The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Envisions Its Future

Post-pandemic, Harvard’s core faculty embraces new paradigms to adapt academically.

Claudine Gay
Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and SciencesPhotograph courtesy of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Enlisting its members’ intellects and capabilities, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is pursuing an unprecedented effort to envision and realize its academic future. Dean Claudine Gay’s FAS Study Group (FSG), chartered in November 2020 to consider its post-pandemic financial position, has now shared with faculty colleagues a report far broader in scope. It invites them all to join in academic strategic planning for FAS as a whole (an unfamiliar effort for the most decentralized faculty within an historically decentralized university), and in rethinking everything from the structure of departments and research centers to graduate education and professors’ career trajectory. The aim is to assure that FAS can apply its significant, but finite, resources to high-priority research opportunities and educational needs—as existing processes and their high costs may be thwarting professors’ intellectual ambitions. 

It’s surprising that FAS managed to advance this long-range thinking even while focusing on immediate pandemic-era priorities: keeping people safe, pivoting to remote instruction, and managing alarming uncertainty about the financial impacts (including prospective nine-figure losses). During a conversation last July, Gay observed that analyses conducted as part of FAS’s coronavirus response had revealed that its academic obligations outstrip its resources, particularly given its level of dependence on endowment funding (much of it restricted, and all of it sensitive to market cycles). Accordingly, she foresaw the “need for more flexibility that supports innovation”—both financial and organizational dexterity—and disclosed that she had begun discussing the analysis and its implications with the whole faculty during an April town hall. Gay indicated that a deeper look at the costs of FAS’s academic work, the constraints on endowment distributions, and the institution’s history of “starting things without ending things” would be forthcoming from a faculty working group. That could form the basis for an all-faculty conversation about how to sustain the academic mission by adapting many of FAS’s norms, making it possible to fund exciting work in new fields.

A further surprise is that the FSG report, sweeping in scope, has been completed and shared in two briefings with the entire faculty in mid-October. In fact, Gay told colleagues during those meetings, she has already implemented three significant recommendations:

•adopting a new “economic budgeting model” to highlight FAS’s financial options;

•making a concerted effort to determine how best to use restricted endowments within departments, centers, and FAS itself, in support of core research and teaching activity; and

•piloting a system to expose the costs of using space across FAS’s more than 10 million square feet of facilities, a first step toward encouraging more efficient, cost-effective space planning and utilization. 

She also invited faculty members to:

•engage in formulating a shared academic vision and identifying areas of strategic opportunity for FAS as a whole (work scheduled for this academic year); and 

•then to help define improvements in graduate education, faculty appointments and development, and the operation and staffing of departments and centers. All are high-stakes issues of concern to every professor, on which the FSG presented detailed data and findings, and recommended prospective courses of action—subject to much further faculty discussion, refinement, and, presumably, ultimate agreement on courses of action.

This is not an idle exercise. The process Gay and the FSG co-chairs—Safra professor of economics Jeremy Y. Stein and Levin professor in literature Karen L. Thornber—outlined in the briefings calls for pilot-testing and assessment of reforms in the 2022-2023 academic year; an all-faculty retreat to review FAS’s directions in June 2023; and broad implementation of the changes in 2023-2024: a warp-speed schedule in the academy.

Already, the FSG’s report and supportive appendices—both important reading (available here)—brim with information not widely available to FAS members heretofore. For example:

•Independent research and other centers within FAS—for African studies, brain science, international affairs, and so on—spent $161 million in fiscal 2019‚ including a draw of nearly $13 million on FAS’s funds (despite their separate endowments and gift receipts)—and none covers the full cost of the campus space it uses.  

•The Division of Continuing Education, in which FAS has invested heavily, increased revenue from about $80 million in fiscal 2015 to more than $120 million in fiscal 2019, and realized net revenue (from which it distributes funds to the faculty) of more than $20 million in the latter year: a significant, and rising, source of unrestricted cash.

