In FAS Financial Outlook, Key Questions Remain

Building boom squeezes budget, but donors are lacking

The Biological Research Infrastructure will house state-of-the-art mouse research labs in two underground levels below the Biological Labs courtyard. The Northwest Laboratory Building, with its futuristic glass front, will face the museum complex on Oxford Street. And the ultra-modern Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering, designed by world-renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, will rise behind the Science Center and feature what a University press release calls “an unusual pearlescent facade that changes subtly with the day’s lighting.”

Together, the projects—to be completed by 2007—comprise the biggest component of an $800 million building boom that is one of the largest in Harvard’s history and is driving the Faculty of Arts and Sciences into a financial squeeze not felt in University Hall since the early 1990s.

Notably, none of the three North Yard projects bear the name of a donor.

University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby have been unusually aggressive in pushing for new buildings, letting construction begin before a major donor was secured. Administrators say that Harvard had no choice but to build in order to keep its status as a leading research university, and insist that the Faculty can handle the cost.

But some professors worry, and some financial planners concede, that crucial uncertainties remain in the financial plan, which aims to cover possible deficits of as much as 10 percent of the annual FAS operating budget through intensive fundraising, increased income from the endowment, and creative money management.

At issue is whether the recent resignations of Summers and Kirby will cause future fundraising efforts to fall short of their target. Also unanswered are questions about the planned expansion into Allston, where sprawling building projects will siphon even more money—and, perhaps, donors—away from FAS.

Kirby and others have played down the significance of those questions. The dean last month called the financial plan “quite strong,” and Gary King, a member of the FAS resources committee, wrote in an e-mail this week that “preliminary estimates” suggested “the budget situation will be a good deal better than originally forecast.”

Nancy L. Maull, the executive dean of the Faculty, took a more sobering view in an interview last week. She said she was “not panicked” about fundraising but that “we ought to take a more conservative assumption just on the theory that we might raise less money than we planned to raise.”

“You do worry, whenever you have a major transition in a president or a dean, that you’ll lose momentum,” Maull said. “But now in the FAS we have both of those things happening, so I think it’s fair to say that this is a fairly unusual situation.”

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

The FAS Resources Committee presented its plan to pay for the new expenditures at a January Faculty meeting, warning of a deficit that might otherwise hit $100 million by 2010.

“Our mild-mannered dean, more than most, pushes big, expensive projects,” King said during the committee’s presentation. King referred to Kirby’s push to grow the Faculty from 635 professors in 2002 to 750 by 2010, as well as to building projects that include the Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS), the new Hasty Pudding Theatre, and the North Yard science complex.

King said recently that “I mostly tell people not to worry” about FAS finances “because there are very responsible people taking care of it.”

Yet some professors, such as former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, are upset that the North Yard building boom has yet to garner any major donors, saying that the decision to go ahead with construction before securing funding bordered on the irresponsible.

“There seems to have been a shift during the Summers years to starting building projects without the funds lined up to pay for them,” Lewis, the McKay professor of computer science, wrote in an e-mail. “It is a lot harder to raise money for a building that has already been built.”

Administrators have defended their decision to go ahead with the projects, saying they had little choice.

“We needed more space for science and decided to proceed with the buildings, trying to secure donor funding, but assuming all along that the buildings could be debt-funded,” Maull said. “If Harvard wants to lead in science, it has to forge ahead.”

The planned expansion of the campus into Allston, meanwhile, will put an unknown amount of additional pressure on the Faculty’s finances.

The 500,000-square-foot science complex planned for Western Avenue, for instance, will likely be ineligible to receive federal funds because it will house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Government grants are usually a prime way for universities to win back some of the costs of science buildings after they become operational. But, Maull said, “Since the federal government doesn’t currently support stem cell work, we don’t get the overhead support.”

Some have also voiced the concern that the possible deficit is “structural”—meaning that expenses are rising faster than income.

“In the long term I think people do need to worry about a structural deficit,” Maull said. “Do we have one? I’m not certain yet.” Allston, she said, is “a big, big question mark.”

Still, King played down the significance of various uncertainties in the grand scheme of the billion-dollar FAS budget.

“It would seem scary to imagine your checking account being out of balance by ten million dollars,” King said, sitting with his back to the floor-to-ceiling window of his office in the new, $150-million-CGIS. “But if you had a billion dollars, you would not notice.”

‘SAVING SHOELACES’

The financial situation has forced the administration to rethink its funding priorities, to the dismay of some professors.

Kirby has said that “students, by and large, will not experience this.” But even as Harvard infuses millions into student life enhancements such as the Lamont Café and Loker Pub, FAS has been cutting money elsewhere—including the elimination of the Group III budget, a $200,000 fund for renovating the Houses.

“This is the problem when times are tough,” said Robert P. Kirshner, the master of Quincy House. “Even things that are valuable and good sometimes are trimmed.”

Kirshner, the Clowes professor of science, said that several projects, including a renovation of the Quincy Grille’s ventilation system, will go on despite the reduction in funds.

The impact of campus expansion on the faculty has been more pronounced.

Most notably, Kirby last summer initiated an abrupt slowdown of faculty hiring after three years of rapid growth.

Several department chairs said recently that they have yet to hear from the dean about whether they will be authorized to carry out their requested searches for new faculty next year.

Robert J. Sampson, the Ford professor of the social sciences, said the situation is acute in the sociology department, which he heads.

“We are down in faculty from our normal allocation,” Sampson said, adding that the number of sociologists in the department will be two or three below the usual 15 after this academic year ends.

“Our situation is that we haven’t had enough faculty to offer enough classes that we need to be as strong as we could,” Sampson said.

FAS administrators have also tightened departments’ unrestricted budgets, asking chairs to use funds that were “restricted” for specific purposes by their original donors. As a result, some departments have trimmed their programs for students, guest lecturers, and trips to out-of-town conferences.

“We are talking about small amounts of money, but major reduction of the comfort level and demoralization,” P. Oktor Skjaervo, the chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, wrote in an e-mail.

And the Gunzburg Center for European Studies had to reduce spending by 20 percent last year, according to its director, Peter A. Hall. In so doing, the center eliminated an annual graduate student conference and cut back on the workshops and post-doctoral fellowships it sponsored, said Hall, who is the Krupp Foundation professor of European studies.

“We’re saving shoelaces,” he said.

Maull, the executive dean, acknowledged that “some departments have felt the pressure to use the funds they have built up over time.”

But, she said, “We’re really managing money, not cutting budgets.”

—Staff writer Anton S. Troianovski can be reached at atroian@fas.harvard.edu.