Bok Center Faces Deep Budget Cuts

Mission to improve undergrad teaching may be constrained by finances, recent staff departures

Graduate students and junior faculty members may find themselves with fewer opportunities to hone their teaching skills next year, as the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning struggles to adjust to a 40 percent cut in its budget.

The Center, which dispenses teaching advice to faculty and teaching fellows throughout the school year, has already in recent months seen its staff shrink by six employees, or nearly 50 percent of its personnel, according to the Center's director, James D. Wilkinson '65. And while some of those positions may be filled later this summer because the vacancies opened after staffers either accepted a buyout from the University or found jobs elsewhere, Wilkinson said he still expects the Center to lack the manpower to accomplish all of its goals.

"We are doing our best not to cut back, but it will certainly mean we're going to have to be more efficient," he said. "We can't do everything we've done in the past."

News of the steep reduction came Monday, as final budgeting announcements were made across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Wilkinson said. FAS is currently planning a major internal restructuring to help it cope with what is projected to be a $220 million deficit over the next two years. The University announced on Tuesday that it would be eliminating 275 staff positions over the next few days to help reduce compensation costs.

Among the Bok Center's best-known programs are its teaching conferences for junior faculty members and TFs held in August and September. Michael Frazer, an assistant professor who arrived in the government department in 2007, called the programs "incredibly helpful" and said they allowed participants to become familiar with each other and with teaching at the University.

Wilkinson said that those conferences would take place as scheduled, but that "people will just have to work harder" in light of the reduced staffing. For this upcoming year, organizers expect the conferences to host 475 to 500 TFs and 30 junior faculty members, he said, as well as the newly appointed Harvard College Fellows.

Wilkinson said that the Center would maintain all 20 of its departmental TFs, who are paid to advise their fellow TFs, thereby increasing the impact of the Center's efforts. He also said that the Bok Center may allocate more of its limited resources to enhancing new General Education courses.

"I think our core efforts will continue," Wilkinson said. The Bok Center was founded in 1975 to improve the quality of undergraduate education at Harvard and was renamed in 1991 to honor former University President Derek C. Bok.

But at an institution that is sometimes criticized for emphasizing research over pedagogy, the sizable cuts faced by the Bok Center may be seen as an indication that undergraduate teaching is undervalued.

"It seems kind of short-sighted, [with the Bok Center] being one of the few things Harvard does to support educating teachers," said Matthew D. Schwartz, an assistant professor of physics. "This is only going to exemplify the lack of devotion to teaching resources."

But at the same time, Schwartz acknowledged that administrators must carefully decide how best to utilize Harvard's much-diminished resources and slash costs with minimal impact to the University at large.

"Whenever you make budget cuts you have to make compromises," he noted, "and perhaps [the Bok Center] is something that's more expendable than other staff and resources."

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at ajiang@fas.harvard.edu.