•At a time of constrained faculty growth and interest in attracting scholars expert in new fields, the tenured professors skew older—and remain at Harvard a long time. Grouping tenured professors in arts and humanities, social science, and the sciences (excluding the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, SEAS) by 10-year cohorts, the most populous age category is 60-69 years—and average retirement age in those divisions ranges from 72.5 to 76.6 years. 

Within such findings lie the seeds for proceeding to conduct FAS’s academic work in different ways. That holds the promise of increasing flexibility and resources to embrace new fields, with their associated new scholarly colleagues and facilities—but at the likely cost of modifying or ending old routines. In Gay’s 2021 annual report, released October 28, she describes this prospect in anodyne terms:

Our operations are also a place for faculty innovation. A faculty-led study of our financial condition has yielded a new framework for analysis that …[reveals] important dynamics and sensitivities in how we fund our activities. This new model, together with strong endowment performance, set the stage for more informed financial decision-making as well as future efforts to create enhanced financial and organizational flexibility across FAS as part of our ongoing pursuit of long-term academic excellence. 

Faculty members’ conversations about their common aims will ultimately determine the significant change Gay seems to promise; at the October briefings, she formally invited all to participate. FAS hasn’t had such a conversation at least since President Neil L. Rudenstine set out the plans for a University capital campaign in the early 1990s—and perhaps not even then, on this scale. Gay’s description of the work may be deliberately low-key, but for FAS, this is a big deal.

The Fundamentals

In retrospect, fiscal years 2020-2022—from the beginning of the pandemic through its hoped-for diminution—may come to seem, fiscally, the equivalent of tossing a rock into a pond: a fast, violent reaction, followed by a relatively quick return to calm. For the University as a whole, and FAS (according to the summary in Gay’s new annual report), tuition, room, and board income sank in the spring of 2020 and remained depressed during the next academic year. Expenses fell, too. The feared decline in sponsored-research and philanthropic income did not occur. And the endowment soared as government emergency programs bolstered markets. Forecast deficits turned into operating surpluses, reflecting both disciplined work within Harvard and FAS, and favorable circumstances without. The contrast to the financial crisis and Great Recession in 2008 and after, when financial constraints lingered for years, is notable.

But the pandemic raised other challenges: most immediately, how to operate a residential research and teaching institution when members of the community cannot safely be in residence together. That experience prompted fundamental questions about how professors, staff, and students have worked together in the past, and how they might do so in the future (for example, by making use of technology). Coming only a dozen years after the prior crisis, the pandemic also made it prudent to look at FAS’s vulnerabilities: how to operate a stable institution—funded with tuition and fees, research support, gifts, and endowment distributions, and involving large costs for people and facilities—in light of recurring volatility.

In the spring 2020, Gay assembled 125 faculty and staff members, in 11 working groups, to help devise plans to adjust FAS operations for the crisis and its aftermath: an unusually inclusive, collective approach to problem solving. Among them, Olshan professor of economics John Y. Campbell was asked to direct the review of FAS’s financial prospects and planning.

Campbell, a financial economist and veteran of FAS committees on resources and priorities during prior periods of financial expansion and acute stress (including the aftermath of the market crisis and Great Recession), laid out the immediate challenges. But he also proposed examining the faculty’s long-term position and prospects. Like an investor valuing a company as a going concern, he analyzed FAS’s operating revenues and expenses, and income derived from its assets (the endowment) and philanthropy. Based on fiscal 2020 data, discounting all those current and prospective flows of cash to their present value demonstrated that FAS’s obligations exceeded its means to fulfill them by more than $90 million per year in perpetuity: unsustainable for an entity meant to make discoveries and educate youths without end.

That kind of simple modeling, refined under the auspices of the FSG, usefully highlights the faculty’s vulnerabilities and opportunities. In the wake of the recent report on the huge gains in the value of the Harvard endowment during fiscal year 2021, the discounting model showed FAS’s operating gap narrowing dramatically, to about $24 million per year: seemingly manageable in the context of current annual spending of about $1.6 billion (see the discussions below on the faculty’s costs for space, and for running its centers and departments). This sensitivity of the model is in fact one of its core features—in this case, reflecting the reality that FAS now derives 54 percent of its operating revenue from endowment distributions.

