The Constancy of Change

Snapshots of Harvard’s past quarter-century

Neil L. Rudenstine
Lawrence H. Summers
Derek Bok
Drew Faust

Great Universities endure—in the United States, none more so than Harvard. It is startling to read through the list of 102 academic symposiums presented during the University’s 350th anniversary extravaganza and to recognize how many of the participants remain active professors today.

But such institutions do not stand still; this University has changed significantly in the past 25 of its now 375 years, and promises to continue doing so. In the last five of his 20 years as president, Derek Bok focused on Harvard’s international role as the Iron Curtain rusted apart and China’s surge gathered momentum—and, looking decades ahead, initiated the University’s land purchases in Allston. Neil L. Rudenstine effected fundamental organizational changes (from the provost’s office to Radcliffe’s rebirth), emphasized interdisciplinary scholarship, championed diversity, and launched an imaginative international initiative. He worked relentlessly on a successful fundraising campaign; as the economy cooperated and federal support for research soared, those resources underlay the investments in facilities, faculty growth, financial aid, and the sciences made during Lawrence H. Summers’s administration. Back for an interim year, Bok mustered support for science, approved the first Allston construction (later halted for financial reasons), and refocused attention on teaching and learning. Drew Faust has enlisted faculty members to plan Harvard’s future in the arts, reemphasized access and inclusion, drawn her new decanal team together to weather the severe financial downturn, brought University governance into the twenty-first century—and set in motion what will surely be an enormous capital campaign to advance the academic agenda.

Here, to put Harvard in perspective, are snapshots of an evolving institution midway from its 350th anniversary to its 400th.

International Harvard

Bok read from “a fictional history of Harvard written on the occasion of our 400th anniversary.”…[He] went on to describe a twenty-first-century multinational Harvard: branch campuses in 20 countries linked by teleconferencing and communications satellites; foreign students comprising one-third of the enrollment at the mother campus; a six-month overseas work-study requirement for graduation; and an Institute for International Development running projects worth $100 million a year in more than 30 countries.

His future history recorded a downside to these initiatives…[including] the Harvard president looking “more and more like a zombie” as constant jet lag causes her to fall asleep during speeches and to address major donors in confusing languages. 

-July-August 1987 (reporting on Commencement)

Derek Bok brought the world to Harvard Yard often during his presidency—never more so than toward its conclusion, as the Commencement guest speakers from 1986 on included NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington; the Federal Republic of Germany’s president, Richard von Weizsäcker; Costa Rican president Oscar Arias; Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto; and German chancellor Helmut Kohl. After Bok spent three months in India, Israel, and Spain during an early-1987 sabbatical, he returned with an expansive vision for engaging Harvard with the world, fancifully outlined in that year’s Commencement address. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) followed suit, appointing an associate dean for international affairs—but by the time his report recommending a more international student body and international exchanges reached the faculty for debate, the administration was in transition, and FAS deficits discouraged ambitious initiatives.

Nevertheless, as Eastern Europe opened to study and two-way scholarly exchanges, and Asia’s growth accelerated (despite the brutality in Tiananmen Square), two developments during Neil Rudenstine’s tenure underscored the University’s expanding reach. First, the president willingly subjected himself to the jet lag Bok foretold, famously drafting the case for a $2.1-billion capital campaign while flying back from Asia; touring Europe, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina; and making separate visits to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Taipei, and then Tokyo, Seoul, and Shanghai in the first months of 1998. Second, in a partnership with David Rockefeller ’36, G ’37, LL.D. ’69, Rudenstine built the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, complete with offices in Santiago and São Paulo, and, today, dozens of faculty visits annually and hundreds of student trips for research, internships, and service, spanning Harvard’s schools. Other area centers grew, too.

The peripatetic Lawrence Summers—a legendary traveler during his earlier U.S. Treasury service—broadened the itinerary still further, planting the Crimson flag in Chile, and in India on an extended trip toward the end of his term. Perhaps the most consequential change effected was FAS’s decision to alter its policies, making it vastly easier for students to study abroad during their College careers. Another gift from Rockefeller, later in the decade, made student access to international experiences essentially universal and need-blind. In her own travels (to Europe, China and Japan, southern Africa, and, most recently, South America), Drew Faust has made it clear that Massachusetts Hall is a global hub—and that any future president will find it easy to meet with Harvard students almost anywhere. 

