Drew Gilpin Faust and the Incredible Shrinking Harvard

Faust has groused to associates that she is not happy about the amount of time she must now devote to financial matters. Even though she is said to have delegated most of the economic oversight to executive vice president for finance Ed Forst, she has been meeting with deans and department heads to discuss their new budgets, instructing them to plan for 15 percent cuts. And however diligently she ducks the media, she is inevitably the public face of the university’s hardships. Sometimes, it seems as if she’s straining to change the subject. Recently Faust sent a mass e-mail to alums in praise of some students who spent their spring break volunteering, not usually the type of thing meriting a presidential missive. “It’s been tough on her,” says one
colleague. “She’s been beaten up a lot.”

This spring Harvard offered early retirement to some 500 FAS staffers. Only about 150 accepted, which means the university will likely have to fire people—probably in the summer, to minimize bad press and potential commencement protests. A campus group calling itself the Student Labor Action Movement (S.L.A.M.) has taken to parodying a pro-environment slogan Faust has been pushing: The president’s “Green is the new Crimson” has become “Greed is the new Crimson.” In April members of S.L.A.M. loudly interrupted Faust’s lunch in a house dining hall and presented her with a T-shirt bearing their mantra. She’s not unsympathetic to such passions; as an undergraduate herself at Bryn Mawr, Faust traveled to Alabama on a civil rights protest. But it was the latest sign that her honeymoon is over.

Increasingly, money dominates the Harvard conversation. On April 14, FAS dean Mike Smith, a Faust appointee, held an open meeting in a packed Sanders auditorium. Sitting on a stool and occasionally tapping on a laptop, he delivered alarming news: Despite efforts to close the budget gap, FAS was facing an ongoing annual $220 million deficit. And by the 2011 fiscal year, the university would be cutting FAS’s annual infusion of endowment cash by $125 million.

There were no more inefficiencies, Smith said, no loose dollars here and there. “It is extremely important for us to think deeply about how we not only resize our activities…[but] to really start thinking about reshaping these activities.”
The “reshaping” is already more dramatic than the word suggests. The career services office is talking about closing for a month in the summer; other offices are expected to take similar furloughs. The library system, its budget pared by 31 percent, is cutting back on hours and book purchases, and the Quad Library is closing altogether. The college’s “January term,” part of a much-ballyhooed new curriculum, is now dead. Harvard has already halted the hiring of junior faculty and announced an early retirement program for tenured professors, and for the first time ever is considering laying off tenured professors. Funds for housemasters are being slashed by one-fourth, and even the hot breakfasts the houses served on weekdays are out. Meanwhile, idled cranes bow over the pit in Allston, as if in mourning.

“The grumbling” of faculty discontent “is growing louder, no longer whispered but said in front of strangers,” one professor e-mailed me. The faculty worries that the low-key style that was once seen as a welcome change is actually a sign that Faust was unprepared for the job and is now in over her head.

“Everybody says they like her,” this professor wrote, “but she doesn’t know anything.”

[sidebar]In the midst of its economic pain lies an opportunity for Harvard. It can reconsider itself, restate its core values. It can conduct the kind of soul-searching that should have been sparked by Larry Summers—intentionally or not—but was lost in the mad rush to oust him.

“If Harvard is honest,” says one high-powered alum active in university affairs, “we’ll say, ‘We want a sustainable, long-term, top-notch university. And we can’t be all things to all people. What we can do is excel, and that means we have to live within our means.'”

Drew Faust just might be an ideal president to steer that university, a president comfortable with humility, one whose professional ambitions have always been tempered by intractable circumstance. A chastened Harvard could be well led by a woman who has never allowed herself to indulge in illusions of grandeur. But first, she will have to provide that clear leadership.

At Dudley House that day, one of the graduate students asked Faust a question about the impact of budget cuts. He prefaced it by thanking her, saying, “We all know you didn’t sign up for this.”

Her face carefully expressionless, Faust didn’t acknowledge the sentiment. Nor, particularly, did she answer the question.

Richard Bradley is editor in chief of Worth and the author of Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World’s Most Powerful University.


  • Fearful

    Harvard Law School is in dire financial straits with crushing financial commitments–a tuition-waiving public service initiative, an expensive, perhaps unnecessary building project, and faculty expansion–necessitating a staff layoff in the several dozens this summer, with more to come next year, and slashed budgets. This despite the School's completing a successful, record-breaking fund raising campaign last fall.

  • Lisa

    Faust is not only from Virginia, she is from money in Virginia. In my interactions with her, I got the sense that this background made her quite bored and dismissive when discussions of money came up. I'm talking about mundane things — childcare subsidies, negotiating faculty salaries, etc. For all her commitment to diversity, when any of these issues turned to talk about money, she appeared quite disdainful, as if all this were quite crass and not worthy of Harvard faculty. If my read is correct, she must be incredibly uncomfortable dealing with the current situation — not to mention uniquely unqualified to handle it.

  • Schuyler

    It is insane that Harvard is cutting funding for science and the rest of its campus while granting free tuition to those who are in the middle class and above.

