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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Arts and Sciences Aspirations

January-February 2005

The new academic structure created by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the summer of 2003 has yielded its twin first fruits. The divisional deans (for the humanities, social sciences, and physical and applied sciences) and the equivalent chair of the life-sciences council have begun to identify areas for intellectual innovation and faculty growth, from the connection between brain and behavior to "performance studies" in the arts. To realize those changes, new forces are being brought to bear on departments' traditional hiring practices.

When he established the posts, FAS dean William C. Kirby wrote of his hope that the divisional officers could "improve communication, facilitate research, and expedite the recruitment of new colleagues." His model was the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS), which has operated under a separate dean for several decades. In pursuit of "creative connections within and across the major academic divisions," Kirby wrote in his annual letter last February, the new deans were charged with determining in what fields the faculty should grow, in light of changes in scholarship and the findings of the College curricular review.

David M. Cutler
Rose Lincoln / Harvard News Office

Dean for the social sciences David M. Cutler, professor of economics, outlined three intellectual initiatives in a letter to the faculty dated October 6: the intersection between the brain and behavior; globalization; and the impact of scientific advances on social organizations and public policy. In a subsequent conversation, he expanded on those subjects.

*New quantitative techniques in the life and social sciences, he said, promised much better measurement and insights for the age-old questions of nature versus nurture. Through emerging disciplines such as neuro- and psychoeconomics, one could determine with greater confidence "why people do the things they do"—all the more so as biologists tease out genomic clues about how fundamental structures affect people.

*Similarly, convergence in the world—globalization—suggests that Harvard "must do more to study currently underrepresented regions" (like South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Union) and such interdisciplinary subjects as the role of religion, global health (see "Global Health Aims HIGH"), and international economic relations.

*Finally, on the intersection of science and technology with social organizations and policy—the impact of the Internet on dictatorships, the implications of genomics research for medical care—he noted that a University white paper is being prepared for the provost that will guide action in the social sciences and elsewhere.

The discussions to date have "stirred people up about what the discipline is about," Cutler said. To implement the resulting ideas, he has formed a Social Sciences Advisory Council (with faculty members from anthropology, government, history, history of science and African and African American studies, psychology, and sociology) to evaluate proposals for faculty appointments, new departmental programs, or cross-disciplinary ventures. (Such judgments, he pointed out, should become easier because Harvard is expanding its faculty ranks.)

"We've never had good mechanisms about where and how to put new faculty," Cutler said. "We need some way to make decisions about what are intellectually important areas." And that is the crux of the divisional deans' role: to act as an overlay on existing departments and centers, allocating professorial slots and financial support to orient the faculty toward its self-expressed interests. The council will assist Cutler by assessing each new proposal's intellectual rationale, effect on "teaching capacity," and implications for faculty and staff diversity. (For more on the divisional deans' role in promoting faculty diversity, see "Tenure and Gender.")

Cutler expects that the new processes will go a long way toward improving undergraduates' education, in line with the curriculum review. With a total of perhaps 1,000 concentrators in economics and psychology, for instance, those departments' upper-level course enrollments average about 100 students. Cutler has challenged each department to plan for small junior-year tutorials and seminars—without enlarging other classes—and promises to secure the needed resources within the next few years. Government, another very large concentration, has the opposite problem, he said: the junior tutorial program works, but other course enrollments are huge, so the focus will be on bringing down those class sizes. This "frontal assault on teaching," as he called it, is novel, as are some of the proposed solutions, such as attracting faculty members from elsewhere at Harvard: although full-time-equivalent faculty members within FAS's social-science departments number 225, social scientists are perhaps even more numerous in the professional schools.