In an extraordinary year—its endowment appreciated from $18 billion to $23 billion—everything about the future naturally looks much rosier. In contrast, the $11-billion decline in Harvard’s endowment in 2009 caused protracted austerity, as the endowment’s value did not recover in nominal terms for a decade, and in inflation-adjusted terms until this year. More importantly, the model shows that slight changes in long-term endowment returns (a percentage-point decrease), or in major expenses like annual adjustments in compensation (a half-percentage-point increase), would cause FAS’s annual operating gap to balloon 10-fold and 6-fold, respectively, to impossible levels.

In other words, FAS has large resources—but even larger obligations (operating and maintaining its specialized facilities, paying a large and superb faculty, educating a lot of doctoral students). With its resources fully committed, FAS recurrently finds that when times are tight, its opportunities to pursue new fields of discovery and enhance teaching—the core responsibilities of a research university—are choked off. 

This economic approach to budgeting changes the focus from annual accounting and short-term, financially focused decision-making to FAS’s larger purposes. Annual budgets and financial controls will of course remain in place, but complemented by this broadening perspective. The new approach can also help illuminate the effects of both internal decisions and of external events (financial crises, an adverse investment environment, a pandemic). After two bona fide crises in a dozen years, Gay embraced this way of modeling FAS’s prospects, through the right end of the telescope.

Beyond Finance

Last November, with that in mind, she created the FAS Study Group, charged with charting “a course for a financially sustainable future.” Co-chairs Stein and Thornber, joined by Campbell and seven other faculty members, plus two senior officers and Thomas Hollister, Harvard’s vice president for finance and CFO, initially set about finding opportunities for enhancing FAS’s “organizational flexibility” and “resilience.” 

Crucially, the FSG was to “bring the expertise of the faculty to bear on this challenge.” The latter clearly echoed the lessons learned from involving professors and staff members in earlier pandemic planning. As Gay noted in July, that effort not only encompassed the views of an unusually broad cohort (125 faculty and staff members). It did so successfully: despite the pandemic’s unpredictable course, FAS’s plans unfolded without the need for major corrections. The working groups’ insights yielded better ideas and faster implementation, at a time when there was little margin for error. From that experience, a previously unimaginable effort to reexamine FAS’s everyday assumptions took root. In a way, the study group’s goal became the search for a path toward an FAS adapted to the twenty-first century, a scant 15 years from the University’s four-hundredth anniversary in 2036.

To animate its work, the FSG spelled out a vision for the faculty focused on an intellectually vibrant and “forward-leaning” FAS pursuing the most important research and best teaching. The means to that end include attracting and retaining the most innovative faculty members and supporting all aspects of their Harvard work; nurturing interdisciplinary research and teaching; acting quickly on emerging academic opportunities; empowering individuals and academic units to make appropriate decisions and tradeoffs; and—crucially for Harvard and other premier research universities—enhancing graduate education.

The FSG report articulates several general principles and recommendations. For one, “We can no longer respond to financial challenges with the status quo management approach of constant across-the-board belt-tightening and constrained aspirations within individual units. When financial challenges need to be addressed, and difficult choices need to be made, this should be done with a clear sense of strategic priorities, informed by our overarching mission of staying on the cutting edge of research and teaching.” For another, “Broad-based academic excellence is core to the FAS identity, but that excellence is not automatic and requires the ability to evolve and change over time.”

Guiding that change, the FSG came to feel, requires rethinking the present, extreme degree of decentralization, which contributes to economic inefficiencies and inequities, and—because the resulting “hyperlocal” barriers “are as much cultural as financial”—inhibits pursuit of a common FAS strategy. Thus the recommendations to break down barriers and revise structures, the better to “direct resources to the areas of highest strategic importance.” That extends to attracting talented scholars whose fields of expertise don’t readily align with FAS’s academic infrastructure; evaluating faculty members’ productivity; and encouraging retirements to create opportunities to hire new scholars—all in the interest of replenishing the faculty’s intellectual capital as a whole.

