as academic programs to department chairs, who will determine their benefits and costs in relation to what else the departments are doing. The result, Bloom said, will be less clutter, better accountability, and clearer focus on the school's highest priorities.

In fact, the effect will likely be broader than that. After Bloom mentioned the SPH principles and requirements at a deans' meeting, they were circulated and are now under review as the nucleus for a Harvard-wide policy governing the chartering of new academic centers. Ultimately, a central statement that any center must demonstrate its value to the faculty's teaching and research might prove helpful, Knowles said.

Whatever policy emerges, the deans' discussion has caught the attention of an administration eager to emphasize Harvard's commitment to such basic priorities as pursuing superb research and strengthening undergraduate teaching and learning at a time of new constraint on resources. Provost Steven E. Hyman said the deans raised "concerns that while some centers are extremely valuable, many distract from the core mission of the schools, and a substantial fraction entail costs" that are a further drain. Part of twenty-first century Harvard may involve a more measured balance between pursuing a multitude of new ideas and focusing on those deemed most important to teaching and research.