During the past three decades or so, the proportion of students enrolled full-time at Harvard from other nations has probably quadrupled, to more than 4,100 of 19,200 in 2009. International students continue to be far more common in the professional schools, but even the undergraduate population has become more global (although admissions are far from “passport-blind,” to use one administrator’s vivid phrase; see "The Twenty-First-Century Student"). Graduates have spread widely: in the 2010 Harvard Alumni Directory, some 83,000 of 320,000 listings are for addresses outside the United States. There is a vice provost for international affairs, whose HarvardWorldwide website shares information about research and other engagements globally. Three schools now have foreign-born deans: public health’s Julio Frenk (Mexico), design’s Mohsen Mostafavi (Iran), and business’s Nitin Nohria (India).

And though Harvard has so far eschewed the rush by other American universities to establish campuses in China or the Persian Gulf, its venerable Renaissance research center at Villa I Tatti (outside Florence) has now been complemented by Harvard Business School (HBS) research centers in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires (with branches in São Paulo and Mexico City), Tokyo, Paris, and Mumbai. The vast Shanghai facility, commissioned in 2010, is the first to have full teaching facilities for HBS executive-education classes. A few other outposts—devoted to Hellenic studies, AIDS care, and training programs—are scattered from Greece and Bot­swana to Ho Chi Minh City.

Information Technology

Some 8,000 microcomputers—also known as PCs (personal computers)—now call the Harvard campus home.…A secondary need is for a function traditionally performed by secretaries: collecting and forwarding messages. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to provide service enhancements such as “voice mail” as part of a new telecommunications system…. 

-September-October 1987

As Harvard stretched globally, it also became much more closely linked locally (and to an ever-more-wired world). Technology had already begun to change teaching a quarter-century ago: this magazine reported in mid 1986 that “computerization of M.B.A. courses—another innovation—continued on schedule. This June’s graduates were the first class required to use IBM personal computers for assignments. By making data analysis faster…the computers give students more time to focus on the managerial considerations that remain the core of the M.B.A. program.”

More expansive visions—of modern telephony, with miracles such as voice mail, and data communications—were already in the sights of the 240-person Office for Information Technology as it sought Corporation approval, in 1987, to fund a $20-million to $30-million campus network. Six years later, the Yard dorms were wired into the University’s fiber-optic system. By 1995 the Internet exceeded e-mail as Harvard’s most-used online service, and pioneering professors began building course websites; by 1998, some 300 FAS courses had a Web presence.

Today, information technology has become inseparable from research, teaching, and learning. The multiple tens of millions of dollars Harvard spent redoing its major libraries in the past two decades readied them for digital use. The 1992 agreement to form a common electronic catalog now seems a quaint harbinger of tools to come. The proliferation of electronic resources, databases, and technologies figures prominently in the changes in library management and organization announced in late 2010. At the “Harvard IT Summit” held this past June, the University reported, nearly 1,000 technology staff members turned out. Although Summers in 2001 became the first president to have a personal computer in his office, secure BlackBerrys are now de rigueur for senior administrators and Harvard crossed the half-million mark in Facebook fans this July (just ahead of LSU and Ohio State).

Faculty members have led the development of sophisticated geographic information systems, elaborate databases to map Song-dynasty China’s bureaucrats, and “digital humanities” techniques able to mine information from individual texts—or thousands. Undergraduates in an early-American history course accessed online tax records to reconstruct the colonial economy down to the household level. A student confessed to accessing all of the research materials for his thesis from his bedroom. A professor who studies social capital acknowledged having closer professional (and personal) ties to research colleagues abroad, with whom he communicated daily, than to his next-door neighbor.

And further uses of the technologies are already arising. As the new undergraduate General Education courses emphasize art and art-making, many have begun to require visual and video products in lieu of, or alongside, papers. The Extension School offers about 150 of its courses online, to a global student body. And real-time, interactive cases, involving decisionmakers from around the world, are within reach for professional-school students enrolled on campus.

