Top 10 Stories of 2008

Esther I. Yi

From Obama's election to the financial crisis to a campus-wide push for sustainability, see the top ten stories that touched the Harvard community this year.

1. Financial Crisis and Budget Cuts

The financial crisis hit Harvard hard this fall, decimating its endowment and prompting cutbacks across the University. In November, University President Drew G. Faust sent a dire but vague warning about the impact of the financial crisis, and details began to materialize soon thereafter. December began with the announcement that Harvard's endowment had dropped an unprecedented 22 percent—or $8 billion—and likely lost more when accounting for updated asset prices. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences halted most staff hiring in late November and then froze Faculty wages and put 70 percent of ongoing tenure searches on hold shortly after the endowment announcement. The Medical School and the Kennedy School cut their budgets as well, and even holiday cheer fell prey to the fiscal chill.

2. The U.S. Presidential Election

Barack Obama swept to the presidency in an electoral landslide, garnering the votes of 82 percent of Harvard undergraduates along the way, according to a Crimson election survey. From Obama's days at Harvard Law School to the Harvard Republican Club and the Harvard College Democrats on the trail to the tears of jubilation on election night, The Crimson covered this historic election every step of the way. (See full 2008 Election coverage here).

3. House Renovations

The College announced plans for a $1 billion renovation of the 12 undergraduate Houses in response to long-lived concerns over decaying infrastructure in many of the buildings, which span in age from 38 to 112 years old. The 15 years of planned renovations are slated to start in 2011, but a number of key questions remain unanswered, including where students in Houses undergoing construction will be relocated and how the plans will fit with the University's now bleaker financial outlook.

4. HUDS Menu Changes

In February, a drastic hike in international food prices—75 percent since 2005—had shown Harvard University Dining Services little mercy. HUDS responded by “tweaking all over the place” and phasing in cheaper alternatives to reduce costs. Students saw more wedge tomatoes, whole-grain waffle batter, and pasta options made from leftover ingredients. But cost-reduction be damned—student uproar ensued over House e-mail lists. While other colleges seemed to have retained their usual offerings, HUDS had suddenly revamped its menu without any student input, students complained. HUDS responded swiftly with an open letter outlining six days of new menu changes. Though executive director Ted A. Mayer conceded that some of the cuts were “overzealous and, quite frankly, unnecessary,” he emphasized the inevitable financial constraints and need for student input in making changes.

5. Admissions Brouhaha

Space constraints and the largest college applicant pool in history created an unusual year for Harvard admissions. In March, Harvard notified over a thousand transfer applicants that it would accept none of them and halt transfer admissions for two years, dismaying potential admits—particularly at Deep Springs, a two-year college with a long tradition of Harvard transfers. And spurred by this same caution about residential constraints, the admissions office took a conservative approach to applicants for the class of 2012, announcing the lowest admissions rate in recent memory, before admitting an unprecedented 200 students off the wait list when its acceptance rate dropped slightly.

6. The Greening of Harvard

It was the year of the green for Harvard. In July, Faust announced the University would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2016, the headline recommendation of a task force she convened last February to fashion a sustainability plan for Harvard. And to build enthusiasm for the issue, Harvard held a week-long sustainability fest complete with a speech from eco-celebrity and former Vice President Al Gore '69. And even in the midst of a deepening financial crisis, administrators said Harvard's green commitment will continue unabated.

7. Girl Talk Shut Down

The much-anticipated pep rally featuring DJ Girl Talk came to a disappointing halt when students, despite constant warnings from event organizers, squeezed up against the stage, which lacked a concert barrier as per Girl Talk's contract. Several police officers stood on stage as Girl Talk—a moniker for Gregg Gillis—sampled his mashed-up songs. But after the crowd caused the stage to move, Gillis transferred his equipment to the ground. No matter, the indefatigably throbbing crowd caused one student to hyperventilate and others to crawl under the stage for relief. Organizers took the stage repeatedly to ask students to move back, but the crowd only continued to surge forward and even threw glow sticks at them, ultimately leading the Harvard University Police Department to end the concert. Though Girl Talk professed a willingness to play more, to the dismay of the crowd, he returned to his hotel.

8. Curricular Changes

In one of two major curricular changes proposed this fall, the English department, in the largest overhaul of its undergraduate concentration in over 20 years, replaced all current requirements, except Shakespeare, with four subject areas, or "affinity groups"—this meant the dissolution of long-standing required courses like English 10a and 10b. Concentrators will have to take just one course in each of the categories—"Arrivals," "Poets," "Diffusions," and "Shakespeares"—to allow them to take more electives and individually shape their course of study. Meanwhile, the classics department had its own massive overhaul, unanimously approving a proposal that would simplify concentration requirements to make the field more accessible to students who have not studied Latin or Greek in the past. But as concentrations seem to be becoming more open, the General Education program may be having the opposite effect. As faculty continues to make curricular changes, professors have noticed that fewer students have been taking electives—an unintended result of increased requirements and options like a secondary field.

9. Jeremy Knowles Dies

Jeremy R. Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences from 1991 to 2002, was one of the most prominent figures at Harvard in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, bringing the Faculty's budget out of a deficit and expanding the campus in Cambridge during his formative tenure. Knowles died at his home in Cambridge on April 4, 2008 at the age of 72 after a long battle with prostate cancer. In 1974, the former Royal Air Force officer left England to join Harvard's chemistry department, eventually taking a top post as dean—a position he would later take up again in 2006. He had once said "Deans don’t make an imprint any more than gardeners trample on flower beds," but for all the modesty of his remark, it doesn't ring quite true in retrospect.

10. Harvard Awards Kennedy Honorary Degree Dec. 2, 2008

In a break with tradition, Harvard awarded Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, the liberal lion who has represented Massachusetts for nearly a half century and was diagnosed with brain tumor in May, with an honorary degree at a special ceremony in December. Though the University normally dispenses honorariums during Commencement, it delayed Kennedy's award because his medical treatment prevented him from appearing at the spring ceremony. The December event drew national press and political luminaries—including Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Mass. Senator John F. Kerry—to campus to honor Kennedy for his lifetime commitment to public service. Kennedy's niece, Caroline, who has said she would like to join her uncle in the senate by taking Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York seat, was also in attendance.

—Esther I. Yi contributed to the writing of this story.