In short, this is a vision of an FAS whose individual members would combine their energies to achieve the common goals of:

•speeding its decision-making;
•embracing new areas of research—and welcoming those best equipped to push them forward; and
•establishing a clear sense of where to allocate available funds for research and teaching, and organizing itself to do so: becoming intentional about its academic direction, rather than reactive or atomistic.  

Administrative reforms. As noted, Dean Gay has already embraced the holistic, economic budgeting model developed by Campbell and the FSG to guide planning. She has also drawn upon its analyses to take action on the following:

Restricted funds. Analysis of the restricted parts of FAS’s endowment—about 65 percent—shows that income from those for undergraduate and graduate financial aid, for example, is fully distributed. But many smaller funds (worth in the aggregate $1 billion in fiscal 2019) are less fully used, and are accumulating unspent balances. A concerted effort to see whether the funds could appropriately be used in other ways (to pay for expenses that now require general funds, or to support research and teaching more directly) might provide FAS considerable financial relief while contributing to the core mission. Gay is pursuing this priority.

Space. Across its 10 million square feet of academic buildings, residences, athletic facilities, and ancillary structures (plus 700,000 square feet of rented space, and SEAS’s new Allston facility, apparently also rented from the University), FAS incurs costs of nearly $500 million per year for operations and maintenance, utilities, and renewal—including debt service. But few users have any idea of the costs; the differences in costs among, say, classrooms, offices, and laboratories; or the faculty’s lease and debt obligations. Gay will pilot a “shadow pricing” system to begin communicating this information: a first step toward incentivizing users to consider economizing on space, and perhaps applying the funds saved to academic priorities. (Such programs work in academia: as part of its sustainability efforts, Yale assessed shadow carbon charges on several buildings; that program has now been extended across its campus, with fees assessed being used to fund decarbonization of the campus.)

• Matters of strategic concern to the faculty as a whole. The FSG’s many other detailed findings and recommendations extend to other basic issues on which, Gay has determined, much more faculty discussion must take place before courses of action ensue. The following are only a few highlights.

The faculty. After expanding from fiscal 2000 until the end of that decade, the faculty ranks have held essentially steady since, even as efforts have been made to expand the SEAS and sciences cohorts. The tenured ranks have risen, and the tenure-track cohort has shrunk. Where to go from here, if in the near term the faculty’s overall size remains roughly level? The FSG thus broached the idea of scrutinizing members’ productivity (in research, teaching, and service), with a focus on “later career stage faculty with very little work [who] have no incentive to retire.”

If a professor’s “research productivity declines,” for example, the FSG appendix suggests, there is “no mechanism…to restore teaching requirements” and ensure “workload is maintained.” Finding ways to rectify that is only fair to colleagues (and important for recruiting new professors to Harvard); and “higher teaching loads” are correlated to somewhat earlier retirement. All this suggests the need to assess faculty members more closely, and to create “a strong retirement culture” for ladder faculty whose academic activity has diminished.

As for recruiting new, more diverse scholars who can advance important new fields, the FSG members encourage “cluster hiring” (several people in a new or a disciplinary field, brought on together), and hiring in areas that cross department and school lines. (There are local examples of such efforts: the Medical School, for example, recently boasted that its life-sciences departments collaborated on hiring a half-dozen of the most outstanding young researchers available—and affiliating them with departments only after they came aboard. And Gay, despite FAS constraints on hiring, has been pursuing at least one high-priority search of this sort, focusing on multiple appointments in ethnic studies.) 

Clearly, the faculty as a whole, and departments and divisions individually, will have to work through these and other ideas about changing the course of the faculty lifespan within FAS. The tradeoffs involved put individuals’ natural inclination to maintain the pleasures, pay, and prestige of a Harvard professorship in the context of FAS’s collective capacity for self-renewal. 

