Axing Austerity

Harvard needs to prioritize funding for its regional centers

“Axing” is a welcome word to a lumberjack, and maybe even to some prudent budget-balancers.  But if you run a Harvard University regional center (if you run a Harvard institute for some global region, that is—not if you are City Manager of Cambridge), markedly less glee accompanies the term. Axing and austerity, buzzwords-du-jour in the corporate, political, and academic worlds alike, have meant significant losses for the University’s regional centers.  The centers, which study world regions including Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, have suffered a two-pronged trimming.  Federal funding has plummeted by nearly 50 percent, while Faculty of Arts and Science support has dropped simultaneously.  Granting that budgets do need balancing, these developments remain a concern.  Harvard and the U.S. should prioritize this sort of funding.

This view goes beyond a lazy truism that more money is better than less money when it comes to Harvard and its students and affiliates.  These centers in particular merit robust support from FAS, for the near-halfway slashing of federal contributions render them especially cash-strapped.  No Harvard program should suffer disproportionately because of its budget’s historical funding sources.  (And no doubt, the erstwhile subsidies kept down FAS allotments in years past.)

Real losses have occured as a result. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies has folded its academic journal; the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies has reduced fellowships, guest speakers, and winter break courses; and the centers have been forced to lean increasingly on their own endowments.  In part, this is due to a FAS “debt relief” program, which originated during 2008’s maelstrom and has been made permanent, whereby the centers direct part of their endowments to FAS.  (This policy left the Reischauer Center sending 30 percent of its budget toward FAS during the crisis.)  Depleted endowments mean future weakness, and more tangible losses to follow.

All of this lamenting, of course, assumes that the centers’ work is worth any priority at all.  In an austere age, in a school and a country with a great deal of worthwhile alternatives, the standard to be met is not a light one.  The centers’ value may not be evident at first glance—they do not battle cancer or configure new energy sources—but they provide an education not always available in Cambridge, both by bringing students to the world, in the form of study-abroad programs, grants, and internships, and by bringing the world to students, with a colorful stream of guest professors and expert lecturers.  And they focus on key interests of public or foreign policy-minded Americans—not to mention their purse-empowered representatives.  The studies fostered are critical.  Or even, to borrow the federal government’s term for languages like Arabic (see the Center for Middle Eastern Studies), super-critical.

Naturally, the nation has a slew of critical concerns, and budget-balancing is high among them.  But academic research and studies are worth prioritizing.  Worryingly, their support, at both federal and university levels, rides the vicissitudes of political and economic cycles.  In regards to the latter though, the latest cycle does appear, however gradually, to trend with more and more optimism.  With that good fortune, and with FAS predicting a balanced budget by the year’s end, we now hope and expect that the austerity will slowly ease, that today’s fears will erode, and that the axing will end.  Unfortunately, we are not seers.  Nor are we lumberjacks.