Inclusion and Access

…student diversity has, for more than a century, been valued for its capacity to contribute powerfully to the process of learning. It has also been seen as vital to the education of citizens—and the development of leaders in heterogeneous democratic societies such as our own. 

-Neil Rudenstine, “Diversity and Learning,” The President’s Report, 1993-1995, excerpted March-April 1996

The broad movement to diversify student bodies—forcefully so in selective private colleges and universities, starting in the 1960s—continued throughout Derek Bok’s administration. Faculty composition changed more slowly, given Harvard’s weighting toward tenured appointments, but gathered selective momentum in recent years, with more women appointees (even as underrepresented minorities remained a very small part of the professoriate; see "Professorial Permutations").Against the backdrop of that larger movement toward greater diversity, access, and inclusion, certain moments stand out.

First, there were symbolic, highly visible personnel decisions. In 1987, Bok tapped Sally Zeckhauser, then head of real estate, as vice president for administration—the first woman to achieve that rank in Massachusetts Hall. Judith Richards Hope, J.D. ’64, joined the Corporation in 1989. And in 1990, poetry critic Helen Vendler became the first woman elevated to the rank of University Professor. Neil Rudenstine appointed a second woman to the Corporation, Hanna Holborn Gray, Ph.D. ’57, and Conrad Harper, J.D. ’65—the first person of color to serve. He named Cornel West and William Julius Wilson University Professors, integrating those ranks, and further populated the vice presidencies with women. Board of Overseers elections yielded many more women as well.

The 1997 adoption of gender-neutral language for “Fair Harvard” signaled a culture shift, as did Rudenstine’s deliberate outreach to world leaders such as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whose visits electrified campus on successive days early in the fall term of 1998. Both Rudenstine and Bok went out of their way to serve as forceful advocates for diversity and affirmative action—the former in the second of the only two presidential reports he issued, the latter in The Shape of the River (1998), a highly influential analysis of affirmative action in admissions co-written with William G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton. Responding to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Hopwood v. Texas affirmative-action case, Rudenstine issued a blunt public statement (“I respectfully and strongly disagree”) and rallied other presidents to the cause.

Lawrence Summers took a different tack entirely. Early in his presidency, he laid out the case for economic inclusiveness, urging financial aid for students studying for careers in low-paying public service—and backed that up with allocations of scholarship funds. In 2004, he set off a national debate by launching the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, cutting the parental cost of sending a child to college for families with incomes below $60,000—a step that other institutions emulated, and Summers and Drew Faust progressively expanded and defended even when financial crisis crimped University funds later in the decade.

But Summers’s suggestions that affirmative action and diversity programs might conflict with merit appointment of faculty  brought him into conflict with other members of the University community. There was vigorous internal debate about what position Harvard would take in the Supreme Court review of the University of Michigan’s race-conscious admissions procedures in the spring of 2003; Summers finally agreed to support an amicus brief crafted by Laurence H. Tribe (now Loeb University Professor). Given that context, which overlapped long discussion in FAS about the lagging appointments of women, the president’s skeptical comments about women in science and mathematics in early 2005—and the task forces he appointed, coordinated by Drew Faust, to address the resulting controversy—probably galvanized action toward making faculty appointments more inclusive.

The University became more inclusive in other ways as well. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, in 1991 revealed publicly that he was gay. In 1998, Diana L. Eck, Wertham professor of law and psychiatry in society, was appointed to lead Lowell House, alongside co-master Dorothy A. Austin, Sedgwick associate minister in the Memorial Church and University chaplain. In 2008, the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus celebrated its own quarter-century anniversary in a campus event sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association and addressed by President Faust. In 2011, she was able to bring another long-term dispute to a close, extending University recognition to the Naval ROTC program once the military services’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of discriminating against openly homosexual members came to an end—thereby returning a new Harvard to its deep roots in supporting students preparing for military service, a commonplace half a century and more ago.

Innovation, Science, and Engineering

A vaccine [for HIV/AIDS] probably will not be available for several years. 

