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.