Dean To Meet Econ Profs Over Littauer

Economists ‘outraged’ by supply and demand imbalance

When Michael D. Smith walks into Littauer Center today, he may notice a yellow sign on the first floor: “Littauer Library Closed,” it reads.

Beneath it is a drawing of a face frowning.

In his third month on the job, the new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is visiting with Harvard’s economists to explain his decision to move forward with the transplantation of the Fine Arts Library into Littauer, a project that will cost the University at least $11.5 million and forestall economists’ desired renovations of the aging building for at least a decade.

Smith may find that the faces at today’s meeting look the same as the one on the library door downstairs.

Construction will begin this summer, and the Fine Arts Library will move into Littauer in September 2009. If all goes as planned, the library will leave by 2015.

Though plans are not completed, new classrooms, offices, and common space for the Economics department could not be completed until at least 2017.

In the early 1990s, members of the Economics department and University administrators worked with a Boston architecture firm to create plans for a revitalized center for economics at Harvard; many in the department expected construction to begin this decade.

But with the Fogg Art Museum closing for its own renovation, the Fine Arts Library needed a new home. In the winter of 2005, administrators decided that Littauer would become that home, indefinitely stalling economist’s hopes for changes to their creaky building.

Beyond alienating Harvard’s largest undergraduate concentration from its professors and teaching fellows, postponing renovation of the building is driving promising graduate students down the river to rival MIT, professors say.

“We had a pretty tough year of recruiting,” said Professor of Economics Susan C. Athey, who co-chaired graduate recruitment. “We did lose a number of students that we were very interested in getting. The selling point that MIT gave is that it is a very interactive environment.”

Students are attracted to schools with facilities that encourage informal faculty interactions, she added.

“It doesn’t help a student to have a star faculty,” Athey said, “if that student does not interact with them.”

Built in the 1930s, Littauer Center—the columned building west of the Science Center—is a confusing maze of offices and hidden cubbyholes.

Such conditions “provide lousy physical support for our graduate students,” Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin said.

Littauer’s isolation inhibits engagement on all levels of the department, according to department chair James H. Stock.

“You can go over to the Kennedy School and feel what it is like for a building to provide an intellectual environment for students,” Stock said. “It is easy for people to think that a desire for renovation is about faculty offices. But the real losers are our undergraduates, our graduate students, and the Harvard community as a whole as we lose our ability to find a meaningful center for economics in Cambridge.”

Beren Professor of Economics N. Gregory Mankiw, whose introductory course “Principles of Economics” seats 814 students, echoed Stock’s concerns about community in a written statement.

“By providing more space for grad students close to their advisers, and more space for undergraduate classes, the renovation would do a lot to help foster that sense of community.”

With the University’s leadership in flux over the last few years, economics professors feel their concerns have gained little traction.

“Repeated changes in leadership have made it harder for this to be rethought,” Olshan Professor of Economics John Y. Campbell said.

In a written statement, Smith said he “look[s] forward to speaking with the Economics faculty,” but today’s meeting could present the dean with the toughest audience he has faced in his young tenure.

“We really feel as if we have been kicked around,” said Goldin. “We are quite dumbfounded about it. As far as we’re concerned they’re really going to have to start listening to us. We’ve gone from being perplexed to being outraged.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.