-November-December 1986 (from a 350th-anniversary panel)

During a 2001 interview about his presidency, Neil Rudenstine said the sense of “fields of knowledge moving” had become palpable in the sciences—reflecting everything from advances in genomics and other fields of biology to much more powerful computing systems to the resources happily made available by what he called the “tail winds” of the then-robust economy and renewed federal interest in research (most notably, the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget). As Jeremy R. Knowles, the chemist whom Rudenstine made dean of FAS—the first natural scientist to serve—steered the faculty out of deficits to financial health, he finally felt flush enough in early 1999 to outline a plan to invest $150 million to $200 million in interdisciplinary scientific initiatives, beginning with new research centers on genomics and on imaging and small-scale structures, and, prospectively, extending to work in neuroscience, climate change, and Internet-based search engines to harness vast scientific databases.

Thereafter, ambitions only accelerated. President Summers ranked science among his highest priorities, providing seed funding for new programs and centers. Harvard Medical School’s 525,000-square-foot New Research Building, the University’s largest research and education project at its dedication in the fall of 2003, augmented laboratories in the Longwood Medical Area. FAS increased its own laboratory space by one-third, in the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering and Northwest buildings (unfortunately incurring several hundred million dollars in debt in the process). And those were only down payments on the planned growth, as Summers fashioned plans for Allston around enormous new interdisciplinary laboratory facilities (including the first complex, on which construction began and was subsequently halted in 2009). Faculty appointments and research grants were all envisioned as keeping pace.

Harvard science has clearly begun a new era in the twenty-first century (and, like the global initiatives, has its own HarvardScience presence on the University homepage). In a May interview with the news office, departing provost Steven E. Hyman said of his return to Cambridge in 2001, after directing the National Institute of Mental Health, “What brought me back…was Larry Summers’s invitation to come here and help build interdisciplinary science and engineering.” During his interim year as president after Summers, Derek Bok brokered a University-wide mechanism for planning and funding science initiatives that do not naturally fall within departmental, or even school, boundaries and often cannot yet attract sponsored funding. The provost’s office oversees such programs, ranging from stem-cell research to inquiries into the origins of life.

The research enterprise, overall, is enormous. Federally sponsored research totaled $136 million in fiscal year 1986—and $621 million in fiscal 2010. (Other sponsors provided $156 million in additional funds that year, making the total more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, excluding hundreds of millions more directed to the independent but Harvard-affiliated hospitals.) Huge gifts have underwritten creation of the Broad Institute in 2003 (originally a partnership with MIT, the Whitehead Institute, and the hospitals), now a freestanding, leading medical genomics center. Despite federal constraints on funding the technology, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute attracted private support, networked dozens of researchers, launched an undergraduate concentration, and soon will locate 275 people in the renovated Sherman Fairchild laboratories. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, launched in 2008, is scaling up on a similar trajectory.

As promising, and impressive in academic organizational terms, are signal examples of organic growth. The medical school in late 2003 committed itself to an entirely new, integrative field: creating an ambitious department of systems biology, and aiming to staff it with 25 new faculty positions; it promptly began a new doctoral program. (Read more about its work, as described by professor of systems biology Pamela A. Silver, in "Biology in This Century.") And in an era of urgent challenges and huge opportunities for applied science—from software applications to new energy technologies (see Dean Cherry A. Murray’s views in "Engineering in the Twenty-First Century")—the 2007 elevation of FAS’s division into a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) made the University’s commitment to scientific research and education more visible than ever before. The results—in surging graduate applications, much-heightened undergraduate interest, new courses and concentrations, and steady growth in the faculty ranks, with much more planned—have at least matched the expectations raised when SEAS was reborn. 

Academic Agendas

…we know that efforts to evaluate education will be very difficult. Even so, they are no more difficult than many other problems to which committed scholars devote their professional lives. It would be anomalous not to pay the same, serious attention to understanding a process so central to the purposes of the university. 

-Derek Bok, “Toward Education of Quality,” May-June 1986

Through his extended annual reports (including the one cited here), President Bok became perhaps the foremost American spokesman for the role of higher education; the principal defender of universities from what he viewed as misguided criticisms; a champion of education for public service and in ethics; and the leading advocate for effective curriculums (most of the professional schools scrubbed their courses of study during his tenure, and the College replaced the World War II-era General Education with the Core curriculum). He also advocated systematic approaches to enhance teaching and evaluate learning: in his 1986 message, for example, he supported formation of a faculty seminar on education assessment led by Richard Light, a professor at the schools of education and government (whose interviews with scores of College students later became the basis of Making the Most of College, a Harvard University Press bestseller).

