The Bucket Brigade

Alan C. Chiu

Come join the bucket brigade. If you are a graduate of Harvard College or any of the schools of the University, we need you, right now!

Harvard College is only one part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but the impact of the present financial crisis on the whole of FAS and, in turn, on Harvard College and the House system presents a serious challenge to the Harvard community.

I have been asked to offer some reflections on this extraordinary year from my standpoint as a professor, a department chair, and a house master. The first word that comes to mind is meetings. There have been countless hours of meetings, attended by the faithful on the faculty, the caucus of chairs, the house masters—all with charts and PowerPoint presentations demonstrating an unprecedented 220 million dollar deficit in fiscal year 2010, getting worse thereafter.

We have met with Dean Michael D. Smith of FAS, Dean Allan M. Brandt of GSAS, Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds of Harvard College. None of them bargained for this crisis when they came on board. Neither did President Drew G. Faust. “Harvard is not invulnerable to the seismic financial shocks in the larger world,” she told us in a letter this fall. “Our own economic landscape has been significantly altered.” We would all need to navigate between these seemingly incompatible goals: the need “to advance our priorities for teaching, research, and service” and the need “to absorb unprecedented endowment losses and plan for a period of greater financial constraint.”

In November, Dean Smith explained at an FAS faculty meeting about the “three buckets” and the need to set priorities in everything we do. In the first and smallest bucket go our highest priorities, those things so important we might need to increase spending on them. In the second medium-sized bucket go things central to the core mission of FAS that cannot be reduced. In the third and largest bucket is everything else, and much of it will have to go.

We all reflected on our own priorities. I listened, as a professor affiliated with two departments that have scant resources to start with and are constantly pleading for augmentation. For years, the tiny Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies has been trying to get the study of South Asia on the intellectual map of FAS and is working, even now, to create a broader program in South Asian languages, cultures, and histories. India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Tibet—all are ever more important to understanding the world in which we live. And for many years, the Study of Religion has operated as a degree-granting Committee without departmental status, patching together faculty and courses from many departments and from the Divinity School. Meanwhile, the energies of religion have hardly subsided in the face of secularism. In fact, the religious traditions of humankind are flourishing in all their diversity, creating worldwide promise and worldwide pestilence. Basic religious literacy has never been a more important educational priority.

Harvard can be proud of its bold new initiatives in the sciences and engineering, and of course many of us dream of new initiatives in the Humanities as well. But will our dreams land in bucket one or even bucket two?

And what of Lowell House and the other Harvard Houses? We have spent hundreds of hours of faculty, student, and staff time studying House expansion and renewal. Five or six years ago, we were looking at Allston. Houses, athletic fields, buildings were being imaginatively moved hither and yon to create a new campus. As the financial crisis began, that came to a halt. Then it was renewing the infrastructure of the Houses, particularly the river Houses like Lowell, still vastly overcrowded and deeply in need of full-scale renovation. That too had to come to a halt. We are, however, moving ahead on the basic, urgent issues of safety, installing sprinkler systems where they did not exist, including in Lowell House. The rest will have to wait.

In a message to faculty in October, President Faust wisely observed, “The residential House system is a cornerstone of the undergraduate experience at Harvard. Houses at Harvard are far more than just buildings. They are the locus where teaching, learning, advising and vibrant community all intersect.” I couldn’t agree more. And when the comprehensive Report on Harvard House Renewal was released in April 2009, Dean Hammonds affirmed the importance of the Houses as “essential, not ancillary, to a Harvard education.” Almost simultaneously, however, deep financial cuts to the Houses were proposed.

The reality of the “seismic” crisis meant, at first, a 15 percent budget cut for the Houses. We all worked at it. Then it was a 25 percent cut. House masters feared that next 10 percent would shake the foundations of the House system. What would go? Senior Common Rooms? Faculty-student dinners? House library hours? Modest stipends for fellowships tutors? Arts internships? Masters open houses? Junior parents weekends? Facebooks? Hot breakfasts? Then, when it was suggested that House administrative staff be reduced, we felt the cuts had hit bone. For decades, the Houses have operated without administrative staff growth, even though the responsibilities of House administration have grown. These cuts would disable the very functioning of the Harvard Houses.

For any student or graduate of Harvard, the Houses are not simply residential outposts of University Hall. They are the very heart of Harvard College, the hub of the wheel that holds together, for students, the often-bewildering complexity of Harvard administration. This is where students live, where their academic records are kept, where their successes are heralded, their vulnerabilities noticed and responded to. This is where they will today receive their diplomas. The Houses are cherished not only by students, but also by tutors, faculty, and staff who are part of these unique, intergenerational, academic communities. Undermining the House system cannot be on the table, even in this crisis.

To be sure, FAS departments, Harvard College, and the Houses are doing what we can to cut our budgets. Reimagining the shape of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and renewing the energy of Harvard Houses are critical and exciting tasks. We willingly undertake them. Working groups are at work—in Humanities, Sciences, Social Sciences, and on the Houses, on Student Life, on Undergraduate Education. Our salaries are frozen. But will all this really save the $200 million a year necessary to meet the structural deficit inherited by our talented and visionary President? Can they really do anything by next November or by the beginning of the next fiscal year? Does the Harvard Corporation actually see what it is asking of the president, the faculty, and the deans of one of the finest universities in the world?

As we gather for this happy, spirited academic festival, Harvard needs the immediate commitment of everyone who has benefited from a Harvard education. So, to the thousands gathered today for Harvard Commencement, I say, “Come stand with us. Join the bucket brigade. Put something big in one of those three buckets, with no restrictions. Our students deserve it. Our President deserves it. And you, the graduates of this great university, deserve it as well. As we look around today, take note: we are all in this together.”

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and master of Lowell House.