Pareto Inefficient

The economics department’s ouster from its own building is bad policy

Economics is the study of how society allocates its scarce resources. Perhaps some Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) administrators should brush up on their Ec 10, because there seem to be some problems with resource allocation around Harvard. This time, the economics department has drawn the short straw and found its library space expropriated by an inefficient and imperious University Hall.

The economics department has been hoping for a renovation of its aging Littauer Center since the early 1990s. Once the Government department moved out of half of Littauer and into its swanky, new $140 million Center for Government and International Studies in 2005, economics faculty thought their time had finally come. A full renovation was planned that would greatly expand Littauer’s classroom space—now limited to a few tiny classrooms primarily used for department seminars—and closet-like meeting rooms. Instead of being a distant faculty office building, Littauer would have become a hub for undergraduate economics concentrators.

But instead of a long-awaited overhaul, Littauer is getting some unwelcome houseguests. Recently, economics professors were informed that the Fogg’s Fine Arts Library would take over the under-used stacks in Littauer’s basement while the Fogg Art Museum undergoes renovations of its own. Consequently, any potential renovations in Littauer will have to wait, possibly for as long as 15 years. Needless to say, economics faculty are less than thrilled about this development, of which they were informed after the decision was already a fait accompli.

Though FAS is faced with a sizeable budget deficit and multiple priorities to juggle, the economics department is right to feel marginalized by the high-handed decision-making that has become all too typical of Harvard’s administrative policy. While these financial constraints may delay the long-promised renovations, that delay does not justify taking the space away without so much as asking, and although we do not know all of the details, it is hard to believe that this is the best solution to the Fine Arts Library’s relocation. The gulf between decision-makers and those affected is reminiscent of the University’s oft-maligned decision to place a library administration building and a center for archival preservation on the prime real estate of 90 Mount Auburn Street instead of putting the space to better use.

Economics is the College’s largest department, and has one of its highest student-teacher ratios. The planned Littauer renovations could have invigorated pedagogy, providing new spaces for actual contact between students and professors in a department that likely contributes heavily to the poor advising satisfaction ratings given by concentrators in the social sciences. Now, as economics department chair James H. Stock admitted to The Crimson, students will have little reason to visit Littauer’s tiny classrooms for any reason other than “to get their study cards signed or to attend formal office hours with faculty members.” Both an artist and an economist can see the problem with that.