In succeeding administrations, the schools’ curriculums changed continuously. Thus the College has reduced concentration requirements to give students more room to explore different fields; deferred the timing of concentration choice until the third semester; and after a years-long debate, replaced the Core with a new General Education curriculum (enacted during Bok’s year as interim president). The Law School remade its first-year program, reducing class sizes and making room for more international material and enhanced focus on practice. HBS created a mandatory first-year M.B.A. course in ethics and corporate accountability, and this fall launches its students on team-based projects—complete with international field visits to the companies involved (read Dean Nitin Nohria’s perspective in "Educating Business Leaders for a Global Century"). The Graduate School of Education has created a new doctoral program in educational leadership, drawing on business and government professors and case-study methods to equip the school reformers of the future. And so on.

Much of what has changed reflects new knowledge (hence the proliferation of undergraduate concentrations in the life sciences, now numbering seven distinct paths), or changing fields of practice (a joint M.D.-M.B.A. degree for future healthcare managers, for instance), or the deepening of global inquiries.

But as Bok wrote in Our Underachieving Colleges, published in 2006 just before his unexpected return to Massachusetts Hall, faculties’ apparent reluctance to investigate their own teaching—pedagogy per se, and its effects—remained as pervasive and persistent as he had lamented 20 years earlier. As interim president, he supported Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Theda Skocpol’s effort to define and advance a “compact” on teaching and faculty members’ career development. The report, fully aired in FAS, encouraged committed individuals, but largely languished as an institutional priority as administrations changed and belt-tightening became the dominant concern after 2008. This past spring, FAS dean Michael D. Smith again highlighted pedagogy and teaching excellence, but a more systematic effort to develop pedagogical training and learning assessments remains controversial and constrained by resources.

In the meantime, pedagogy evolves in other ways. The business school is renowned for assessing junior faculty members’ classroom skills, and investing in their ability to teach cases effectively—efforts that some faculty members elsewhere at Harvard have taken to heart. Generational factors play a role, too: from the waning Rudenstine days through the advent of the financial crisis, FAS’s faculty ranks expanded about 20 percent—the first such growth in nearly 40 years; and FAS put in place a tenure “track,” enabling it to recruit junior professors more effectively, and assure that those appointed are considered potential candidates for later promotion. Those factors brought to campus younger scholars, more attuned to new ways of teaching, and at least the promise of refreshed classrooms. 

Inspiring Moments

…where is it written that someone who is good on television is necessarily also a good politician? I never fail to be astonished at how…television forces me to express my thoughts as sparely as possible , in witticisms, slogans, or soundbites, at how easily my television image can be made to seem different from the real me.…I know politicians who have learned to see themselves only as the television camera does. Television has thus expropriated their personalities, and …I sometimes wonder whether they even sleep in a way that will look good on television. 

-Václav Havel, from the Commencement address, 1995

Harvard convenes great gatherings—notably, but not only, at Commencement. A few from the past 25 years merit remembering both as part of Harvard’s quarter-century history and for present-day resonances.

At the 1995 Commencement, 50 years after World War II’s end, Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic—which suffered greatly and where the hard path to freedom took many decades— spoke of the dangers threatening the “thin veneer” of civilization. He began a sobering argument by vividly making the case for the existence of that technologically progressive civilization, before explicating threats arising from reactions to it:

One evening not long ago I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant by the water. My chair was almost identical to the chairs they have in restaurants by the Vltava River in Prague. They were playing the same rock music they play in most Czech restaurants. I saw advertisements I’m familiar with back home. Above all, I was surrounded by young people who were similarly dressed, who drank familiar-looking drinks, and who behaved as casually as their contemporaries in Prague. Only their complexion and their facial features were different—for I was in Singapore.

Taking this in, Havel “for the umpteenth time…realized an almost banal truth: that we now live in a single global civilization.”

