“Through a Thunderstorm and Into the Sunlight Again”

President Faust on the state of the University, with the financial crisis now in the rearview mirror.

A sanguine President Drew Faust sounded optimistic notes about the condition of the University and its direction, as students prepared to file their study cards for fall classes. During a conversation at her Massachusetts Hall office on September 8, she touched on finances and operations (fortified by the knowledge that Harvard Management Company would show positive investment returns on endowment assets for fiscal year 2010 in its report on September 9); Harvard’s ability to sustain its core academic priorities in a period of constraint; the prospects for a fundraising campaign; the recently disclosed findings of scientific misconduct by a faculty member; and other matters—excerpted highlights follow. Overall, Faust said, after the “unanticipated, earthshaking crises of 2008-2009” (when the endowment’s value sank by nearly $11 billion and Harvard faced liquidity challenges), it feels as though the institution has “come through a thunderstorm and into the sunlight again.”

Finances, operations, academic initiatives. Faust said that fiscal constraints had “given us the opportunity” to scrutinize how work is done throughout the institution. From the individual schools to the central administration, necessity provided the impetus to examine practices that had arisen in unplanned ways, and to reconfigure them where appropriate. The result, she said, is a set of better procedures, such as those arising from the study of Harvard’s dozens of libraries. She foresaw better integrated operations, tangible efficiencies, improved collecting practices, and enhanced capabilities for accommodating rapidly evolving digital technologies, and suggested that “We wouldn’t have undertaken that scrutiny” and brought people together to address problems and pursue new opportunities without a sense of crisis. She was reminded, she joked, that as a Civil War historian, she had written a book titled Mothers of Invention.

What had the community lost as it adapted to new economic realities? The answer, Faust said, varied by unit. In general, she acknowledged that in responding to a crisis, “There’s always a period of grief” as people are forced to distinguish what is essential from what is not. For Harvard, she said, those essential priorities focused on financial aid (“It’s who we are,” in remaining open to people of talent), research, teaching, and supporting students generally. Cost reductions were directed elsewhere. As a result, she said, “Look at how strong we are,” as measured by the quality of entering students, high admissions yields, and program enhancements such as the funding for international experiences now guaranteed to all undergraduates, better College advising, and the College’s new General Education curriculum

Had there been no downturn, perhaps hiring would have proceeded faster or other projects would have advanced [witness the halting of construction on the Allston science complex], but even during the downsizing, she noted, Harvard had introduced new programs like the Graduate School of Education’s leadership doctorate, and undergraduate studies in global health, bioengineering, and stem cells and regenerative biology—all during the period of “stress and strain,” as she put it. Beginning with her address to the community last fall, Faust said, she thought it was important to “look at what we have, not what we have lost.”

While acknowledging uncertainty about external conditions, Faust said, “We have gotten hold of the situation,” ensuring that Harvard is “much better positioned to respond” no matter what economic circumstances may arise. She cited the deans and her administrative team as a source of “enormous strength,” collectively “poised to deal with whatever is coming.” Ever the historian, she cited A. Lawrence Lowell’s 1933 farewell address, at the depths of the Great Depression, when it seemed that no university could ever again look forward to philanthropic support. His message, she said, was that history is cyclical. Lowell cited Joseph as the world’s greatest businessman, ever aware that seven fat years followed seven lean ones.

Harvard, she said, must “build on our strengths no matter what” ensues. That said, Faust cautioned the community not to assume that the University had quickly moved “back to where we were” before the current recession began. “For a considerable time,” she said, Harvard would be “more constrained.”

A capital campaign. A University fundraising campaign would of course help loosen those constraints. (The last such effort, the $2.6-billion University Campaign, concluded more than a decade ago, in May 2000—ancient history, in fundraising terms.) Faust said Harvard was now “in a planning phase” for such an effort: sorting out deans’ and schools’ priorities, aligning them with University priorities, testing ideas with donors and their capacity (an advisory group has been at work for the past year). She said this iterative process would continue at least for several months; at the very least, it must take place in an economic environment very different from the robust conditions that shaped peer institutions’ campaign plans in the middle of the decade, and the resulting fundraising efforts that they now have under way. (Among the institutions attempting to raise $1 billion or more are Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.)

The initial strategizing and the “quiet phase” of actual fundraising—where institutions seek to secure commitments for a substantial minority of their capital goals—could consume the “next couple of years,” Faust said, before any public announcement. Much depends, she said, on donors’ response to ideas, in light of the continuing uncertainties in the financial markets. 

The role of universities. Recent commentaries, in the Economist and elsewhere, have seemed to suggest a rising debate about the role and efficacy of research universities and perhaps of higher education generally. Because this is a topic Faust has taken special care to address—in her installation speech in 2007, and again this past summer during a talk at Trinity College, Dublin—she was asked whether this was a concern. “We have to clarify the record,” she responded, “to make people understand better what universities do.” Ticking off a list of issues, she emphasized how teaching and research complement one another, how financial aid in effect represents a repricing of the cost of attending, why universities are committed to openness and access, and how continuous improvements in what the institutions deliver give the lie to claims that American higher education is in decline. The contemporary undergraduate experience, Faust said, is “so much fuller and richer than it was a decade ago and a generation ago,” as a result of better advising, opportunities for international experience, better teaching, and students’ access to real research opportunities. During a recent visit to the laboratory of Cabot professor of the natural sciences Douglas Melton (who is also master of Eliot House and co-scientific director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute), she said, one-third of the research team present were undergraduates. “What an extraordinary opportunity,” she said. “Those kinds of [faculty-student] partnerships are just thrilling.”

