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Financing Higher Education's Future

The Spence Report

By Joseph R. Palmore

Universities under siege. Higher education at risk.

That's the picture painted by Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence in his annual budget letter this week.

But Harvard? At risk? Surely not with an endowment rapidly approaching the $5 billion mark.

Well, the answer is yes, according to Spence, a well-known economist before he assumed the deanship five years ago.

Citing a host of factors which he says have damaged the ability of research institutions to conduct business, Spence concludes that Harvard must enter the fundraising sweepstakes in order to finance its future.

"I think it is fair to say there is considerable skepticism about higher education in the country," Spence writes.

The ongoing Justice Department probe into alleged antitrust violations by American universities is one such example of this bias, says Spence.

He also lists a dramatic fall-off in federal financial support for higher education, a breakdown in the "postwar consensus" backing the funding of scientific research and an impending shortage of professors nationwide.

But the dean, not usually given to sweeping generalizations, also insists that less tangible factors present an anti-higher education view, pointing specifically to "popular books about professors taking advantage of the system to earn extra income and to minimize their commitment to teaching."

The prognosis, according to Spence, may be a gloomy one. "One may wonder, and I occasionally do, if the implicit message in all of this isn't that the American conception of the research university is no longer viable," he writes.

But after setting up a nearly apocalyptic assessment of the standing of higher education in American society, Spence says he is hopeful that the modern research institution will endure--with Harvard leading the way.

"Because Harvard is still the leader in American higher education," Spence writes, "it falls to us to create a viable vision of the research university for the next century and to turn that vision into a reality."

In the letter, Spence outlines eight areas, including internationalization and renewed emphasis on the sciences, which form much of his "vision for Harvard's path into the next century.

And how will the U.S.'s oldest university "turn that vision into a reality?" By asking for money. An astronomically high amount of money.

Sources have said the goal for the impending University-wide capital campaign will be at least $2 billion. Of that sum, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is asking for $1 to $1.5 billion.

Spence says that the planning process which led to the development of his eight "key areas of central importance to our future" began about two and a half years ago, before administrators were talking about a new capital drive.

The result was the most sweeping statement the young dean has ever released on higher education and Harvard's role in it.

"It was better to sit down and and say `what's the world like we're living in?" says Spence. "What does society expect higher education to contribute?"

It was only after asking these questions that Spence says he came to the conclusion that FAS needed a major infusion of new funds to maintain its excellence.

"I think the contributions the University can and should make... both in education and research are important, but beyond the capacity of the existing resources of the University," says Spence.

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