Harvard pres.: School has tough choices

July 6, 2009 9:06:38 AM PDT
Drew Gilpin Faust started as Harvard's president when the university's prosperity seemed limitless. With its ballooning wealth, Harvard planned almost frenzied growth, from a building boom into Boston to vast increases in student financial aid.Billions of lost endowment dollars later, though, Faust faces a much different reality.

"We can't have chocolate and vanilla and strawberry. We have to decide which one," she said.

It's a question few at Harvard expected Faust to be forced to answer in the infancy of her presidency.

Her appointment in 2007 was hailed as a historic turning point for the 373-year-old university. Faust, then the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a Civil War scholar, would be the first woman to step into the country's most high-profile presidency and appeared perfectly suited to cool tensions within the faculty after the controversial five-year tenure of Lawrence Summers.

She would have the nation's richest endowment to work with - $34.9 billion in 2007.

But by last fall, the crashing economy began to pull down even the country's most famous university. Its endowment fell to $28.7 billion, and the university estimated it would drop 30 percent for the fiscal year that ended Tuesday. The steep decline is particularly difficult for Harvard, which gets roughly one-third of its budget from endowment earnings.

Much of Faust's time now is spent figuring out how Harvard can weather the downturn, through layoffs, early retirement packages, cuts in services, even changes to breakfast menus for undergraduates. She said further reductions in the endowment distribution next year will mean more cuts.

"People say to me often now, 'This must not be what you expected,' and my response is that it would be foolish not to expect surprises in a university presidency," Faust said recently, sitting in her office in Massachusetts Hall.

"I've used the metaphor of marriage about this, saying I signed on for sickness or health or richer or poorer. And it's turned out to be quite a ride," she said laughing.

Most faculty and students still strongly support Faust, despite a general unease on campus about Harvard's finances. For many, Faust's warm and inclusive demeanor remains a welcome change from her predecessor.

Summers, now President Barack Obama's top economic adviser, was pressured to leave after a series of high-profile clashes with faculty - conflicts that worsened after his comments that innate ability may partly explain why few women reach top science posts.

"I think the crucial issue that undermined his leadership was he was extremely abrasive," said J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology, African and African American studies now planning a move to Duke in the fall. "He did not display a talent for listening to his fellow administrators."

Faust cited listening as a key component of her leadership, not an easy task at a university notorious for its segmented colleges, schools and institutes, all with their own management.

"I learn what people are telling me, but I also learn where they are politically, where they need to be moved towards in order to get done what we need to get done," she said.

Faust says part of her desire to look at all complexities of an issue comes from her background as a historian. Her most recent book, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War," looked at how the vast numbers of soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War changed how Americans understood and coped with death. It was a finalist for both the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for history.

"I think historians understand how we've been affected by attitudes and assumptions that have shaped our institutions and our families and our socialization," she said.

She cited her decision earlier this year to save money by pausing construction of a new $1.2 billion science building, the first phase of a planned 50-year expansion into Boston's Allston neighborhood across the Charles River from Cambridge. The university is now reviewing how much - if any - of the project to continue.

"It's a very fraught question. It involves the city, it involves the community, it involves constituencies with totally different interests," she said. When the decision is made, she said, "I think that people will feel that we've really thought it through in a considered and responsible way. Moreover, I will know that we will have thought it through."

Faust has been criticized, though, for being too cautious at the beginning of the economic crisis and for failing to strongly communicate her vision for a new, leaner Harvard. Anger spread on campus last week, for example, when Faust announced the layoffs of 275 employees.

"Because of this sort of mild demeanor, we're kind of wondering what's going to happen," philosophy professor Warren Goldfarb said. "She hasn't stepped up and said, 'This is what we're going to have to do.' "

Added student Andrea Flores, president of the Harvard Undergraduate Council: "I can kind of see where they're coming from in the sense that I don't think Harvard is being very forward thinking, but I think that's because we're covering things that needed to be addressed in the past."

Faust said it has been a challenge to keep people focused on the university's strengths, from its commitment to financial aid for all students who need it to its ability to gather experts from multiple schools and disciplines to tackle large problems like global health or global warming.

"It's a challenge in this environment to keep people's eyes on the really important issues that give us all something to believe in," she said. "I'm thinking a lot about that this summer."

Regardless of how much anger bubbles on campus over layoffs, budget cuts and faculty reductions, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said Faust also has a great deal of goodwill, which should help her weather the economic downturn. Goldfarb and Flores also expressed overall approval for her tenure thus far.

Once the crisis ends, Dershowitz said, Faust will be in position to push her own bold agenda.

"You have to give her time. ... Everybody would be thrilled if we end up in a few years not worse than it is today," she said. "Everyone wants Drew to succeed, everybody is rooting for her."