Tug the Belt Wisely

Facing grim financial choices, the University has made wise decisions about its cutbacks

In a year when the American economy took a turn for the worse, it is no surprise that Harvard has felt the crunch. School after school within the University has seen substantial deficits appear on the horizon. There is no way to construe Harvard’s financial situation as attractive, but there are ways to calmly and reasonably deal with its woes while keeping the University’s priorities in mind. Thankfully, the administration seems to be taking the right path.

The debts, both present and projected, are disconcerting. The Harvard Graduate School of Education discovered a $2 million deficit this fiscal year—a potentially crippling figure for a school that has historically had a small budget. The Kennedy School of Government, which lost $5.9 million in fiscal year 2002 after years of large-scale expansions, fared better. But it still projects a half-million dollar loss in fiscal year 2003.

Most threatening for Harvard’s undergraduates, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has seen the possibility of serious deficits in its immediate future. Though FAS ran a surplus this year, it was a dramatically smaller amount than predictions led the University to expect. And in February, Dean of FAS William C. Kirby announced that the budget would have to be cut.

One easy way to avoid incurring deficits at the College would have been to call an immediate stop to new appointments and projects. But in saving FAS from deficit, such a policy would have catapulted it into intellectual stagnation. Small academic departments—where immediate and substantial growth is possible—would have been unacceptably damaged by a complete or “hard” freeze on hiring. FAS needs to remain financially viable, but penny-pinching cannot come at the far-greater expense of paralyzed academic growth.

Still, there were areas of flab in FAS that could be cut away without curtailing academic growth, and the administration has taken the knife to some of them. This fall’s “soft hiring freeze,” which applied only to the hiring of new administrative staff, was an admirable alternative to a strict ban against appointing new professors. These caps on areas such as facilities maintenance and the Registrar’s office were by no means desirable, but they were far preferable to restrictions on new faculty. Kirby came into office promising to expand the faculty by ten percent over his first ten years as dean, and the soft freeze has allowed him to pursue that goal without digging FAS into a deep financial hole.

It is equally important that FAS’ dim financial outlook not prevent the University from following through on current commitments. Though it has been necessary to put some planned projects—like the long-awaited renovations of the dining halls in Dunster House and Mather House—on the back burner indefinitely, it is essential that the University finish its present job of establishing an Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, even if that makes FAS’ coffers uncomfortably empty.

The current University administration also deserves praise for a long-overdue unification of its supply contracting. In the past, the University had made fragmented and disjointed contracting decisions that cost Harvard unnecessarily. But an independent consulting firm found that Harvard could save a whopping $100 million each year by outsourcing contracts as one entity, instead of through the uncoordinated efforts of individual schools.

Still, the Faculty should be wary of focusing too intently on the bottom line. If the day comes that FAS finds it has scrimped and saved all it can without touching academic hiring practices and it is still headed towards—or, indeed, swimming in—the red, it must not sacrifice its commitment to education because of financial constraints. Though deficit spending has not yet proven necessary, FAS should not be afraid of small steps in that direction in the future. Economic cycles last for years, while Harvard and the College will surely last for centuries. By staying true to the strong set of priorities it has already demonstrated, FAS will win in the long run even if it loses cash in the short run.