Departmental and center structure and operations. Those questions about faculty renewal raise further questions about the role and organization of the existing four dozen disciplinary units (19 arts and sciences departments, 10 in social sciences, 10 in sciences, and 8 SEAS “areas”), which take the lead on hiring and curriculum—plus nearly five dozen research centers, initiatives, institutes, and other operating units. Many of the departments assumed their current shape in the mid twentieth century. Their stability has usefully reinforced existing disciplines, but may inhibit the embrace of emerging or interdisciplinary ones. They range widely in size and staff resources, and in access to dedicated, restricted funds—creating unequal opportunities to supplement faculty and student travel, research experiences, and so on.

The centers also vary widely in scale, mission, operations, and resources, raising questions about the opportunities to provide services on a more efficient, shared basis. There are also issues concerning the use of restricted funds, centers’ reliance on FAS unrestricted funding, and their contribution to the core research and teaching mission. More broadly, the FSG encourages center directors to engage with the divisional deans and SEAS in pursuit of mutually productive academic goals, consistent with FAS’s overall agenda.

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The analysis of the GSAS makes for sobering reading. It comes against the backdrop of Dean Emma Dench’s decision to constrain admissions during the 2020-2021 academic year—both to conserve resources for students’ whose work was interrupted during the pandemic, and to take stock of the 58 doctoral programs’ differing success in advising and mentoring doctoral candidates, their progress toward degree, and the outcome of their studies. 

Graduate education is central to FAS’s mission to advance the future of scholarship—and it is expensive: according to the FSG’s data, total aid cost $136 million in fiscal 2020. On average, according to the FSG report, graduate students require $350,000 of aid over six years (covering tuition, stipends, teaching work, health insurance and fees), funded by restricted endowments, unrestricted funds, and outside sources. The share coming from FAS’s unrestricted funds is growing at a compound annual rate of more than 7 percent.

Even more important are qualitative concerns. According to the report, “there is a temptation to think of [the number of applicants admitted] in…transactional terms, e.g. the capacity to meet departmental teaching needs.” It urges a “student-centered approach to graduate education”—and goes so far as to recommend that “departmental teaching needs should not play an independent role in graduate admissions targets.” The report continues:

The point of our graduate program is to develop the next generation of researchers, teachers, and scholars. Graduate students are important contributors to our teaching mission and we value their teaching; however, they are not simply a unit of teaching capacity. To treat them otherwise is to turn a mentoring relationship into a transactional one, which harms the integrity of our graduate program.  

Structurally, the FSG recommends combining degree programs in adjacent areas to simplify applications, produce larger student cohorts, and provide flexibility for smaller or larger cohorts from year to year (so admissions reflect the quality of the applicant pool, rather than a mechanistic filling of fixed slots each year). 

It will be especially interesting to see whether the faculty agrees with the criticisms raised by Dench last year, and now bluntly by the FSG—or whether anyone connects the rising tide of unionization (including the Harvard Graduate Students Union’s second strike in its brief existence, October 26-28) with the changing circumstances of graduate education and the prospects for subsequent, fulfilling academic employment. 

The Work Ahead: Changing Cultures

To set the stage for focused discussion on these and other issues, Gay and her divisional deans have now invited allFAS members to join small group discussions (10 participants each) to elaborate a common academic vision and more detailed thoughts on the thorniest topics: faculty support and development, “academic communities” (the departments and centers that are most professors’ immediate homes within FAS), and graduate education. On the latter subjects, Nina Zipser, dean for faculty affairs and planning; the divisional deans; and GSAS’s Dench, respectively, will coordinate substantive findings.

This considerable effort—an attempt, coming from the FAS dean’s office, to persuade all FAS members that rethinking the faculty can work for each of them—is a bold experiment. It represents a significant scaling-up of the participatory pandemic planning. More important, it represents a dramatic change from the way things have been done within the faculty, on at least two levels.

