Dean’s Letter Tops FAS Agenda

Faculty to discuss undergraduate curriculum, budget woes

The full Faculty will meet today to discuss how to improve undergraduate education, promote international study and expand natural science resources in the face of predicted financial constraints over the next year.

The agenda was unveiled in Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby’s first annual letter to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

And despite tight budgets, many professors say Kirby’s plan is as comprehensive as any they have seen.

“While it is an ambitious letter focusing on a broad range of topics, it is incredibly focused on key needs,” said Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs John H. Coatsworth.

For the first time, Kirby laid out what he perceives to be the Faculty’s main tenets behind the current curricular reform.

But Kirby’s vision was accompanied by the grim reality that while the Faculty’s current financial situation is sound, serious efforts to curb spending will be necessary to keep the budget balanced.

The Harvard Corporation, the governing body responsible for distributing funds from the University’s endowment, is predicting only a 2 percent increase in the endowment payout for FAS over the next few years.

Kirby was clear in his letter that his goals would not be thwarted by the financial climate.

“I must tell you frankly that we aim to do this, and more, as we enter a greater period of financial constraint than any of us would have predicted a year ago,” he wrote.

Kirby promised to see through current building initiatives, such as the completion of the renovations of the Science Center and Widener Library, despite the overall need for more “prudent” spending. And he recognized the need for increased exercise and performance facilities.

Faculty members expressed concern over reconciling Kirby’s ambitious plans for growth with his call for belt-tightening measures.

“[This is] obviously not a sustainable situation in the long term,” said Ford Professor of Social Sciences David Pilbeam.

But Pilbeam pointed out that the beginning of former Deans of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky and Jeremy R. Knowles’ tenures were also marked by tough economic times and that such hurdles can be overcome.

“Some of the ambitious goals will be spaced out, but these things will happen,” he said.

And professors said that the reality of cutbacks did not detract from excitement over the rest of the dean’s vision for FAS—particularly his goals for reshaping the undergraduate experience at Harvard.

McKay Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Ana J. Barros said she felt that this aspect was the portion of the letter that resonated most strongly with Faculty.

“The letter shows a strong commitment to [undergraduate education] and his willingness to have a broad discussion about it,” she said.

Kirby focused on the current curricular review, which he officially kicked off last fall, enumerating elements of reform he considered having “broad consensus” among the Faculty.

These were the need for a shared foundation, or “core,” fewer formal requirements, increased science literacy, improved study abroad programs and a new advising system.

And Kirby said he felt the current proposal for preregistration would be an important step to improve undergraduate education.

“Although we say ritually, that Harvard College is the heart of the University, we must work continuously to make that statement true,” Kirby wrote.

Faculty said they were not surprised by the letter’s emphasis on undergraduate education, which Kirby has been scrutinizing since assuming office last July.

“I think that Bill is deeply committed to undergraduate education and doing his best to encourage the rest of the Faculty to be as engaged,” Pilbeam said.

In addition to a comprehensive curricular review, Kirby said increasing the size of the Faculty remains a top priority. Kirby applauded Knowles’ efforts to this end, noting that the Faculty has grown from 603 professors in 1999 to 641 today.

But Kirby said he is still not content. In an interview with The Crimson earlier this year, he said he aimed to increase the size of the Faculty by 10 percent over ten years. And in his letter, he reaffirmed his dedication to hiring more female and minority faculty members.

“For the attraction and retention of women and minority colleagues, there is much work to do,” Kirby wrote.

While serving as chair of the history department Kirby received acclaim for the appointment of several senior female faculty members.

Kirby’s letter presented several other goals that have yet to be fleshed out, such as his proposal for the implementation of “area deans.” Though the issue has not yet been discussed by the full faculty, Kirby has already initiated plans to create a dean for the biological and life sciences, and he said he is looking into appointing additional area deans for the humanities and social sciences.

“He is still feeling his way on this one—it is still open,” Baird Professor of Science Gary J. Feldman said.

Kirby also devoted a significant portion of his letter to the issue of free speech. He affirmed his commitment to maintaining an environment in which professors and students feel they can freely express their views. As examples of Harvard’s policies on freedom of speech, he pointed to the Guidelines on Free Speech, adopted by the Faculty in 1990, and a statement by University President Lawrence H. Summers from this fall in which he said that “we are ultimately stronger as a university if we together maintain our robust freedom of groups on campus to invite speakers with controversial views, sometimes views that many members of our community find abhorrent.”

Faculty members expressed strong support for Kirby’s vision for their future, saying that they were confident that he would lead them well through what poor finances may make frustrating times.

“Imagination is often a good substitute for resources,” Coatsworth said. “[And] this letter is full of imagination.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at vascell@fas.harvard.edu.