Behind the Curtain

The FAS town hall meeting provided much-needed transparency

The town hall meeting on Tuesday, which revealed details about an intended restructuring of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—Harvard’s largest school—was a definite step in the right direction for a university often criticized for its unwillingness to disclose financial information. Of course, more efforts and openness will be needed going forward if the administration is to avoid criticism of its difficult decisions.

The meeting, led by FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, helped to articulate the nebulous financial condition of the university to staff and faculty members who will be heavily impacted by the situation. He discussed pressing issues surrounding the $220 million deficit that FAS is expected to run for the next two years. Ever since last month’s announcement that endowment funding for Harvard schools will drop by a steep eight percent, there has been much confusion about what changes will proceed in the immediate future. Fortunately, Tuesday’s meeting helped remove the opacity that normally characterizes Harvard’s financial behavior.

Breaking the university’s tradition of tight-lipped administrators, Dean Smith clarified just how dire the FAS situation actually is and the types of cuts that will most likely be necessary. The meeting occurred the day after an optional early-retirement incentive program for FAS staff members drew to a close and Smith announced that 30 percent of staff had participated. While he hinted at possible layoffs in the future, given FAS is saddled with such a large deficit, Smith did not articulate any specific plans. In spite of any concrete details, however, the general sentiment among the faculty seems to have been one that appreciates a transparent response to the financial crisis, and we echo that reaction.

We are somewhat dismayed, however, that Smith did not discuss the possibility of pay cuts for high-level administrators, even as other universities move in that direction. At Brown University, for instance, President Ruth Simmons is reported to have taken a pay cut of 20 percent whereas at Harvard, salaries of faculty members and high-level officials have merely been frozen. In an economic climate that threatens the livelihood of many staff members, it seems wrong not to at least consider the feasibility of lower pay for senior university officials.

All in all, the town hall meeting was a proactive start toward greater clarity, but it came nowhere near providing the amount of information, or the venue for open conversation, that the Harvard community deserves. While we appreciate the administration’s efforts at beginning to communicate more openly about the sacrifices Harvard must face, more directness is required if the future is be navigated successfully.