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Welcome to the new academic year (2008)

Cambridge, Mass.

To: Members of the Harvard Community:

As the opening days of the new academic year remind us, things don’t always happen quite according to plan.

First-year students in the College landed in Cambridge on an early September Saturday, just a little ahead of Tropical Storm Hanna. Courtesy of a malfunctioning electrical switch, they spent much of their first night at Harvard inhospitably displaced from Yard dorms gone dark. Clothes damp, roommates barely met, many of them congregated in the Science Center until the wee hours; a few of them even coaxed their slightly groggy president into a late-night poker game. Still, by the time of our sunlit opening exercises the next day, spirits seemed anything but soggy—and the electricity, whether measured in volts or in anticipation of things to come, was back in full force. To our entering freshmen, and to all of you who are newcomers to Harvard—students, faculty, and staff—thanks for joining a university community that I’m confident will bring you opportunities as energizing as the talents you bring to us.

We start the year in the midst of sobering times. Fierce storms from the tropics have been followed by seismic waves on Wall Street and now in Washington, where policymakers confront a set of financial challenges that many experts consider as unsettling as any our nation has faced in decades. These events will affect us, as an institution and as individuals, in ways we are only beginning to know.

As members of a learning enterprise more than 370 years old, one that has weathered all manner of storms, we can look forward to the year ahead with what I hope will be a shared appreciation for the remarkable resilience and creative power of universities in the face of unpredictability and change. They root us in our knowledge and experience of the past, keeping us attentive to the long term and offering a perspective on the future that we especially need in turbulent times. In calm or storm, they present us with opportunities to contribute what we can to a better, more humane, more intelligible world.

Some of us do our part through a devotion to improving human health or investigating climate change; others, by considering how law and policy can advance justice or by finding new meaning in timeless texts or great works of art; still others, by analyzing economic upheavals and devising means to address them. We each work and learn in different parts of Harvard—but all of us share an opportunity to demonstrate, through the imaginative pursuit of knowledge, why our universities embody society’s most enduring investment in the future. Whether your Harvard ID is days or decades old, I welcome your partnership in that pursuit.

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We open new doors every autumn, but we open them especially wide this fall. In welcoming the Harvard College Class of 2012, we usher in a dramatic expansion of our financial aid programs. Through a series of reforms over the past few years, families with incomes up to $60,000 are no longer expected to contribute to the cost of their children’s undergraduate education; families earning up to $180,000 will be asked to contribute just a modest fraction of their incomes (generally 10 percent or less); and grants have replaced loans for all undergraduates receiving aid. Harvard has long sought to attract the most talented and promising students, whatever their financial means. It remains a paramount priority to make that ideal real.

That is true not just in the College but across the University. The Medical School this fall initiates a new financial aid program, designed to reduce the cost of a four-year medical education by an average of $50,000 for families earning $120,000 or less. Newly entering JD students at the Law School can look forward to a tuition-free third year if they commit to at least five years of public service after graduation. Throughout the Schools we have substantially increased our investment in financial aid—by nearly 30 percent in the past three years alone. We will continue striving not only to enroll the very best students from across the economic spectrum, but also to ensure that the burden of excessive debt does not deter our graduates from pursuing careers reflecting their highest aspirations.

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This year also marks an important transition in our unfolding efforts to enhance undergraduate education. With the Faculty of Arts and Sciences having approved a new framework for general education in spring 2007, and with new curricular requirements due to take full effect for students entering in fall 2009, the challenge remains to infuse the framework with a robust set of inventive new courses as well as creative adaptations of existing ones. I know that our deans of the FAS and the College, Mike Smith and Evelynn Hammonds, see this as a focal point of the coming year—and I am grateful to the many faculty colleagues who have designed or are planning offerings in the new curriculum. I know, too, from summer discussions within the Council of Deans that there is broad enthusiasm for having undergraduate education at Harvard benefit more strongly from the faculty and academic resources of our graduate and professional schools.

Curricular change is in motion well beyond the College. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is launching interdisciplinary consortia to promote advanced study across traditional borders, while also introducing seminars for graduate students to partner with faculty in crafting new Gen Ed offerings for the College. The Business School, in commemorating its centennial, has undertaken a comprehensive evaluation of the state of MBA education, and the Design School is introducing a new master’s concentration in sustainable design. The Divinity School has refashioned the curriculum for its two-year theology degree, while the Ed School is planning for a new advanced degree in educational leadership involving Kennedy and Business School colleagues. The Kennedy School, meanwhile, has teamed with the Business School to offer a new joint degree in government and business, and the Law School is entering year two of its most noteworthy curricular innovations in decades, including new first-year courses in legislative and regulatory systems and in international and comparative law. The Medical School’s intensive strategic planning has yielded proposals for an array of educational reforms, while the School of Public Health this fall rolls out an alternative core curriculum for professional students featuring a more integrated, case-based approach to learning.

