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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Iron and Silk

March-April 2003

Half an academic year into his service as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), William C. Kirby uses his first annual letter to set the priorities that will shape the College and the Graduate School. The letter—disseminated in early February and available electronically at www.fas.harvard.edu under "Dean and Administration"—places particular emphasis on reviewing the undergraduate curriculum; offering students "an increasingly international education, at Harvard and abroad"; expanding facilities for scientific research; and increasing the size of the faculty "significantly."

At the same time, Kirby conveys some sense of his style (including humor) and his approach to managing the faculty's affairs to achieve its aims. No sooner does the letter list goals for growth than the dean cautions that "we aim to do all this, and more, as we enter a period of greater financial constraint than any of us would have predicted a year ago." With FAS expenses rising more rapidly than revenues (see page 61), Kirby, an historian of contemporary China, invokes a phrase from that culture and interprets it thus: "ju an si wei: 'in a time of peace, anticipate danger.' We must and we will be ambitious. We will be prudent, so that we can be ambitious."

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Rethinking undergraduate studies remains a central mission (see "College Studies," January-February, page 61). The four committees charged with assessing breadth and depth of knowledge (a common core of learning, and concentration studies), teaching, and the wider student experience of undergraduate education, are being appointed now, Kirby disclosed in a late-January interview, and may be announced even as this issue goes to press. But his letter could already list areas of broad agreement on needed change. For one thing, direct faculty-student contact should increase. Students should face fewer formal course requirements. A Harvard education ought to promote "scientific literacy" and "international and global studies," with more undergraduates pursuing those opportunities abroad.

The office of international programs, in fact, is now located prominently in University Hall, the FAS headquarters, symbolizing the importance Kirby places on implementing the new, more liberal, study-abroad rules. The office's new director is Jane Edwards, the head of international studies at Wesleyan University since 1994. And work is under way to make it easier for students who venture afield to satisfy Core curriculum and concentration requirements. Every department, Kirby said, is asked to "find a way to make it possible for students to study abroad—to advise students how to do it, not how not to do it."

He is also ready to move beyond the current advising system. Kirby said advising often fails because it is offered chiefly in "the incredibly frantic, hectic first week of classes" each semester when syllabi are still being photocopied and books are not yet all on the Coop shelves. As such, he briskly writes, it "has simply not worked." Better advising will be a concern of the curriculum review. Competent advising ought to comprise "reflection and long-term thinking" about students' course of study. In the meantime, the shift next fall to early course selection for the spring 2004 term ought to confer many logistical benefits, but the dean sees possibly large academic gains as well: "The idea of advising people before they choose their courses may sound revolutionary," he said, "but we're going to try it."

Kirby must also find space for undergraduate activities and the faculty. The Rieman Center for the Performing Arts, home to undergraduate dance programs, reverts to Radcliffe Institute use in 2005, making it urgent to find an alternate venue (see page 6). Other kinds of performance space are also in tight supply, Kirby writes, and the hoped-for renovation of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals building (now under FAS control) has proved more difficult and costly than thought. Also looming is the reversion to Radcliffe of Byerly Hall—now home to undergraduate admissions and financial aid and the graduate-school administration—at the end of 2006.

Much the most daunting space challenge is the shortage of scientific laboratories, which the letter deems "acute." The envisioned solutions will be complex and costly, and may extend farther than had been imagined. Beyond the new genomics center and expansion of the Science Center, Kirby reports on advanced development work for a new physical-sciences laboratory, adjacent to the McKay labs, and construction beneath the lawn-cum-volleyball court in the Biological Labs courtyard. If all goes well, those buildings might be in use in two to three years. Were the stars aligned, Kirby said, two new laboratory buildings, just now being planned, could be functioning at the frontiers of the "North Precinct" (see page 64) within the next five years. All told, those projects might bring a few hundred thousand square feet of facilities on line. Ambitious as that sounds, the dean said, "In terms of the long-term growth in the sciences, it will in time be barely enough."

