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Harvard Resists Reagan’s ’85 Budget

Proposed budget cuts would have axed a large percentage of federal aid and research funds

By Julie R. Barzilay, Crimson Staff Writer

In early 1985, the winds of budgetary change rippled menacingly through headlines in The Crimson, after the Reagan Administration proposed significant cuts to federal financial aid and research funding for scientists as part of the administration’s effort to scale down its social programs spending.

Had it passed, the legislation would have had crippling effects on Harvard, a university which prides itself on its generous aid programs and its cutting-edge science resources. But Harvard’s own administration, joined by outraged students and political allies in both Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., successfully raised their voices in protest.

Budget issues continue to plague the Obama Administration as well as Harvard—the University’s endowment dropped $11 billion from 2008 to 2009—but both federal and University-wide measures have sought to keep student aid and research funding afloat despite difficult economic times.


The federal budget of the 1986 fiscal year would have slashed financial aid funding, capping money allotted per student on federal grants and loan aid to $4000 and establishing an income ceiling of $32,500 for guaranteed student loan eligibility. The cuts also included a $2.3 billion reduction in financial aid spending. Additionally, the Reagan administration proposed significant cuts to National Institutes of Health funding, one of Harvard’s largest sources of science funding.

“Those were challenging times,” wrote then-Vice President for Government and Public Affairs John Shattuck in an e-mail to The Crimson. “Harvard’s commitment to need-blind admissions was on the line because of the threat of massive federal student aid cuts, research funding was in danger of being slashed, and academic freedom was threatened by the secrecy regulations coming out of Washington.”

Former University President Derek C. Bok took the lead in fighting the cuts, alongside Shattuck and Harvard lobbyist Nan F. Nixon, who was then the University’s director of federal relations. According to Nixon, resistance measures taken by University officials included developing policy papers, building nation-wide support, and listening to student testimonies.

“There’s nothing like the person who’s directly affected to speak to something,” she recalled.

By the end of February 1985, college students were banding together through the Boston Area Student Coalition to organize rallies, postcard-writing campaigns, and petitions to reject the budget proposal. The $32,500 guaranteed student loan cap alone could have impacted two million students nationwide, according to Crimson coverage. Harvard dining halls filled with volunteers from the Undergraduate Council and Radcliffe Union of Students handing out postcards to send to D.C.

A local rally took place on March 14 of 1985, bolstered by statements of support by the late Mass. Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, then-Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, and former Representative Silvio O. Conte. The day after the rally, the Senate Budget Committee officially opposed the Reagan Administration’s proposal for cuts to financial aid.

At another event, Mass. Senator John F. Kerry proclaimed that the proposed aid program was “an arbitrary and capricious travesty,” adding that funds devoted to research on Reagan’s controversial “Star Wars” defense project would cover the whole financial aid program handily.


In a dramatic turn of events, cutbacks in federal financial aid were excised from the Senate budget plan in May 1985.

“Thanks to the leadership of President Derek Bok, Harvard survived those times with flying colors,” Shattuck wrote to The Crimson.

Though the University had weathered the budget storm, the fight can never truly be over, Nixon said.

“It made a huge difference in the ability of students to access higher education but we knew we were going to have to do it again,” Nixon said. “When you are in tight budgetary times you don’t just win the fight one year, because the funding is annual.”

The conflict to some extent also soured relations with the federal government, with several Harvard faculty members condemning an invitation for Reagan to visit Harvard for the University’s 350th birthday celebration in 1986.


Harvard’s current financial aid program, research programs, and student life funds have faced budget anxieties of varying severity due to a struggling economy.

Harvard’s scholarship budget today is $145 million, according to Director of Financial Aid Sally C. Donahue. Next year, $158 million is allotted.

“That’s about a 9 percent increase at a time when we’re all trying very hard to keep our operational budget level,” Donahue said. “I will say we’ve certainly had to come up with a lot of numbers behind the scenes and predict what we think our needs are for the next year.”

Some of the strategies Harvard’s Financial Aid Office has used to trim expenditures involved streamlining publications, reducing travel expenditures, and making increased use of their website to cut mail costs, she added.

“There have been a lot of parents who have been losing jobs, and people have experienced all kinds of financial hardships that really make it difficult for them to come up with the amount we expected them to contribute,” Donahue said. “We’ve been able to respond, which is really extraordinary.”

She said that a decade ago, students graduated mired in loan debt, but in 2008, the University began

eliminating the need for student loans in its aid packages. Instead, students’ financial needs are met with a combination of grant assistance and term-time jobs.

“Our hope is that [these aid policies] will enable students to go forth and pursue the career of their dreams without feeling burdened,” Donahue said.

In contrast to 1985, the Obama Administration is expanding federal financial aid—in his State of the Union Address, Obama promised to increase Pell Grants and forgiveness of student loans after 10 to 20 years, among other reforms.

The recent healthcare overhaul included legislation to move away from bank-funded loans toward an expanded direct-lending program run by the federal government. This adjustment was intended to direct $36 billion across 10 years to Pell grants for students from low-income families.

Today, alumni benefactors are heavily recruited to fill financial aid gaps. Without assistance from these individual donors, “we wouldn’t be pulling in students who were representative of what the world is becoming...and we might not be graduating students who were the true movers and shakers of the next few decades,” Donahue said.


Federal funding is also of interest to the programs supervised by Meg Brooks Swift ’93, director of the Student Employment Office and Undergraduate Research Programs. Most budget reductions this fiscal year for the programs Brooks Swift oversees were taken from administrative funds so as to preserve the student grants themselves, she said.

“We are getting more pressure from across the campus to try to use more federal funds,” Brooks Swift said, referring to stimulus package money for research available through individual professors’ budgets. “Then we don’t need to rely as much on Harvard’s dollars.”

Such funds may be available through organizations like the National Institutes of Health or the National Institute of Mental Health.

“It’s quite a layered system of what’s out there,” she said. “It’s such an interesting landscape and we’re very lucky that we have so many resources.”


Today’s network of federal funding options for Harvard includes the National Science Foundation, Departments of Energy and Defense, and other agencies, according to Kevin Casey, the University’s associate vice president for government, community, and public affairs.

“However, like any entity reliant on federal support...this delicate partnership on innovation may be at risk,” Casey wrote in an e-mailed statement.

In 1993, Harvard and MIT created a coalition with dozens of universities and corporate partners to press for continued federal support for financial aid and research, according to Casey.

This group, The Science Coalition, represents the type of collaboration and innovation that has come to characterize several of Harvard’s fights for funding.

After the recession, current University President Drew G. Faust argued for investment in research as a “down payment on future innovation in Congress’s recovery package,” a push for research funding for Harvard that was successful. Faust’s dealings with a large number of federal officials—including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, other House leaders, Senator Kerry himself, Senator Charles E. Grassley, and newly elected Mass. Senator Scott P. Brown—are also reminiscent of Bok’s interactions with Senator Kerry and former Senator Kennedy.

One concern that did not exist in 1985 is the “generational transition in Washington” that resulted in many champions of research funding leaving Congress, Casey added.

“We are as concerned as ever about the prospects for funding of science and students during this recession and with so many competing federal priorities,” Casey said.

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at

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Commencement 2010Class of 1985