  • danny

    Harvard ought to feel what it's like to suffer. That dumb school deserves this completely. Stupid Harvard, like anyone should give a darn what happens to that dumb school. It's really good to be honest to all you readers there, Harvard stinks and it ought to be. It's undeserving of its fame and it deserves to be poorer than poor. Poorer than the lowest college there is in the country. I hope Harvard burns in hell.

  • Christine

    Thoughtful people are trying to digest the degree to which Harvard was complicit in the financial meltdown in the larger economy, with its graduates enlisting so readily in the group- think of Wall Street that has caused so much human suffering. One is inclined to beleive that Harvard selected a particularly compliant sort of thinker who jumped through all the hoops to present Harvard with a Harvard-eligible resume. With all the emphasis on the status of Harvard, it is not surprising that the next career step would be high-flying Wall Street, where arrogance knew no bounds: the Best and Brightest they claim to be, as though an Ivy League degree were some sort of certification. Harvard has sustained a major hit to its reputation. Obviously, it selects for herd-thinkers and it's undergraduate education does nothing to change that. In the current state of the world I am very grateful for the luster a UC Berkeley College of Engineering degree confers. It's a question of values. Harvard

  • Xi

    The level of bitterness in these comments makes you wonder…

  • Saddiq

    the welcoming ice cream party you spoke of? They ran out of ice cream moments after it started….the crowd was underestimated. Perhaps a metaphor for her presidency.She acknowledges she got the job because she is a woman. At least two people on campus will say it.

  • Christine

    Second Wow. The "luster a blah blah blah degree confers?" Just can't resist a snicker there–it never ceases to amaze me how it's always these types that won’t ever miss an opportunity to grandiloquently name drop whatever school they attended who are the most eager to denounce the name brands located one tier of prestige above their own. Guess their not as lustrous degrees didn't buy them the self awareness to detect the irony in how their petty resume flashing in fact attests to the hold of status symbols like Harvard over the collective consciousness. Which offers insight on another point addressed in the article. Might Harvard have overplayed its hand in its spending ambitions not simply because it was rich and thought it could afford to but because being the anointed holy grail of the aspirational elite means it couldn’t afford not to? Perhaps behind the drive to have it more and bigger than everybody else is the fear that without display of overwhelming dominance, Harva

  • Average

    Wow, you're a jackass. Harvard produces some of the WORLD'S most important science and technology. It employs a huge percentage of people in Boston (hundreds of thousands). Do us all a favor and go kill yourself. You're a useless vestige.

  • Joe

    Harvard made a ridicule of itself by ousting Summers. That points to a deep problem with many on the faculty who made that happen knowing full well that it is not an honest endeavor. Harvard is in for years of trouble independently of the financial situation.

  • Joe

    Larry Summers bankrupted America, he bankrupted Harvard too.

  • Peter

    With City Councilors like Marjorie Decker, who has proposed that Cambridge reduce Harvard's in lieu of tax payments so that 9 janitorial jobs at Harvard can be saved, it would appear that Pres. Faust has already found a sugar daddy.

  • Jeff

    It's not really bitterness, it's just that, when the Emperor has no clothes, people aren't inclined to believe you when you point it out, especially when the Emperor looks so good in Crimson.

  • c

    It's pretty clear that many of the key people who led to the current crisis had Harvard (and other Ivy League) backgrounds. Hopefully our society will get over the fascination with institutional brands and realize that reputational inertia and pedigree cannot be a substitute for performance. Many of these supposedly top notch professionals have proven themselves to be as incompetent as anyone else but the tailwind that Ivy educations provided put them in positions of responsibility for which they were unprepared, the result is before us.

  • Bill

    Why didn't Harvard's auditors note the risk? How come they didn't detect Madoff?Bill Drissel

  • Neeraj

    This author seems lazy. The "common touch" thing Faust does (taking handshakes at the freshmen ice cream social) is an annual tradition that every President does every year — the author could have learned that by speaking to anyone other than a single employee present at the time. The author acknowledges he couldn't get anyone to speak badly of the current president on record, but then didn't critically examine the positive comments. She is a total non-entity on campus — they should have hired Kagan. As for the author's thoughtless knee jerk animosity towards Summers, it has already been said many many times that if you simply google Summers' speech about reasons for the lack of tenured women in sciences then you'll see his comments in context have been mischaracterized by lazy reporters such as this author. In addition, the below is a fun article about Summers. He wasn't such a bad guy, and some people who were on campus at the same time he was remember him fondly.http://www

  • mike

    Beware of anyone who begins a sentence with the word "might:"
    Might Harvard have overplayed its hand in its spending ambitions not simply because it was rich and thought it could afford to but because being the anointed holy grail of the aspirational elite means it couldn’t afford not to?
    …and then doesn't know how to end it.
    Christine, I take it, is a graduate of the Great University.

  • Dwight

    Since most major universities depend on endowment funds, and all investments were hurt by the recent recession, why should the quality of Harvard decline any further than any other comparable institution? Why should the relative ranking of universities change at all as the sinking tide lowers all boats?

    The Harvard I knew as an undergraduate in the seventies was anything but an institution cultivating a 'herd mentality,' as some posters believe. I have been associated with five other universities since then, and I never enjoyed greater freedom of thought than at Harvard.