Benign Growth?

Rapid growth in Harvard’s administration signals change—whether good or bad

Harvard has come far from its first days as a college intended for the privileged sons of New England’s wealthiest residents. At the same time, Harvard’s administration (like that of other universities in America) has expanded in scope far beyond its original purview. These changes, while not necessarily bad, have largely escaped the conscious notice of many students, and certainly deserve attention in this newspaper.

The Charter that incorporated Harvard College in 1650 was granted to an institution dedicated to “the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the…youth of this country….” Originally run by a President, five Fellows, and a Treasurer, Harvard’s administration has grown substantially since its first days. Along with thirteen deans of different graduate schools and the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the College, Harvard’s website also lists 13 vice-president level executives, with responsibilities ranging from “Vice President for Planning and Project Management to “Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications” to “Vice President for Campus Services.” Beyond that, Harvard’s Administrative Directory lists well over one hundred deans, assistant deans, directors, and coordinators.

Many of the tasks completed by these many administrators are vitally important.  Harvard now provides many services and resources for students that it did not previously. For example, the new Office of BGLTQ Student Life was a necessary and important addition to Harvard College, and we look forward to seeing it develop to become more of a presence on campus in the coming years when it has a full-time director instead of simply an interim coordinator. The Office of Student Life, though still learning how to best serve undergraduate students, also fills an important and needed role in Harvard life. However, the Harvard administration has also expanded to take on new roles not directly connected to student life or academic experiences. For example, most students probably could not explicate a time in which their Harvard College experience was directly enriched by the “Director of Special Projects” at the Office for Faculty Development.

In fact, it is a common refrain heard on campus that the accompanying proliferation of administrators has been a waste of money, and that Harvard will be unable to stop already exorbitant tuition costs from rising much further without cutting some administrative expenses. Indeed, if the University continues to follow the trend of growing its bureaucracy, it will run the risk of overextending itself and in doing so lose accountability or transparency. Even now, it is often confusing for students to approach the administration if they wish to seek changes in Harvard’s policies or actions. We are surprised that, with a directory of deans and administrators whose length rivals that of the bibliography of a short book, most undergraduate students do not interact with many administrators on a regular basis. Even when deans themselves are friendly and accessible, the multifarious positions and titles may intimidate students who (like us) are not quite sure of the distinction between a “Dean of Science,” “Administrative Dean of Science,” and “Assistant Dean for Science”—and whether any of these administrators have any interest in talking to undergraduates.

That being said, extending the role of the Harvard administration is not necessarily a bad thing. The expansion of Harvard College into a university with multiple graduate schools and world-changing laboratories has created an institution that is world-renowned for repeatedly producing important research findings and educating leaders in fields as diverse as politics, law, medicine, education, and academia. The over 200 employees of the Harvard Management Company help invest Harvard’s impressive endowment in order to generate returns that help pay for our college experience and financial aid. The work of administrators in FAS and other schools undoubtedly helps facilitate the maintenance of Harvard as one of the top universities in the country.

Harvard has certainly come a long—and fruitful—way since its founding in 1636. 375 years later, we are proud to belong to an institution with a remarkable history and even more remarkable present. Just as the first President and Fellows of Harvard College would probably never have recognized the huge majority of job titles of Harvard’s administrators today, in all likelihood this University will look very different when we come back for our tenth, thirtieth, or fiftieth reunions. We hope that as in the past, the Harvard administration’s future growth—albeit ungainly, full of kinks, and inefficient—will only serve to enhance our university’s ability to serve its students, faculty, and the global academic community.