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John Harvard's Journal

Envisioning Arts and Sciences Anew

March-April 2005

In his annual decanal letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), published February 3, William C. Kirby fleshes out the three principal priorities he is emphasizing most strongly in his administration. First is "invigorat[ing] every dimension of the undergraduate educational experience." Second is pursuing "a vigorous program of faculty growth," with particular emphasis on "science, technology, and the broader study of the world." Third is reshaping the physical campus to accommodate these overarching academic aims. Uniting these efforts is a drive to foster work across disciplinary lines -- in student course work, in teaching, and in research -- in a University "not...historically known for its collaborations." (The complete text is available at

Reviewing work on the curriculum, Kirby ventures further than before in critiquing Harvard's current performance.

Among concerns, he specifies general-education requirements that funnel "too many students into too few (and too large) classes," an "over-concentration of students' learning" in their three-year major courses of study, and "an archaic calendar" which frustrates study abroad and enrollment in courses in other Harvard faculties. In response, he seeks to "create closer communities of learning between students and faculty," reaffirming for professors "the central importance of undergraduate teaching. Only if we succeed in this effort can we hope to change students' perception that the better part of a Harvard College education is to be found outside the classroom."

One can discern in Kirby's detailed remarks the forthcoming demise of the Core curriculum, and its replacement with distribution-based general education; lessened concentration requirements (and later choice of field of study); perhaps a new calendar and January "J term"; universal international experiences for students; and more.

In the meantime, Kirby describes an ambitious program (unexpectedly so, given financial constraints) of construction to better student services: gutting the Hasty Pudding building, beginning this spring, to create a new 272-seat College theater; renovating Loker Commons to include a big-screen TV and a student pub; renovating Hemenway Gymnasium with the Law School; and, to accommodate growing interest and faculty hiring in film studies, building screening rooms, an animation studio, and video viewing and editing stations in Sever Hall.

Three highlights emerge from Kirby's discussion of faculty expansion. First, he sets a new goal for the faculty population of 750 assistant, associate, and full professors by 2010, compared to 672 as of this January 1. (His predecessor, Jeremy R. Knowles, had in 2000 set a course to increase the faculty ranks from about 600 then to 660 by the end of this decade.) Reversing recent experience, much of that expansion is to be in the junior ranks, Kirby says, putting a premium on nontenured searches and on encouraging promotion to tenured positions from within -- so much so that assistant professorships may now, for the first time, be described as "tenure track."

Second, he spells out areas of apparent intellectual opportunity. Those for humanities and social sciences conform to earlier reports (see "Arts and Sciences Aspirations," January-February, page 69). In life sciences, Kirby suggests new FAS focus on fields such as bioinformatics, bioengineering, neuroscience, evolutionary processes, and systems biology. In physical sciences, highlighted fields include particle astrophysics, mathematical physics, and climate science. Some of those targets obviously overlap with the new aims of the faculty's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which is also venturing into computational biology, complex-systems research, quantum technology, and an array of subjects involving electrical engineering and research computing.

Finally, Kirby announces the beginning of a new series of "divisional" appointments. The divisional academic deans have been empowered to pursue scholars whose work spans departments, and to move forward on attracting new professors to Harvard in concert with, but not solely at the behest of, existing departments. This break with disciplinary tradition may symbolize most clearly Kirby's pursuit of what he calls "heroic efforts at connection and coordination."

In an extended discussion of the thorny issue of faculty diversity (see "Women and Tenure," page 62), Kirby adds this evocative note on the academic lives FAS members may face: "[I]n a largely tenured faculty where the social divide between senior and junior colleagues can still seem enormous, and with nontenured colleagues scattered across more than 30 departments, being a female or minority colleague can be an isolating experience" -- an issue to be addressed, he urges, as the professorial census rises.

FAS's physical planning embraces completion of large projects such as the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) straddling Cambridge Street, and the heavy work or initial stages of others, such as the 137,000-square foot Laboratory for Interface Science and Engineering and the 460,000-square-foot Northwest Building north of the University Museum complex. This structure, scheduled for completion in 2007, will be "entirely interdisciplinary research space," Kirby writes, not the province of any one department; initial tenants will be the Center for Brain Science plus clusters of researchers in bioengineering, physics, and particle physics. In the future, of course, lies expansion into Allston.

"[We] raised less in external funds than we had anticipated for building projects," Kirby reports, listing the Widener Library renovation, CGIS, and the science structures. More real-estate-related debt financing is surely in the offing. Beyond, "one can easily imagine that our ambitions for the College, the faculty, and our physical campus will require fundraising of a significant order" -- the forthcoming capital campaign.

The case for that effort, he concludes, emerges from a new spirit of faculty members "speaking to each other across disciplines, developing plans as, and across, academic divisions, in tandem with a view of a new undergraduate curriculum," and housed in physical facilities designed to encourage scholarly interchange.