Letters | 7 Ware Street
During the past three-plus decades, Harvard has invested immensely in Allston: to acquire properties, devise land-use plans, secure regulatory permission to develop parcels, arrange commercial use of leased acreage, build the engineering and applied sciences complex, and now to proceed toward the “enterprise research campus” (including privately owned buildings and a University-funded conference center). Does anyone have an idea of the aggregate cost—or of the returns Harvard expects from the commercial leases? More important, given that the initial plan was banking land to accommodate the next century of Harvard’s academic growth, is that still the agenda—or is the assembled acreage now principally a valuable asset for commercial development?
What of the shift in academic focus (dating to the interfaculty initiatives launched by President Neil L. Rudenstine and Faculty of Arts and Sciences [FAS] dean Jeremy R. Knowles in the 1990s) toward the life sciences and genomics, now propelled by computing and data science? Certainly the exciting discoveries increasingly within reach demand that Harvard’s scholarly resources and teaching align with the scientific opportunities. But if there is a roadmap guiding the evolution, who has access to it? What principles guide the apparent University, rather than school, financing and ownership of the science and engineering complex, but not other urgent priorities; and what principles apply in future, similar instances?
How were the goals for The Harvard Campaign set (and, for that matter, what were the principal academic aims)? Some of those bruited about, like expansive support for neuroscience, appear to have been left waiting at the altar [read about landmark gift for neuroscience and artificial-intelligence research received after this issue went to press]. Donors knew enough to respond to the tune of billions of dollars of generous gifts—but do faculty members see a connection, if any, to wished-for funds for compelling new fields of research?
And how does Harvard governance really work? Among the most important rationales for the 2010 overhaul of the Corporation were enhancing its capacity for strategic thinking and making some overtures toward greater communication with University constituents at large. Senior Fellow Robert D. Reischauer began giving occasional briefings on the Corporation’s work, and his successor, William F. Lee, initially followed suit, letting drop that the governing board had talked about Allston, or distance education, without plumbing such topics in depth or threatening the Corporation’s legitimate interest in maintaining confidentiality. But those briefings have petered out.
Given the enormous economic implications of Allston investment and scaling up science, or allocating fundraising goals and outcomes, how does the Corporation think about such increasingly centralized decisions in the context of an historically decentralized place like Harvard, marching to the tune of “every tub on its own bottom”?
Throughout the coronavirus, University leaders have reached out regularly to the Harvard community about this unprecedented challenge to personal and institutional well-being. A dashboard provides information on the incidence of cases, people in quarantine and isolation, and so on: data vital to know just where the University stands. By inviting everyone to see that they were in this together, as they truly were, leaders have elicited the community’s support and action. Crimson Clear, the online utility for reporting possible exposure, tracking one’s testing status, and more, seems an especially apt name.
The difference between the questions raised above and Harvard’s pandemic response gets at the general question of transparency. Surely there is such a thing as too much information: there are many topics on which institutions, like individuals, rightly operate in privacy. When Harvard began assembling property in Allston, for example, it did so through a nominee. Once tipped off, neighbors were concerned, and politicians professed outrage, but why would the University have tipped its hand and forced itself to pay much more than it had to?
But on many matters, the University is so habitually reclusive that it incurs unnecessary costs. Faculty members better acquainted with Harvard’s deficits after the financial crisis and Great Recession might have appreciated why the subsequent campaign did more to repair the balance sheet (paying for past commitments to financial aid, facilities, and an expanded professoriate) than to enable growth. Professors in disciplines receiving smaller investment in their research might feel less threatened than they do now, still largely in the dark about the University’s larger intellectual ambitions. In the wake of the grandiose Allston development plans that were advanced 15 years ago and then abandoned, everyone might have a firmer sense of future campus growth there (if any), if they grasped the embedded costs and how University leaders view the prospective uses now. If the Corporation is deliberating such matters, wouldn’t it be good for the underlying institution to know about that—and the conclusions?
On too many matters, large and small, Harvard seems to be confounding its own goals. Might there have been less divestment agita, and more focus on the substance of climate change, if endowment holdings were more fully disclosed? Why not release the costs of capital projects, like House renewal, so people understand why this place has to raise a lot of money and maintain a large endowment? Speaking of which, why does Harvard, often defensive about the endowment, report its value including pledges (inflating the total), as some peer institutions do not? And why run up the fundraising totals, again a source of external envy and internal defensiveness, by including nongovernment sponsored-research funds (totaling hundreds of millions) alongside donors’ gifts? Such practices complicate Harvard’s PR tasks, while confusing internal audiences about its status: a lose-lose proposition.
In October, FAS dean Claudine Gay went public with new procedures for budgeting its resources and space utilization, and an ambitious strategic-planning effort (see page 16). Compared to past FAS practice, this feels like a major cultural shift, compelled by the collision of the faculty’s seemingly ample resources and the recurrent shortages that limit its academic aspirations. The three-year program asks the professors to engage in defining FAS’s future and reshaping the structures (departments, centers) and procedures (faculty recruitment, evaluation, and retirement) critical to realizing those aims. Faculty members are being invited to the party, and given access to vastly more information about FAS’s operations than ever before—vetted and vouched for by their own colleagues.
This is an experiment worth watching. Its most immediate lessons, stemming from how FAS collectively shaped its response to the pandemic, apply internally. But the exercise in collaboration, commitment to planning, and bet on transparency would seem to have wider application hereabouts.
—John S. Rosenberg, Editor