Unfinished Business

Continuity and change at Harvard

The End of any administration is an occasion to reflect upon what has been accomplished, and for speculation about what may be forthcoming. This magazine will report on Lawrence S. Bacow’s service as it concludes after Commencement and Claudine Gay’s as it begins in the new academic year. But fruitful attention might also be paid to projects that are under way but incomplete amid the passing of the baton from one presidency to the next. Here are a few items already simmering.

Allston. The University presence south of the Charles River will expand considerably in the near future, as Harvard begins to build a conference center along Western Avenue and seeks approval for a new theater on North Harvard Street—both donor-funded (“Theater and ‘Treehouse’ in Allston,” March-April, page 18). The larger questions are: how much bigger a presence, and how soon? The conference center is meant to be the visual entrance to the 900,000-square-foot first phase of the otherwise privately developed enterprise research campus (ERC), entrusted to Tishman Speyer.

Groundbreaking has been scheduled for this spring, but commercial real estate is subject to the vagaries of the market. Interest rates and Boston construction costs continue to rise; there is plenty of vacant office space downtown and elsewhere; and the supply of life-sciences laboratories coming online is staggering (including a separate 455,000-square-foot Tishman project). Any of those factors may affect work on the ERC, particularly given its frontier location. The one element planned for this phase for which there is unquestioned demand is more housing—but the economics may depend on leasing the office/lab components.

The million-square-foot second phase of the ERC, and development of adjoining parcels, depends on the first. And use of the vastly larger tract beyond, the 91-acre Beacon Park Yard, awaits reconstruction of the Massachusetts Turnpike viaduct and interchange, a decade-long, billion-dollar nightmare for which the state has thus far failed to secure funding. Over decades, the Allston land may contribute meaningfully to Harvard’s finances, and to reviving a large chunk of Boston. But for now, who knows where things will stand for Harvard’s quatercentenary, in 2036?

Online education. The mid-2021 decision by edX founders Harvard and MIT to sell their learning platform for net proceeds of about $700 million created an opportunity and an obligation: to reinvest in learning technologies, and to benefit the public on a nonprofit basis. On March 30, the organization finally announced its new name, Axim Collaborative, and chief executive officer, Stephanie Khurana, a veteran of technology and social ventures (see harvardmag.com/axim-debuts-23). It aims to make post-secondary education more accessible to and effective for learners who have been underserved by existing institutions: low-income and first-generation students and underrepresented minorities. That’s a worthwhile goal (one to which edX unsuccessfully aspired). Whatever is planned, it behooves the University to do something great with the funds.

FAS strategic planning. Emerging from the pandemic, Dean Gay launched a sweeping effort to take stock of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the better to secure its academic future (see harvardmag.com/fas-plans-21). The effort matters: FAS has been unable to expand the faculty ranks for a decade and a half, limiting its ability to pursue new fields for research and teaching; it is burdened with about $1.3 billion of debt—and still has to fund the remaining House renewals; and its departments and centers may support work within disciplines, but not compelling collaborations that cross such boundaries. White papers have proposed limited-term “shared intellectual inquiries” to launch research in new realms and ways of distributing faculty members’ service work. Smart people are considering how to reshape FAS organizations for the twenty-first century. But much more must happen. At a January faculty briefing, Gay promised the work would continue (an all-FAS implementation retreat is scheduled in late August), but there will inevitably be transition distractions to overcome if the hoped-for gains are to be realized.

 Admissions. The Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard’s consideration of race as a factor in evaluating applicants to the College—begun, incredibly, nearly a decade ago—will reach some kind of resolution when the Supreme Court rules, likely toward the end of its current term. Presidents Drew Faust and Bacow have staunchly defended the status quo, which has been in place for a half-century. But new admissions rules are almost certain to come into play as the Gay administration takes office.

The University’s commitment to the educational benefits of diversity is beyond question—but the means to that end may change in ways not yet widely bruited about. Litigants against affirmative action tend to define applicants’ merit in terms of standardized-test scores and high school grades. But that may be retrospective: Harvard’s test-optional policy for College applicants (a pandemic accommodation) has been extended through those seeking places in the class of 2030; and on March 1, Columbia became the first Ivy League school to do away with SAT and ACT testing permanently.

Harvard has heretofore defended both legacy and athletic preferences. But in a conversation with Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons in late February, Bacow said that after the Supreme Court decision, “rethinking” admissions “in multiple dimensions” was likely on many campuses. Among “a whole variety of things for which we get preferences,” which presumably might be part of that reconsideration to preserve diversity, he noted legacy and athletic tips. Finally, related to that visit with Simmons, Harvard plans much more robust engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (see page 13). One could imagine student and faculty exchanges from HBCU campuses to Cambridge and vice versa—not unlike, say, studying abroad, but domestically. At its very best, such a program could immerse Harvard undergraduates in majority-minority schools where some may have learning experiences unlike anything else in their lives to date.

So, from outgoing administration to incoming one, the Crimson baton passes, sustaining institutional priorities—but also promising fruitful, challenging discontinuities in Mass Hall and communities far beyond.

—John S. Rosenberg

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