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Under New Regime, Harvard's 'Tubs' Find a Common Bottom

By Christian B. Flow and Clifford M. Marks, Crimson Staff Writers

They called it “Every Tub on Its Own Bottom”—a philosophy of decentralized governance that for centuries gave Harvard’s divisions unmatched autonomy in financial and academic affairs. But now the basins are learning to share the bath water, and “Every Tub” is giving way to a new operating slogan: “One University.”

A slew of initiatives this year, from the release of a new University-wide calendar to a greater emphasis on University-wide fundraising, have evidenced the new order. And following a decade-and-a-half of fits and starts, cross-school and cross-departmental collaboration have become watchwords for a new guard of administrators looking to make their mark.

“We’ve drastically changed in some cases what we’re trying to accomplish here within the University,” said Faculty of the Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean Michael D. Smith this winter as he unveiled his first major changes to the Faculty’s administrative structures. “I’ll reorganize within the FAS appropriately to actually be able to take advantage of the concept of the one University.”

But the tumult of previous efforts, which were met with resistance due to the perception that central administrators were meddlesome and controlling, has not been lost on the new powers-that-be.

In an attempt to ensure the support of participating disciplines, Harvard’s leaders are taking their cues from the needs of faculty at ground level, even if that means taking it more slowly.

“This is the antidote to top-down centralization,” said Provost Steven E. Hyman, whose office focuses on organizing many cross-school initiatives. “That is, central administration convening the key stakeholders and creating a collaborative environment.”

IN THE BEGINNING

The poster child for interdisciplinary collaboration is the Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative (MBB), a research consortium and set of concentration tracks that had already drawn the interest of 100 undergraduates in September 1995, the tracks’ inaugural year.

The initiative’s director was Hyman himself, then an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, who would pledge to emphasize “reviewing and getting a handle on interfaculty initiatives” when he became provost six years later.

Hyman was not alone. The 1990s were a coming out party for all things interdisciplinary at Harvard, as former University President Neil L. Rudenstine was tasked by the University’s highest governing body with uniting Harvard’s disparate elements.

In an unprecedented move, the president launched five interdisciplinary initiatives, MBB among them, and made them a focus of his $2 billion fundraising drive, a five-year effort billed as Harvard’s first University-wide capital campaign.

But despite the new focus, Hyman found that the fortunes of the MBB initiative were subject to the whims of deans intent on prioritizing their own agendas who chafed at the notion of acquiescing to the desires of the center.

“Many cross-faculty initiatives were really owned by the center and therefore got ambivalent support from the schools because they were drawing away school faculty time and effort,” Hyman said last week. “One just had the feeling that we got wonderful support from Neil Rudenstine and everything else felt challenging.”

Hyman’s experience with the drawbacks of a president-led approach may explain why University authorities are skittish about using the term “centralization,” which implies more power for top officials.

Smith insists on saying “One University” instead of “centralization,” while Hyman makes heavy use of corporate speak, frequently employing the term “stakeholders” and referring to himself as a “convener”—language that is shared by his increasingly populous office.

“I like to call us Switzerland—it’s a neutral place, where two schools, who might have sort of different agendas but want to do something together [can come], and we can say, ‘This is the good thing, this is the right thing, you should do this,’ even if it seems against their self-interest,” said Kathleen M. Buckley, the associate provost for science.

Neutrality at the top allows top University administrators to characterize the move to “One University” as a bottom-up effort­—unification that has not been ordered by central planners but has evolved organically out of the imperative to research complex modern problems like global health and climate change.

“When it works well, the provost’s office is convening people who want to collaborate—acting as an honest broker as people have different local needs, and then holding people accountable to make sure that larger parties don’t soak up all the resources,” Hyman said.

STEADY, BUT SLOW

The problem with this approach to centralization is that extensive collaborative efforts can rarely match the decisive speed—or perhaps even the efficiency—of a simple order from the top.