At the 2000 Commencement, just after celebrating the successful University Campaign, and announcing his plan to retire, Neil Rudenstine managed to model the poetic and practical aspirations of Harvard—and of society—in his introduction to unusual twin speeches by Nobel laureates and faculty members Seamus Heaney and Amartya Sen. Referring to their roots in Ireland and in India, he called them “emblematic figures—‘relics and types’ of important aspects of the past century’s experience. Both…have been schooled as witnesses to conflict and war—the often unyielding ferocity and exiguousness that have so wounded so much of our recent history.…They offer us…fruitful, reasoned, imaginative, and tested ways of conceiving how a good society might be animated and ordered…” in pursuit of freedom and knowledge.

The rhetoric was less elevated, but the Crimson currents ran even stronger, in an event apart from the festival rites. On December 1, 2008, in a special convocation in Sanders Theatre, the University conferred an honorary degree on U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54, who was under treatment for the brain cancer that would soon end his life. As the magazine reported:

The ceremony was by turns nostalgic (it began with footage of Kennedy, in his Crimson number 88 jersey, scoring Harvard’s lone touchdown in the snowy 1955 Game…); stem-winding and revivalist (the huge standing ovation for Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden, who…sat next to Caroline Kennedy ’80 and across the aisle from Senator John Kerry; Kennedy’s own thundering defense of liberalism in the words of his brother, John F. Kennedy ’40, LL.D. ’56, shortly before his election as president); valedictory (Kennedy recalled, “As I said in Denver last summer, for me, this is a season of hope”…); and warmly funny (President Drew Faust quoted Kennedy on his model of service [concluding with a reference] to his weekly visits to a Washington elementary school, where he has become known for his “virtuoso rendition of ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider.’”)

For sheer emotional effect, the surprising high point may have been Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling’s 2008 Commencement address. From her initial, self-deprecating confession (“…the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!”) to her quixotic choices, given the occasion (“On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.”), Rowling wowed a crowd variously attired in academic gowns and wizardly gear. She conferred the gift of permission on her younger listeners—even as she told the wrenching experience of working, when she was their age, at Amnesty International’s Africa department:

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him.…I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

Out of those reservoirs of horror and love, Rowling modeled the building of her own unexpected life.

The same themes, emerging from the same torn part of the world, and ultimately with the same uplifting result, were indelibly acknowledged and celebrated at one of Harvard’s great moments, when the University donned full regalia to confer an honorary degree on Nelson Mandela, president of the Republic of South Africa, on September 18, 1998. Rudenstine recognized his accomplishments and moral stature in a suitably unembellished citation: “Conscience of a people, soul of a nation, he has brought forth freedom from the crucible of oppression and inspired, by his courageous example, the better angels of our nature.” In the words of Memorial Church minister Peter J. Gomes, “For an instant we were able to associate ourselves with a man of such magnificent moral stature that the association elevated us all.”

The Enterprise

…if the Faculty of Arts and Sciences can use existing buildings optimally, and develop new sites wisely, it won’t run out of space for 20 years. Next question: What happens then?

-March-April 1989 (The answer: land purchases in Allston, through nominees, began in 1988.)

By almost any measure, Harvard has become bigger in the past quarter century. True, the student body has remained essentially the same size, and the ranks of faculty members—particularly in FAS—held fairly stable from as far back as the 1960s until the growth spurt in the new millennium (choked off by the financial crisis). But the increasing scale and complexity of the enterprise are everywhere evident, as research has required new staff and compliance measures; as laboratory investments, housing, and other facilities have grown apace; and as information technology and international operations have expanded.

• The endowment. In the fiscal year ended June 30, 1986, Harvard’s endowment—propelled by a 31 percent rate of return on investments–was valued at $3.4 billion, surpassing $3 billion for the first time (all figures are as originally reported, and not adjusted for inflation). Distributions from the endowment accounted for 17.5 percent of University income for the year (down about 5 percentage points from the level in the mid 1970s) and student tuition and fees 26.7 percent (5 percentage points higher)—reflecting a policy of protecting principal during an extended period of high inflation and depressed investment returns.