Certainly universities face challenges—retooling their finances, adapting to keep pace with the rapid change of knowledge —but, Faust said, “Just look what we’ve done in the last decade.” Compared to  suggestions that the institutions were declining, “We’re going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Scientific misconduct. Concerning the findings that professor of psychology Marc Hauser was “solely responsible” for “eight instances of scientific misconduct” under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) standards, Faust—who had not addressed the issue publicly before—said, “This is something at the core of who and what we are. We must support scientific integrity. We must assure scientific integrity.”

The review of the initial allegations of misconduct (reportedly begun in 2007) was necessarily lengthy and appropriately conducted within FAS, Faust said: the matters involved are complex, and it requires faculty experts who understand how research is conducted to determine when it has been conducted inappropriately. Furthermore, she said, she is “committed to appropriate levels of confidentiality” so that such investigations, where required, can protect complainants, individuals whose work is being reviewed, and subsequent federal investigations (where required, as in this case, because federal research funds supported the work).

Within that context, she continued, the findings had prompted extensive conversations about how to right the scientific record, how to make sure investigative procedures operate in the best way, and how the discoveries should be communicated. Harvard’s schools have suitable policies for the conduct of research, she said; but the lessons learned from this case would be shared generally.

University governance. The Corporation-led review of Harvard governance, disclosed last December, is proceeding, Faust said. Corporation members have been meeting as an extended group (including Seth P. Waxman, president of the Board of Overseers; past Overseers president Frances D. Fergusson; and Robert N. Shapiro, an Overseer and past president of the Harvard Alumni Association) to assess responsibilities, access to information, the best ways to operate, and so on. The work is being assisted by Richard P. Chait, professor of higher education emeritus at the Graduate School of Education, who is advising on practices and structures at other institutions, among other matters. (Chait, a scholar of and adviser on institutions’ leadership and governance, was a participant in the 2006 Harvard Magazine roundtable on "Governing Harvard," which recommended changes in how the Corporation communicated with the wider community about its work and decisions, among other suggestions.)

Asked whether there would there be a public component to the Corporation's process, Faust responded that the Corporation and the wider group are reaching out, consulting with many people—as she was—and sharing more fully their queries and what they had learned. On the other hand, she said, the work inherently could not be fully turned into a broad process for decision-making: undergraduates, she noted, are not necessarily the best advisers on how the Corporation perceives and should carry out its fiduciary duties. What course the process ultimately takes and the conclusions it reaches depend, she said, on what Corporation members, their advisers, and those with whom they consult think is needed—“what the absences or omissions have been and trying to fold those in” to a more effective way of proceeding.

[Some of those concerns likely arose from substantive matters:  the truncated presidency of Lawrence H. Summers at the beginning of the decade, and from the financial decisions—for Allston construction and for managing University resources—in more recent years. Whether the Corporation is addressing other issues or processes, or how, is not yet known. Reviews of governance are not new, nor unique to Harvard. For an account of such an effort during the late 1960s and early 1970s at Princeton—when Harvard also went through such a self-examination in the wake of the Vietnam-era turmoil on campus—see chapter 2, "Governing," of the forthcoming Lessons Learned: Reflections of A University President, by Princeton's provost and president emeritus, William G. Bowen. ]

The president's itinerary—and ambitions. In coming weeks, Faust will be in Washington, D.C. (September 15, for meetings on Capitol Hill, a discussion of universities' role in economic innovation at the Brookings Institution, and a private dinner conversation with diverse leaders at Dumbarton Oaks on the nature and future of war—Faust's most recent book is on the devastating toll of the Civil War); in Sanders Theatre on September 21 with former ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, now a Harvard Shorenstein fellow, to discuss the state of the University; and, in a new role, on the pitcher's mound at Fenway Park, throwing out the first pitch at the Red Sox-Baltimore Orioles game on September 22 (where, if she is not careful, she could be recruited into the woeful Sox bullpen). Later in the year, she continues her international outreach, traveling to European capitals and Harvard's Renaissance studies center at Villa I Tatti, outside Florence, in November; and to Latin America in early spring.

Those commitments aside, Faust declared herself "really excited about this year.…We can get a lot done," given the community's "appetite for change and a willingness to get it done," academically and administratively. With the financial crisis behind, leaner operations, and further improvements in processes planned, "It's an extraordinary moment for Harvard, " she said—and campaign planning represents a commitment to take advantage of opportunities ahead by envisioning the University as a "forward-thinking, integrated" whole, identifying the most important dreams involved in its teaching and research missions, and coming together to realize them. The result, the president said, will be a "coherent statement of what Harvard is—and thus of what a university is in the twenty-first century."

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