Himself a champion of unification, former University President Lawrence H. Summers made his mark by launching initiatives like the consolidation of donor information from the different schools to facilitate central fundraising, but he was prone to eschew consensus decision-making in favor of speedier directives.

And while his tenure fleshed out the plan for a new Allston campus, jump started the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and saw the greatest undergraduate financial aid initiative in Harvard’s history, it also ended with chaos and, ultimately, his resignation, as the Faculty decried their removal from the decision-making process.

But as Summers’ philosophy suggested, the push for collaboration comes with a cost.

While a University-wide planning committee for science has had some notable successes, for example, University President Drew G. Faust’s plans for a second committee to examine the social sciences have already hit a snag. Though she originally planned to announce the committee by January, no announcement has been forthcoming, and Hyman has said that even once the committee is formed, it will be only a “relatively small first committee to plan for a plan.”

Despite such difficulties, Hyman said he remains firm in his conviction that the long-term benefits of collaboration will outweigh any loss in speed.

“Engaging key stakeholders is always initially slower than working in a top-down way,” he said. “In the long run, it’s actually the only way to get things done.”

SHARING THE WEALTH

But stakeholders are sometimes loathe to come together.

On the financial side, Harvard’s various entities behave independently enough to engender some seemingly absurd transactions: in 2006, the central administration, looking for room to expand, purchased Mass. Hall from FAS after renting part of the building for years. And in a role reversal, the salesman then became the renter when FAS, needing more dorm space for undergraduates, announced this April that it would pay the University to use the space it once owned.

This tradition of financial independence has required some maneuvering as the University moves towards cross-school collaboration—perhaps most contentiously on the fundraising side, as top brass have slowly begun to urge donors to support University-wide efforts instead of the wish-lists of single schools.

“The very talented people that work in the different development offices of the different schools are responsible first and foremost to that school,” former FAS Dean William C. Kirby said. He used the phrase “bureaucratic Darwinism” to describe cases where independent development offices fight over the attention of generous donors who have a wide range of interests.

Though Rudenstine identified interdisciplinary endeavors as a priority in his capital campaign, he found donor support lacking. In 1999, just six months from the end of his five-year campaign, Harvard had raised only half of its modest $40 million goal for its new stable of cross-school initiatives.

Even with donor interest picking up in recent years, Faust said that the her vice president for development, Tamara E. Rogers ’74, has had to assuage the concerns of school administrators wary of sacrificing their agendas in the push for cross-school gifts.

“Tamara went around and talked to all the deans before she did this and explained to them what her goals were and tried to reassure them that what we’re trying to do is lift all boats not steal people one from the other,” Faust said. “I think change brings a certain amount of uneasiness and people are waiting to see how this will work out.”

GATHERING STEAM

Uneasy or not, Rogers is expanding on the agenda of cross-school fundraising, assembling a new team of development officers this year with the explicit aim of “serving the University more broadly.” Even a few months before the end of the fiscal year, Rogers’ office has already raised more for interdisciplinary enterprises than the development office did all of last year.

Meanwhile, the University has shown its commitment to unification in academic planning as well.

The year-old science planning committee, funded half by FAS and half by the Medical School, has moved forward with the first cross-school department in Harvard history and begun planning for a bioengineering effort between FAS and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

And a five-year University-wide calendar released in January promises to ease cross-registration between schools.

Appointments have also reflected the university-wide bent. Smith chose as his two principal deputies professors who have notable cross-school experience.

Allan M. Brandt, the new head of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, holds a joint appointment in both FAS and the Medical School, and Evelynn M. Hammonds, the recently-anointed dean of the College, has experience as a senior vice-provost, where she ran some of the University’s key diversity initiatives.

Still, one former administrator appeared certain that “One University” would have its limits.

“The next level of cross-school integration would be when the Business School gets a football team,” Kirby said, in jest. “There are some areas—intercollegiate sports being one of them—where I think the FAS is safe in its monopoly.”

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at cmarks@fas.harvard.edu.

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