Turn the calendar ahead two decades, to the glorious financial markets from 2003 through 2007: investment returns ranged between 12.5 percent and 23 percent, and the annual increment in the value of the endowment exceeded its entire value in 1986, culminating in the $5.7 billion gain (after distributing nearly $1.2 billion to support University operations and Allston costs) in fiscal 2007. Despite lower returns and larger distributions ($1.6 billion) in fiscal 2008, the endowment appreciated further, peaking at $36.9 billion. With the Corporation aiming over time to distribute about 5 percent of endowment value to support operations and Allston and other capital costs, the sustained manna from Wall Street transformed Harvard’s financial profile: during fiscal 2008, endowment distributions accounted for 34 percent of operating revenues—far more than income from students or sponsored research (20 percent and 19 percent, respectively). Hence the problems when the endowment’s value fell by 29.5 percent to $26.0 billion in fiscal 2009 (a crisis exacerbated as the University realized about $3 billion in additional losses on Allston financing hedges and its liquid accounts). Fiscal constraints shadowed the balance of the decade—notably in FAS, which derived more than half its revenues from the endowment.

• Getting and spending. The eleven-fold growth in the endowment had the intended effect—the assets and income are to be spent in part, to operate Harvard, not solely hoarded. From fiscal 1986, when University revenues and expenses were both about $716 million, the budget grew by leaps and bounds, particularly in the past decade: to $2 billion for the first time in fiscal 2000 (and an operating surplus of $120 million); to $3 billion just six years later; and peaked at more than $3.8 billion in fiscal 2009, when the brakes had to be applied. Those increased outlays paid for increases in financial aid totaling tens of millions of dollars annually; new faculty positions; debt service and operating costs for the huge new laboratories and other buildings; and more.

• Physical plant. As reported elsewhere (see "Building—and Buying—a Campus"), the campus has been transformed. Harvard’s prior great building era was in the 1960s and 1970s—when abundant sponsored-research funds fueled the addition of more than six million gross square feet of facilities—setting the stage for the Bok administration’s search for more usable land (and for hundreds of millions of dollars to assemble Allston sites and plan for their use in the following quarter-century). By the early 1990s, following two decades of more average growth (a million or so square feet every 10 years), Harvard facilities totaled 17.5 million square feet. From 2000 to 2009, the campus was a continuous construction site, adding several million square feet of new buildings—the Cold War-era boom compressed into one frenzied decade—making Harvard a very much bigger place even before a single new structure rises in Allston.

• …and most of all, the people. The point of those budget funds and facilities, of course, is to enable faculty and staff members and students to pursue teaching, learning, and research. And indeed, their numbers grew. By the University’s count at the time, there were 1,680 nonmedical faculty members of all categories in 1986 (plus about 550 in the medical, dental, and public health schools proper, for a total of 2,230)—and 2,804 in total in 2009. Staff employment during that period rose from 8,994 to nearly 12,500 (after the voluntary retirements and layoffs that ended that trying fiscal year).

Two particular Harvard human-resources events merit mention. First, following 13 years of campaigning in face of concerted administrative opposition, much of the institution’s workforce voted in May 1988 to form the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. That autumn, the University dropped its challenges to the election, and began negotiations on a labor agreement. The first contract was settled in mid 1989, and HUCTW today represents some 4,800 employees. Second, in 1994, the federal law ending mandatory retirement ages came into effect for tenured professors—all but ensuring that the faculty as a whole would become more aged.

Two further developments exemplify the recent evolution of the University as an enterprise. In December 1989, Harvard launched its trademark licensing program (the last Ivy school to do so)—aiming, the magazine reported, to “control the use of the Harvard name on ‘insignia goods’ such as clothing, mugs, glasses, watches, pens,” and undertaking “to ensure that such things are of good quality and in good taste,” with proceeds earmarked for student aid. And in a concession to the practicalities of running Harvard well, an executive vice presidency was created early in Drew Faust’s administration to better manage finance, information systems, human resources, campus services, and capital planning and construction (including Allston development), and rationalize the president’s myriad reporting relationships.

The Institution

Bok’s 20-year tour is not unusual for Harvard; his four immediate predecessors, Pusey, Conant, Lowell, and Eliot, averaged more than 25 years apiece at Harvard’s helm. 