Our degree programs, in short, are in a state of creative fermentation. And a prime ingredient in the yeast is a concern for how students can take increasing advantage of experiences not only within individual departments or Schools but across them. That trend should draw added momentum from the prospect of coordinated academic calendars across the Schools, starting next fall.

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As these curricular innovations advance, we are pursuing a variety of improvements to our campus. The Law School’s Northwest Corner Building, now under construction, will serve as a new hub of student life and learning. The Divinity School has created a campus green and remade Rockefeller Hall, itself newly green. A new graduate housing complex has opened along the Charles, and Radcliffe’s fellows have a handsome new home in Byerly Hall.

More broadly, a University-wide committee led by Professor Lizabeth Cohen (History) and Dean Mohsen Mostafavi (Design) is exploring how to shape several new or reconfigured spaces in Cambridge to enliven our sense of community—spaces that can create natural opportunities for mingling, for quiet reflection over coffee, for impromptu conversations about the joys of reading Proust or the frontiers of nanoscience or the state, alas, of Tom Brady’s left knee. Concurrently, Deans Smith and Hammonds have assembled a committee of faculty, students, and staff to think in fundamental ways about the role and purposes of our undergraduate Houses, whose character has helped define Harvard for more than 75 years. This review will lay a programmatic foundation for a comprehensive renewal of the Houses, to assure that one of Harvard’s proudest 20th-century innovations will serve us no less well in the 21st.

Of course, we continue to plan ambitiously for Allston, even as early construction work on the major science complex south of Western Avenue marks the first concrete step in translating our ambitions into realities. Much of our attention this year will focus on preparing a refined institutional master plan for our Allston properties, for submission to the City of Boston. This exercise, outlining aspects of our envisioned activities as well as proposed arrangements for streets and other infrastructure, is a requisite next step before we can undertake additional construction—one that will help provide a broad context for our continuing discussion of academic and programmatic priorities and for deeper analysis of financial parameters.

In the past year, as the groundbreaking for the science complex has perhaps made Allston opportunities seem increasingly real, there has emerged a rising interest among different parts of Harvard in the possibility of an Allston presence. We will need to take careful account of this expanding array of potential participants as we seek to imagine a configuration likely to yield the most vibrant mix for Allston and the best result for Harvard as a whole. Our Allston planning represents a venture for the long term, one that at each stage will call on us to balance forward motion with sustained flexibility. Ultimately, our aim is not a self-contained Allston campus; it is an expanded yet integrated Harvard, one where the different precincts of our campus fruitfully connect with each other and their neighboring communities and where each blends elements both traditional and new. Someone recently remarked to me that the Charles should become like the Seine—coupling two distinctive banks of comparable vitality and importance. Paris we’re not—but I very much like the image.

So, in the year to come we will watch as Stefan Behnisch’s science complex begins to emerge—from what is now a cavernous hole in the ground into a state-of-the-art home for interdisciplinary work in stem cell science, bioengineering, and systems biology and a leading example of our commitment to sustainable design. And we will continue to plan for a future in Allston that embodies Harvard’s highest academic aims, that fosters positive relations with our neighbors, and that grasps the opportunity to imagine our programs and their interactions anew.

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The Allston science complex is just one expression of our larger commitment to advancing education and research in science and engineering. We are fortunate, at such a time, to benefit from the leadership of the Harvard University Science and Engineering Committee, which, since its launch last year, has become an essential forum for assessing cross-faculty initiatives and investments. Meanwhile, the past year has brought the elevation of our Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences to the status of School, reflecting its growing importance and scope; the opening of the Northwest Laboratory building on Oxford Street, a boost for FAS-based science; the beginnings of a major new NIH-supported center to promote clinical and translational science across our biomedical community, spurred by HMS Dean Jeff Flier and his colleagues; and the breathtaking new commitment of $400 million from Eli and Edythe Broad to endow the Broad Institute, a cooperative enterprise of Harvard and MIT that is demonstrating both the promise of genomics to transform medicine and the promise of collaboration to accelerate discovery. As we mark these and other developments, we should bear in mind the wise words of one close observer of the Harvard scene: our bridges rest on pillars, and we must continue to bolster those pillars as we envision new connections between them.