Venkatesh Narayanamurti faced a lesser learning curve in his new divisional role, since he has served as DEAS dean since 1998. Now, in addition to that rapidly growing group of 60-plus faculty members, he has assumed responsibility for about 90 additional professors as dean for the physical sciences (astronomy, earth and planetary sciences, mathematics, physics, and statistics). Narayanamurti said the divisional model works for a place like Harvard, where the FAS dean is simply too far from individual faculty members to keep up with their research and the best opportunities in each field. "There has to be a conductor," he said, "but you have to be close to the musicians"—and to fellow divisional officers aware of the pulse in other fields. In this case, that would be Cabot professor in the natural sciences Douglas Melton, who chairs FAS's life-sciences council.

Douglas Melton
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Although the physical-sciences departments are still preparing or completing academic plans, Narayanamurti—Armstrong professor of engineering and applied sciences and professor of physics—spelled out two animating principles. "The scientific foundations come from mathematics, physics, and parts of chemistry," he said. "There will always be a piece in me that wants to hire great thinkers and researchers" who can push the frontiers of fundamental knowledge, regardless of departmental plans. At the same time, he said, Harvard must make huge investments to update its scientific infrastructure, from imaging equipment to computational facilities, on which nearly all scientists now depend.

In disciplinary terms, he mentioned the need for hires in particle astrophysics, bioengineering, systems and computational biology, quantum science, nanoscience, and other fields. Across the board, Narayanamurti said, "It's a very exciting period for the interfaces among the physical sciences and engineering." That implies many more joint appointments—perhaps more the norm in science than in humanities or social sciences, he said. DEAS searches have already "institutionalized" this practice by including personnel from the medical school and physics, for example. Collaborations like that should become routine as plans proceed in Melton's area.

(Separately, DEAS is already pursuing a strategy to expand its faculty ranks by as much as 60 percent, to about 100 positions, perhaps housed within a fully freestanding Harvard school. These new positions might be weighted toward biological, medical, and chemical engineering and applied sciences, reflecting the convergence of those fields. The systems biology and chemical biology doctoral programs that were enacted by FAS this past October envision significant links among the medical school, DEAS, and FAS, and hiring in all the related fields.)


Humanities divisional dean Maria Tatar, Loeb professor of Germanic languages and literatures, outlined a similarly syncretic program in a letter dated November 12. She has created study groups, based on discussions with faculty colleagues, in four intellectual areas deemed vital to future scholarship: globalization and cultural identities; European studies; the study of America; and the arts.

Maria Tator
Kris Snibbe / Harvard News Office

The groups' themes, Tatar said in an interview, point to new approaches to "the study of culture on a global level and the relationships between cultures," as well as to coverage of previously neglected regions. In addition, she described the humanities as moving beyond their core focus on textual interpretation, toward understanding artistic performances and the aesthetic, emotional, and ethical effects of being exposed to such experiences. From there, she said, it is not a great leap to exploring areas such as healing and art, bioethical concerns important to medical students, and other interdisciplinary subjects of interest to new kinds of faculty members and to students who study the humanities to learn about "the negotiation of values through community"—by debate, discussion, and analysis. Finally, she said, the humanities will need facilities—"not just space but buildings that are dedicated to practice and performance."

In her letter, Tatar invited proposals for "nominations of individuals who might be considered targets of opportunity" for the division, which now has about 200 professors in the languages and literatures departments, classics, linguistics, music, philosophy, history of art and architecture, and visual and environmental studies. Chairs of the study groups who are faculty members within the division (a couple of historians also serve) will form a Humanities Advisory Council, Tatar wrote. Like its social-sciences counterpart, it is charged with "offering advice on areas where growth might take place" or where existing resources might be redeployed to new areas of interest. As such, the council will lend substance to what Tatar pointed out was an academic planning process "now based on broad assessments across and within each division" of FAS (rather than solely by department requests for faculty slots).

Precisely how such assessments will take place within and among the divisions awaits decisions not wholly in their deans' hands. As Kirby completes academic, curricular, and physical planning for FAS this year—and comparable efforts proceed in the University—decisions will be made on the number of new faculty positions to be sought in Harvard's forthcoming capital campaign. As always, the hashing out of those competing priorities, and the subsequent success of the fundraising, will determine how extensively and quickly faculty members' intellectual aspirations can be realized.