Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles' annual budget letter may not make the most enthralling spring break reading, but Harvard's faculty and students would be wise to take his words to heart as they head for sunnier climes.
The words "budget letter" are in some ways a misnomer. Certainly, Knowles does address such concerns as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) deficit, cuts in government aid, a reduction in staff support costs and the Harvard Management Company's handling of the endowment. That is as he should and must--these topics are essential and pressing, especially in the face of proposed Congressional cuts in student aid and loans.
But in a welcome twist, three of the letter's five subject divisions cover topics not overtly related to money: undergraduate education, the graduate school and the Faculty's administration and governance.
And that is as it should be.
A dean should be a figurehead for his faculty not just in monetary issues--which most faculty care about only when they are directly affected--but also in the areas of education and citizenship. That is precisely what Dean Knowles has done.
In his section on undergraduate education, he calls attention to some current projects, such as the Educational Policy Committee (the EPC, designed to "achieve incremental improvements" in the concentrations), the Committee on Ethnic Studies and the Environmental Science and Public Policy concentration.
Admittedly, none of these projects is perfect (though the dean applies a Gazette-like sheen to make them appear so in his letter). Students still protest the lack of an ethnic studies concentration, some concentrations' improvements under the EPC are much more "incremental" than others and the dean's discussion of the EPC itself begins with a glossing-over of the much-flawed Core program.
Even so, by bringing up these projects, he rightly puts them on his list of his priorities, thus suggesting to the faculty that they too should care about developments in undergraduate education at their own university.
The most important message of his letter comes at the end, however, with his plea for more faculty involvement on campus--for the faculty member's role as College citizen.
Knowles admits that "the scale and complexity of the modern university prevents a return to the simple structures of the past," which is true. Career administrators have increasingly replaced professor-administrators in positions that demand full-time attention to detail outside the classroom.
But there are other ways for faculty to get involved and to affect the quality of student life. As onerous it may seem to agree to serving on yet another committee, the rewards can outweigh the minor time commitment required. Although professors' first reaction when asked to serve on a committee is often a tired sigh, when they do sit on relatively effective committees such as the EPC, they often say they are glad to have spent the time doing something productive for the College.
Professors--all professors--should also attend faculty meetings. While there are usually about 150 or 175 faculty members at the monthly, two-hour gatherings, this represents only about a quarter of the total. The issues covered at these meetings--the College's writing program, faculty-administrative interaction, the structure of the College and benefits, for instance--are vital to the life and health of the FAS.
Attending faculty meetings should not even be a question; knowing the issues on the table as an informed member of FAS is analogous to reading the New York Times or the Washington Post as an informed U.S. citizen. It is simply the responsible thing to do.
If more of the faculty--not just those who now are members of three or four different committees--took the initiative to get involved, the life of the College would be immeasurably strengthened. Dean Knowles' words are admirable in and of themselves, but the proof is in deeds, not words. If he can inspire his faculty to action, then he will have won a victory.
Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.