Hence the need to think outward and inward. A near-term solution for the scientists might be the Watertown Arsenal (see next article and "In Watertown, a New Frontier?" May-June 2001, page 69). Unlike Cambridge space, "It is there," Kirby said, and such uses are permitted. Room might also be found nearer at hand by rejiggering existing uses and examining how much square footage each scientist needs to operate efficiently. Moreover, in the sciences, he notes, among those faculty members who have reached 70 years since 1993, more than one-third have not retired (see "A Slightly Grayer Faculty," November-December 2002, page 60). Without making any policy conclusions, he suggests the need to monitor matters closely, ensuring that "no matter the career stage of an individual faculty member, the allocation of space and other forms of support is reasonably aligned with each colleague's contributions to research, teaching, and citizenship."

The letter reports two internal FAS initiatives that will also affect faculty life. First, Kirby projects legislation this spring making teacher education and professional preparation a formal part of graduate students' experience. Although those students pick up skills de facto through their work as teaching fellows, some series of seminars, colloquiums, and regular training exercises may be proposed for their curriculum.

Second, academic planning will begin to "refine our estimation of how much growth" in the faculty ranks is needed to achieve teaching and research goals, and "where that growth ought to occur." This work parallels the undergraduate curriculum review, but it is also quite separate. "We have lots of good information about the individual units of the faculty as they are now constructed," the dean said, referring to departments, programs, and academic centers. That information is not matched by equally good understanding of "connectivities" among departments and scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and, increasingly, across divisional lines. The planning process seeks to surmount departmental barriers for a wider perspective; so may a proposed structure of divisional deans for the life sciences and other areas, much like the current deanship for the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Lacking such breadth, Kirby writes, "we cannot be sure (or at least I cannot be sure) that we are doing our best."

The commitment to "doing our best" requires more than programmatic measures. The dean's letter takes pains to restate the faculty's clear commitment to the fundamental principles of free speech in the wake of heated campus disputes during the fall term (see "Raised Voices," November-December 2002, page 52, and "Poetry and Politics," January-February, page 72).

Financially, it means tempering expectations built up after the success of the University Campaign and the booming endowment growth through fiscal year 2000. Although FAS continues to generate surpluses, the $22.5-million cushion in fiscal year 2002 was half that of the year before. Those reserves, Kirby said, are a significant source of funding for future construction.

His letter outlines "a time of serious constraint." Distributions from the endowment and investment income now make up half of FAS's income—but after three years of large increases in the endowment payout (as much as 28 percent in fiscal year 2000), such revenue will grow only 2 percent this year and for the foreseeable future. Tuition, the principal source of unrestricted funds, will grow only modestly—and actually declined during the past fiscal year, after disbursements for scholarship aid. Operating expenses are growing, as anticipated—a reflection of those endowment funds used to expand the faculty and create new facilities—but are now outstripping revenue growth (10.3 percent versus 9.3 percent), according to the financial exhibits in the dean's letter. Computing, faculty and staff compensation, and operation and maintenance of new and expanded buildings show particularly pronounced rises. The letter projects operating deficits two fiscal years hence, and depletion of unrestricted reserves by fiscal year 2007, if current projections are sustained. So, beyond exhorting thrift, Kirby said he foresaw "serious decisions soon to avoid the serious situations our sister universities are in" (an allusion to budget cuts at institutions such as Stanford, Dartmouth, and Duke).

Withal, the dean found reason in the faculty's situation for "optimism combined with the need to be practical." He manifestly enjoys the work he has gotten himself into. His letter deems the revised FAS website "positively cool." Citing abundant comment from faculty members, students, and alumni on the curricular review, he pronounced himself "really delighted," full of anticipation of academic and organizational rewards to come.

"Our present situation is sound," his letter concludes. "Our ambitions for the future are great. Our financial outlook is sobering." Hence the imperative of an "agenda of renewal" proceeding from a base of "humility, self-reflection, and, where needed, self-criticism." All are urged to take inspiration once again from China's wisdom: "Xing yuan zi er, deng gao zi bei: 'To go a great distance, one sets out from the nearby; when ascending heights, one starts from below.'"