First, for at least a couple of decades, the faculty has not formally acted as an entity engaged in many essential academic matters. Among the 125 to 150 members who routinely showed up at monthly faculty meetings, many were required to attend in their capacity as department chairs, House faculty deans, or other administrative positions—and even then, they represented a small fraction of the 850 or so eligible voting members. (In response, some years ago, FAS reduced its quorum for voting purposes to one-eighth of eligible members.)

Most of the business presented and discussed is routine: reading of memorial minutes on the lives of deceased professors, hearing of required reports, approval of the courses of study and student handbook, votes on new degree programs (typically developed departmentally). There have been some raisins in the pudding. Twice since the advent of the millennium, FAS has had protracted debates on revising the undergraduate General Education curriculum (but during the first round largely downplayed an associated effort to focus on teaching, led by then-GSAS dean Theda Skocpol). Academics aside, it has had multi-meeting discussions about regulating single-gender social clubs (at the behest of the administration) and divestment (at professors’ request).

But on other matters of high consequence, the formal, as-a-whole conversation is muted, at best. Professors heard about progress toward raising FAS’s $3 billion goal during the Harvard Campaign—but did not, earlier, get (or take) a joint opportunity to air their views on its priorities. At least since the financial crisis a dozen years ago, the faculty has essentially acceded to whatever fiscal information has been presented to it: it no longer maintains a resources committee to review and explain the data independently. The central administration announced Harvard’s entry into distance learning through edX as a fait accompli. The move of SEAS to Allston was clearly a University real-estate decision that proceeded with little prior academic input from FAS. (SEAS got spectacular new quarters for about half its faculty—at a cost, according to the FSG, of nearly $30 million in annual rent and operating costs.) As Harvard has progressively invested in the sciences and then the applied sciences and engineering since the 1990s—with vast implications for appointments, facilities and budgets, and pedagogy—the faculty as a whole has largely been a bystander.

A telling anecdote: at donor assembly during the Harvard Campaign, FAS dean Michael D. Smith hosted a spectacular, multimedia presentation by several engineering and applied sciences professors highlighting their research and labs, and introducing their teams of graduate students and postdocs; the audience was wowed. When an observer later asked a University fundraiser about repeating the production for FAS, revealing the exciting discoveries emerging from colleagues’ laboratories so all could celebrate their work, the official said that could never be allowed to happen, lest professors in arts and humanities and social sciences become jealous about the investment being made in those other realms. So much for the rhetoric about One Harvard and a united FAS (and the obvious fact that it would be hard to hide the billion-dollar SEAS complex rising across the Charles River).

The current, ambitious effort to engage every faculty member in envisioning FAS’s future, and to elicit their ideas for how to effect it, must therefore overcome habitual disengagement among the many professors who have voted with their feet (skipping faculty meetings) and hunkered down in their own departments, centers, offices, and labs to conduct their scholarly and pedagogical work. By exerting her personal energies, and those of her divisional deans, to hear out every faculty member who wants to have a say in academic planning now, Gay—herself very much a faculty member, and a past divisional dean—is trying to change that culture.

The success of any recommendations issuing from the FSG and the faculty’s deliberations also depends on a shift in managerial culture. Below the level of the leadership in University Hall, department chairs, faculty directors of academic centers, and dozens of others carry out the FAS’s work—albeit, in very uncoordinated ways now. If the faculty adopts anything like the FSG’s line of thought on assessing professors’ productivity, rebalancing work, and encouraging those no longer pulling their weight to retire, many department chairs will have to assume more, and more difficult, responsibilities. Similarly, if academic centers are asked to align their activities with FAS’s research and teaching, their faculty directors and staff executives, and divisional deans, will have to have much closer, more intentional relationships, and much clearer ways of evaluating performance.

These “soft” aspects of change—faculty members’ response to Dean Gay’s invitation to engage; the commitment of department chairs, center leaders, and divisional deans to row their boats in the same direction—loom large for the success of this high-stakes undertaking.

