Planting Seeds of Greatness at FAS

Recently an alumna said to me, “I know what we’ve done in my company to respond to the challenges of a down economy, but I’m guessing that an institution like Harvard has almost none of the same levers to pull. And yet, you’ve made some big changes. How do you do that without significantly altering the nature of the place, the things that make Harvard Harvard?”

Her comment highlights that, beyond the need to adjust to a new financial reality, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has very little in common with the private sector. FAS is a place that thrives on a productive sort of chaos, and we are known for our highly decentralized structure. But like the commercial institutions that successfully weathered the global financial crisis, we embraced change.

Through the efforts of our entire community, we were able to make many changes for the better, and I am proud to report that our commitment to our core mission of teaching, learning, and research has only become stronger. A Harvard education, for both our graduate and undergraduate students, remains an experience unparalleled in its richness.

So what changed? Over the past 18 months, we have made prudent, structural adjustments to position FAS for a future of long-term, sustainable excellence. From enhancing academic planning to reconfiguring the functions that support our students and faculty, FAS has become a place driven by its academic priorities.

In addition, the recent rise in unrestricted giving has been a powerful engine for FAS during the financial storm. These generous gifts made an enormous difference in our ability to maintain our financial aid programs, continue essential services for our students, and launch new initiatives based on the most promising ideas of our faculty.

Although the past year has been defined by a renewed sense of institutional discipline, this discipline did not diminish our vibrancy or preclude new efforts to advance our mission. Next year will begin with a faculty projected to be slightly larger in size than in the past. The incoming graduate-student class will also be slightly larger than the last, and it boasts the highest admissions yield in recent history. Similarly, the yield in the College will exceed last year’s mark of 76 percent. The College and FAS continue to attract the world’s most outstanding faculty and students.

We have not retreated from what we know is important. In the upcoming academic year, Harvard College will increase financial aid for undergraduates by nine percent, to a record $158 million. This $13 million increase will help keep Harvard affordable and ensure no change in the cost of attendance for the students who receive aid (i.e., for more than 60 percent of our students).

We have not slowed our intellectual evolution and growth. Next academic year will launch a new undergraduate concentration, biomedical engineering, and two new secondary fields, one in ethnic studies and one in global health and health policy. These come on the heels of our very successful introduction this year of a new concentration in human developmental and regenerative biology. Our newly launched Program in General Education, which replaced the 30-year-old Core Curriculum, also continues to expand, with 331 courses already approved.

In some cases, the crisis was the impetus for new programs. It gave rise to the College Fellows program, which brought 22 fantastic young scholars to campus to teach our undergraduates and to further their professional development. As of today, eight fellows have secured tenure-track positions around the world.

While we did give up some things over the past 18 months, Harvard remains an environment of unique depth and breadth. For instance, in FAS we offer instruction in more than 70 ancient and modern languages, far more than any other American university. No language programs were eliminated because of the financial crisis. In fact, we moved forward; this year we launched new “bridge” courses that integrate language instruction (such as Arabic and Chinese) into literature and other content instruction.

Harvard undergraduates continue to be deeply embedded in the transformative, cutting-edge research and scholarship of our faculty. Our students become engaged in forging new discoveries and new ways of thinking in fields that bear on the world’s foremost challenges and opportunities, from renewable-energy policies, to stem cell science, to human rights. Our identity as an undergraduate college at the heart of a thriving research university informs every aspect of Harvard’s approach to a 21st century liberal-arts education.

It is hard to express just how proud I am of the way in which FAS faculty and staff have come together to make the past 18 months successful for our students and to ensure continued growth and enrichment for the institution as a whole. In doing so, we have used this time to plant seeds of greatness, and we will reap the benefits of these efforts for many seasons to come.

Michael D. Smith is the John H. Finley, Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

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