-July-August 1990 (upon President Bok’s announcement that he would step down the following year)

After the remarkable staying power of its presidents from Charles W. Eliot through Derek Bok—just five leaders from 1869 through 1991, with the stability (or stagnation, critics might argue) that provided—the University’s dynamic changed dramatically. Neil Rudenstine’s decade in Massachusetts Hall exceeded the average tenure of modern university presidents. But the subsequent transitions from Lawrence Summers (five years) to Bok II (one interim year) to Drew Faust (beginning in 2007), and related changes among deans and senior administrators—not to mention the impact of Allston planning and the financial downturn—were disorienting. The augmented vice-presidential ranks, put in place by Bok to address the shortcomings, revealed in the 1960s, of an “extremely underadministered” institution, provided capacity and continuity. But as he explained in a 1986 interview, Bok declined to appoint a provost, lest he be insulated from the “educational issues” he cared about most.

Rudenstine, a past provost at Princeton, embraced the idea for Harvard, in furtherance of his own educational aims: an agenda that included extensive global outreach; an ambitious, University-wide capital campaign; and central investment in five interdisciplinary academic initiatives (and others as fundraising permitted). In 2011, after Steven Hyman’s decade as provost, the post has become established and significant, extending from oversight of Harvard’s many allied and affiliated institutions (the museums, the American Repertory Theater, etc.) and the overhaul of the library system to sharing that most traditional of Harvard presidential prerogatives: conducting the final “ad hoc” reviews of proposed appointments to tenured professorships.

Nor did that end Rudenstine’s mark on the shape of the University and its management. In 1999, he untied Harvard’s prickliest Gordian knot, effecting and subsidizing transformation of Radcliffe from a college (with alumnae, but neither students nor faculty) into an institute for advanced study. And in his final year, he managed to put in place the “strategic infrastructure fund,” an annual half-percent levy on all the schools’ endowment balances to pay for Allston campus development. (Originally slated to run for five years, it was extended to a quarter-century during the Summers administration.)

Where Rudenstine sought consensus—involving deans in 40 meetings and four retreats to set academic priorities—Summers hustled to quicken the pace through central directives. As noted, he chose a provost who could direct vast interdisciplinary science initiatives, and Summers himself drove ambitious Allston campus plans, aiming to initiate construction on a fast track—both strongly centralizing initiatives. He appointed deans who would launch what he hoped would be wholesale curriculum reviews. To carry his message beyond the Harvard community, he added communications and news staff, and many of the schools quickly did, too. And he created vice presidenciesfor policy and for human resources. (With the abrupt end of his presidency, many of the academic initiatives were recalibrated—or were derailed by the 2008 crash in the endowment and the unraveling of financial steps Summers had taken to accelerate Allston construction; but his staffing initiatives persisted even as the personnel subsequently changed.)

In the initial years of her presidency, Faust re-emphasized consensual decisionmaking—involving many interests, for instance, in planning Harvard’s future in the arts, and stocking the Allston Work Team with eight deans so they could, for the first time, air common and conflicting priorities, agree on near-term actions, and identify issues requiring longer-term consideration as needs evolve.

But perhaps most significantly, Faust completed the unfinished business first identified during the traumas that shook the University in the late 1960s: rethinking governance at the highest level. Bok, as noted, put Harvard management on a modern footing, but other recommendations from the era sat on the shelf. Conrad Harper’s resignation from the Corporation in mid 2005 unveiled the fissures within the senior governing board; his criticisms, coming from a respected expert in governance, suggested inadequacies of procedure and even of composition. Summers’s departure, and the $3 billion in losses on financial hedges and long-term investment of liquid reserves, prompted searching questions about the Corporation’s core responsibilities: choosing the University’s leader and overseeing its resources. And so, last December, on the verge of Harvard’s 375th anniversary, Faust, the Corporation, and the Board of Overseers effected the seemingly unthinkable: updating the Charter of 1650 by nearly doubling the size of the senior governing board, adopting term limits, and putting in place a committee structure intended to make it more expert and effective.

However those changes ultimately unfold, or are refined, they unmistakably create, at the very highest level of University governance, a crucial opportunity for more strategic thinking about the future of the institution. In a world in the midst of rapid, sweeping change, that capacity will surely be critical to shaping the course that Harvard must navigate in the next 25 years—and beyond.  


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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