The Status Quo: A Counterfactual

What would happen if the faculty collectively shrugs off this opportunity, for whatever reasons? As it happens, John Campbell and the FSG finance subcommittee have mined recent history to explain how the FAS found itself in its present straits: with a large endowment, but facing potentially debilitating deficits.

“A very brief answer,” according to the report, “is that much of the problem has its roots in the heady first decade of the 2000s, and in particular policy choices made in the several years preceding the global financial crisis of 2008-09” (emphasis added). Notable among those choices:

•Constructing or acquiring an additional 1.2 million square feet of facilities, representing an almost 15 percent increase in FAS’s facilities—including expensive science facilities (the Northwest Building, the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering, the Biological Research Infrastructure, and the Rowland Institute); the aggregate costs for operation and maintenance, including for the Center for Government and International Studies offices and for debt service, total $49 million yearly.

•Expanding the ladder faculty, after four decades of essentially no growth, by 130 members, or 21 percent, representing added annual costs of $42 million in current dollars (excluding added costs for staff support, graduate students, and so on).

•Enhancing student support via the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative begun by President Lawrence H. Summers and expanded by President Drew Faust—at a cost now, adjusted for inflation, of approximately $64 million per year.

Each of these decisions represents a commitment legitimately at the core of FAS’s mission: more research capacity, more scholars, and much-expanded access for students (especially those from lower-income backgrounds) to a Harvard education.

Each was made in the wake of the favorable circumstances from the 1990s (when the endowment quadrupled, to $19.1 billion, and the University Campaign raised $2.65 billion, putting Harvard and FAS solidly in the black) and the go-go first eight years of the new millennium (when the endowment nearly doubled, to $36.9 billion in 2008). 

But in retrospect, none was adequately funded at the time it was made—particularly given the subsequent financial crash and recession: FAS took on those higher building costs, and obligations for professorships and aid, just as its finances imploded. The premature end of the Summers presidency and then the financial crisis made it impossible to stage an anticipated capital campaign, precisely when the endowment shrank and Harvard’s larger budget troubles forced it to take on $2.5 billion of debt and to devote cash to serving its obligations. 

All those effects linger on, as past decisions—effectively, borrowing against its future—have encumbered FAS’s present and prospects. As a painful instance, the Harvard Campaign brought the University $9.6 billion—but much of FAS’s proceeds in effect paid past bills. Some $500 million was raised to endow financial aid (still leaving that core expense, by one estimate, only about 60 percent underwritten by endowed funds—requiring perhaps $80 million in unrestricted annual FAS funding today). Some new professorships were secured (notably those in computer science funded by Steve Ballmer ’77)—but FAS dean Michael D. Smith’s overwhelming emphasis was on endowing existing positions, to shore up the budget. And doubling down on commitments in search of funding, FAS decided to proceed with undergraduate House renewal, in the hope of securing donor support for the renovations. In the event, FAS found itself drawing down capital from its already reduced endowment, using cash reserves, and taking on still more debt, to proceed—with an annual financial impact of $32 million per year now, by the FSG’s estimate: a cost that will increase absent significant philanthropy when and if the program proceeds. (Adams House renewal has been stretched out, part of FAS’s pandemic-driven reduction in capital spending; and the enormously expensive work on Eliot and Kirkland Houses is now not even on the planning horizon.)

The point of economic budgeting is to underline the unpleasant reality—in this case, that buildings have to be maintained, and FAS will have to bear the costs of doing so, one way or another. All this suggests that absent a paradigm shift, FAS has locked itself into a pattern of continuous financial constraint, with even generous philanthropic support lending little relief given the obligations it has incurred and the cost of running its current operations.

In Perspective

The FSG’s analysis and Dean Gay’s embrace of its findings focus squarely on the policies and decisions under FAS’s influence. It is clearly affected by external factors: financial market cycles, the timing of University capital campaigns, the magnitude of Harvard assessments on its and other schools’ endowment distributions (about $100 million yearly for FAS now) and other levies for University purposes. But the economic budgeting model smooths out the near-term effects of such factors, instead directing attention to FAS’s internal conditions and the matters it can control—if it so chooses.

