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John Harvard's Journal

A Fitter FAS

January-February 2023

With the pandemic’s worst effects in the past, Dean Claudine Gay painted an upbeat picture of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) prospects when she delivered her annual message on November 1. Her outlook was buttressed by reports on the professoriate—which has resumed growing—and FAS’s encouraging financial position.

Speaking at the second fall faculty meeting, Gay set the stage for establishing new priorities—operational, organizational, and perhaps intellectual—as faculty members continue a multiyear strategic planning process. Forgoing a published letter, she simply spoke to colleagues attending the meeting, noting that FAS proved to be “an institution that has been resilient” through the pandemic, reflecting hard work and a willingness to set priorities that “really met the urgency of the moment.”

FAS's “enviable position,” including financial strengths unforeseen when the pandemic began, made her optimistic about the future, Gay continued; the faculty’s strategic planning would “join that optimism with intentionality.” Given changes in disciplines, institutions, society, and what students want, she said, FAS was “leaning into the moment” through self-examination, which is already yielding results—for example, decisions to remedy inequities in nonacademic workloads. The outcome, she said, would be “a Harvard that works better for our faculty and our students.”

The annual faculty trends report, presented by Nina Zipser, dean for faculty affairs and planning, shows that FAS now has 723 ladder faculty members (those with tenure, and assistant and associate professors on the tenure track). This reflects a modest rebound from the 709 in the prior year: a total depressed by the suspension of many searches at the outset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. The recovery to 723 ladder-faculty members is ahead of expectations.

Still, a long-term pattern persists. The ladder-faculty census rose robustly in the first decade of the millennium (from 638 in academic year 2004-2005 to 726 in 2011-2012). Thereafter, the number stabilized (reflecting budget constraints put in place following the Great Recession). Growth resumed briefly, to a peak of 739 in 2018-2019, before the census declined again, during the pandemic, to the lowest level since 2008-2009.

The aggregate number conceals a changing disciplinary profile. According to Zipser’s office, from 2004-2005 to the current year, as the number of ladder faculty rose 13 percent (from 638 to 723), FAS continued to skew toward sciences and engineering and applied sciences, with the number of professors in those divisions rising from 32 percent to 40 percent of the whole. Arts and humanities positions rose from 192 in 2004-2005 to 195 in 2022-2023, declining from 30 percent to 27 percent of the total; and social science positions rose from 237 to 242, declining from 37 percent to 33 percent.

A new section detailed the dramatic rise in non-ladder faculty, to 356 full-time equivalents, from 2003 to the present: up 44 percent. Zipser emphasized that most are full-time staff who receive employee benefits, rather than living course-by-course (the precarious status of most American adjuncts). But in the view of some, they essentially are adjuncts, and they provide a significant share of the faculty’s instruction, especially in larger courses. FAS’s plan, according to the report, is to augment the ladder faculty “while keeping the non-ladder faculty relatively flat.”

A concern about diversity raised in Zipser’s report last year is re-emphasized: “When we compare the racial and ethnic composition of tenure-track offers to the Ph.D. pipeline” (the number of candidates for academic appointments), FAS is “clearly underutilizing the diversity of the pipeline. In particular, Historically Underrepresented students are less likely to apply to Harvard than is indicated by their representation in the pipeline….” That suggests challenges in FAS’s search processes and candidate perceptions about the desirability or feasibility of seeking Harvard positions.

A full report on faculty matters appears at harvardmag.com/fas-modest-growth-22.

The financial report, by Scott Jordan, dean of administration and finance, celebrated a substantial surplus, record unrestricted cash reserves, and control of expenses.

The financial crisis beginning in 2008 badly damaged the endowment, impairing FAS operations across the board. At the outset of the pandemic, FAS again seemed at risk. But reduced campus operating expenses, successful online instruction, and resumed research yielded an unexpected fiscal 2021 result: a $51.3 million operating surplus (consolidating FAS, other operations, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences). In fiscal 2022, Jordan said, the good times rolled on: the faculty had a consolidated surplus of $84.9 million (and for FAS alone, a cash surplus of $99 million).

FAS’s revenues, $1.519 billion, exceeded the pre-pandemic total for the first time, as students who had been on leave or deferred enrollment returned in record numbers, increasing tuition, room, and board income by $114 million. The endowment distribution rose smartly, to $791 million. Expenses remained reasonably controlled, increasing from $1.356 billion to $1.450 billion. Employee compensation costs actually declined $11 million, reflecting a workforce that remains smaller than in fiscal 2019, and decreased utilization of employee benefits.

Of the cash surplus, Jordan’s report revealed, nearly $72 million was added to the dean’s unrestricted reserves—bringing that invaluable source of funds for academic initiatives to $159 million: 10 percent of operating expenses, and in line with the Corporation’s guidance for the first time. Given the volatile conditions, Jordan concluded, FAS is “in a good place.”

Beginning late in the first decade of this millennium, the shortage of unrestricted cash has constrained FAS's academic investments and faculty growth. Accumulating such reserves now gives the faculty options it has not had for a long, long time.

Read an account of Gay’s remarks and Jordan’s report at harvardmag.com/fas-pandemic-rebound-22

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