Faculty Discusses Financial Future

At meeting, Smith speaks of need for fiscal cutbacks

Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith gave professors their first full briefing on the implications of the current financial crisis yesterday, highlighting the need for cutbacks but leaving some confusion regarding what specific savings measures will be employed by the University.

Speaking at an unusually crowded meeting of the full Faculty, Smith used a slide with a picture of three buckets to illustrate departments’ need to prioritize their budgetary desires. Two small buckets represented programs that would suffer little, or even not at all, from the financial situation. The largest bucket by far—comically magnified in the foreground of the screen—represented those areas that would need significant cuts.

“We’re going to have to do something that we typically don’t do, which is actually reduce some of the programs that we have across the FAS,” Smith said.

But some professors seemed to have gotten the message already. When Smith had trouble with his laptop before beginning the presentation, one professor loudly suggested that the dean’s computer had been a victim of the new budgetary reductions.

According to Smith, administrators assumed FAS would have $750 million in endowment funding available to them for next year’s budget. But if outside estimates projecting “unprecedented” endowment losses of 30 percent prove accurate, Smith said, that figure would be slashed to around $550 million, leaving the Faculty at least $200 million in deficit if plans are not modified.

Only a small fraction of that deficit can be addressed by upcoming plans to adjust administrative hiring, the dean said, necessitating the closer look at departmental expenses.

“We’ve started to do some estimates of how much saving can we do by things like consolidating—not buying as many paperclips,” Smith said. “But that’s not going to get us to $200 million.”

FACULTY ‘ADVICE’

Following his presentation, Smith, standing at the head of the Faculty room, opened the floor to the Faculty’s “advice” on the financial challenge.

Professors repeatedly cited the timing of the University’s ambitious plans for expansion into Allston as an area ripe for cutbacks.

History of Art and Architecture professor Jeffrey F. Hamburger suggested that pushing the Allston project back could protect more immediate academic priorities, comparing such a slowdown to “providing major surgery in one area, preventing us from having to bleed the whole body.”

Less than a week after Smith told The Crimson in an interview that, aside from financial aid programs, “nothing is off the table” in dealing with budgetary deficits, concerns arose over faculty hires, promotions, and searches.

When asked if he could say something to ease the minds of junior faculty coming up for consideration, Smith said the tenure-track system would remain intact.

“Their promotion will still be based on their dossiers and not whether the financial situation warrants another hire,” he said.

Not everyone equated the financial downturn with a need for pecuniary curtailment. In a speech that received rousing applause from his colleagues, statistics professor Xiao-Li Meng said that the tough times gave Harvard a chance to snare top professors from less financially secure institutions.

“If our mission is to have as high an endowment as possible, I certainly understand why we need to tighten our belts as much as we can,” Meng said. “But the best asset about Harvard is not its endowment, but its faculty and students, and I think this might be the best time for us to recruit.”

‘OBFUSCATION’

Yesterday’s meeting began with professors standing two deep at the doors on one side of the Faculty Room—an attendance apparently bolstered by Smith’s efforts beforehand to stress the importance of the presentation.

But despite the turnout, one notable voice was missing from the proceedings. University President Drew G. Faust was in New York City as a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction, Smith said.

Smith’s use of a projector screen that occupied the spot in the room normally reserved for Faust took some ribbing from Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes.

“As soon as I see the screen up, I know we’re in for obfuscation,” Gomes said. “It’s never helped anybody, and it certainly didn’t help the dean today.”

And indeed, following Smith’s presentation, many faculty still appeared confused about their role in the spending cuts to come.

“We’re a small department; we don’t have a number of different programs where we could cut one,” said German professor Peter J. Burgard. “At this point it’s all too vague as to what we should be looking at in terms of cuts.”

Despite the lack of clarity, Gomes was optimistic, saying that in his decades on the Faculty, more than one period of financial pressure had been weathered without heavy involvement by the professoriate.

“I have no idea who makes these decisions,” he said. “Is it a hidden cabal of financial wizards? We never vote on anything.”

—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at mchild@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard.edu.