Given the lengthy agenda already elaborated by Gay and the FSG, and her determination to engage the whole faculty and to proceed promptly, several other large issues will have to wait. The focus so far has been squarely on research-related matters—the subject central to FAS’s reason for being, and dearest to most professors. Among the issues not being addressed, the FSG explicitly notes that it deferred for further consideration the FAS staff as a whole, the College, collaboration with other Harvard schools, and non-ladder faculty. One might also add to the list the entire, rapidly evolving nature of teaching. And on a substantive note, the continuing, perhaps intensifying, emphasis on science has enormous implications for finances, staffing, and facilities. As Gay said in the conversation last July, some new academic investments, like the initiative in quantum science and engineering, require “different kinds of resources, priced differently in the market,” compared to work in other domains. That suggests perhaps even greater resource pressure in the future than in FAS’s recent past.

But enough.

In the “every tub” model of Harvard and FAS, the prevailing mantra has been pursuit of individual excellence, with fealty to one’s own discipline and immediate colleagues. The results have been so good for so long that incentives for change or collective action are attenuated. William C. Kirby, one of Gay’s predecessors as dean (2002-2006), is about to publish Empires of Ideas (Harvard University Press, June 2022), a sweeping global history of modern research universities, and what has made them rise or fall. His assessment of Harvard highlights its tradition of individual intellectual entrepreneurship, but its persistent difficulty—compared to rising institutions like Duke—in elaborating coherent, institutional academic strategies that might be useful in the competitive contemporary context. Seen from this perspective, the juxtaposition of “strategic planning” and Harvard or FAS seems oxymoronic.   

Might FAS now choose a different path? The FSG report, created separately, and for very different purposes, put the challenges and opportunities this way:

The FSG believes that now is the time for FAS faculty members, working together with administrative partners, staff, and students, to embrace change and innovation and to build and support our academic community in new ways.…[T]he eight subcommittees of the FSG have mapped out a variety of proposals that we believe can help set us on this path. Because of our financial challenges and some of our engrained practices, much of our energy currently is devoted to maintaining practices and entities that were not designed to support the Harvard of today and tomorrow. We need to change that mentality. 

The specific recommendations…aim to position the FAS for sustainable broad-based excellence and innovation. Change can be very difficult, and even small change often feels high stakes in our community. Our proposals are intended to be an invitation to the Harvard community to work together to help reconceive how the FAS is structured and operates so that we can remain an academic leader for decades to come. 

The very notion of citizenship has come under polarized, partisan attack in the nation at large—a deterioration in common purpose, intensified by the pandemic, that many FAS members would be quick to deplore. Now, they are being presented with an unusual invitation to act as FAS citizens: to participate in open exchanges with their leadership and one another, informed by unprecedented access to data on the faculty’s operations, assets, and status. For the FAS, its future students and professors, the wider society they aim to serve, and the donors whose future support they hope to secure, much appears to hang in the balance.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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Historic Humor

University Archives to preserve Harvard Lampoon materials

Academia’s Absence from Homelessness

“The lack of dedicated research funding in this area is a major, major problem.”

The Enterprise Research Campus, Part Two

Tishman Speyer signals readiness to pursue approval for second phase of commercial development.  

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Poise, in Spite of Everything

Nina Skov Jensen ’25, portraitist for collectors and the princess of Denmark. 

Claudine Gay in First Post-Presidency Appearance

At Morning Prayers, speaks of resilience and the unknown

The Gravity of Groups

Mina Cikara explores how political tribalism feeds the American bipartisan divide.

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Exploring Political Tribalism and American Politics

Mina Cikara explores how political tribalism feeds the American bipartisan divide.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Construction on Commercial Enterprise Research Campus in Allston

Construction on Harvard’s commercial enterprise research campus and new theater in Allston