We must continue as well to nourish humanities and the arts, in the spirit of humane learning integral to all we do. A task force chaired by Stephen Greenblatt, the Cogan University Professor, will report later this year on its expansive inquiry into the role of the arts in liberal education and in the life of the University more broadly. Harvard has long been home to a dazzling variety of artistic talent and expression, but as an institution we have at times seemed to hold artistic practice and performance somewhat at arm’s length from the academic enterprise. The task force promises to help us think in novel ways about the prospect of a closer embrace. Meanwhile, the activities of the Humanities Center, with Homi Bhabha as its intellectual impresario, are attracting an expanding circle of scholars from across Harvard for thought-provoking conversations on everything from terrorism to the tango. The American Repertory Theatre will soon welcome a new artistic director, Diane Paulus, a Harvard alumna known for both her acclaimed productions and her interest in enlivening the interactions between the A.R.T. and the larger University community. And, as the Fogg temporarily closes its doors, we can all look forward to a reconceived and renovated Harvard Art Museum on Quincy Street, with the first major steps to be taken this year toward realizing Renzo Piano’s elegant design.

In the broad domain of the social sciences, preliminary discussions have begun on how different parts of Harvard might better share resources and profit from greater collaboration in topical areas of emergent interest—from changing cities to international development to aging and society, to name just a few. And in an era when ideas and people are quickening their movement across not just academic but geographic borders, we have the opportunity and obligation to think more strategically about how Harvard engages with societies around the world. This past March, I traveled to Shanghai for the global conference of the Harvard Alumni Association, and next March I look forward to welcoming our gathered alumni in South Africa. These events—each the source of enthusiastic interest among alumni and faculty alike—are just two among innumerable examples of an ever more international Harvard, as evident in the composition of our community, in the content of our research and teaching, and in the span of our engagements around the world. We are especially fortunate, amid this growing internationalism, to benefit from the magnificent generosity of David Rockefeller, Harvard College Class of 1936, whose historic $100 million gift announced last spring will in large part fund opportunities for undergraduate learning abroad.

Global climate change has emerged as one of the salient challenges of our time, and we have a rising responsibility to address that challenge both in what we study and in how we work and live. This summer, drawing on the thoughtful report of a task force chaired by Professor William Clark of the Kennedy School, I announced that Harvard will intensify its efforts to achieve major reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions, as part of a broader commitment to environmental sustainability. (See Statement on the Report of the Harvard Greenhouse Gas Task Force.) At the same time, as we seek to curtail our collective carbon footprint, we must consider how teaching and research across the Schools—building on the work of the University Center for the Environment and other key players—can help us better understand and confront the challenges of sustainability, energy, and environmental change not just on our own campus but well beyond. Every one of us has a stake in the outcome of these efforts—and a role to play in their success.

This year, Harvard will be preparing for its fall 2009 reaccreditation review, a process that takes place each decade and that will focus on the FAS, given the separate accreditation processes that exist for most of our Schools. I am grateful to Margo Seltzer, Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science, for agreeing to serve as faculty chair for the self-study process that will precede the accreditation team’s visit and its report to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

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For all our initiatives and plans, in the end we owe our progress to the talent, energy, and diverse perspectives of the people who form our community—which is to say, all of you. In the company of so extraordinary an assemblage of faculty, students, and staff, I am especially fortunate to be joined by a team of deans at once focused on their Schools and devoted to the larger university. Since arriving in Massachusetts Hall nearly 15 months ago, I have had the occasion to welcome new deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Mike Smith), the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (Allan Brandt), and the College (Evelynn Hammonds), as well as the Design School (Mohsen Mostafavi), the Faculty of Medicine (Jeff Flier), and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (Barbara Grosz). Julio Frenk, Mexico’s former Minister of Health, will succeed Barry Bloom at the School of Public Health come January, and Professor Frans Spaepen has stepped in as acting dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences while the search proceeds for Venky Narayanamurti’s longer-term successor. Together they join David Ellwood at the Kennedy School, Bill Graham at the Divinity School, Elena Kagan at the Law School, Jay Light at the Business School, and Kathy McCartney at the School of Education, and Bruce Donoff at the School of Dental Medicine—along with our Provost, Steve Hyman—to form an academic leadership group that any university president would be immensely pleased to call her own.

Ed Forst, as Executive Vice President, is taking up a new role that will strengthen our central administrative capacity and help cultivate connective tissue across the Schools. Judy Singer, the Conant Professor of Education, is our new Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, and David Korn, former Dean of Stanford Medical School, will soon become our Vice Provost for Research. Christine Heenan will arrive in the coming days as our new Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs, at a moment when much is percolating in each of those areas, and Jane Mendillo has moved in as the new CEO of Harvard Management Company, to carry forward the expert management of our endowment during unusually challenging financial times.

For each of these colleagues stepping in to a pre-existing role, there are large shoes to be filled. To each of their predecessors, from all of us: many, many thanks.

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One hundred years ago, Charles William Eliot, the nonpareil of Harvard presidents, began the last of his 40 academic years in office. As I look forward to just my second, I hope we can together accept Eliot’s invitation to embrace the purposes that draw us here—”to observe keenly, to reason soundly, and to imagine vividly.” With the sense of anticipation a new year brings, may we each take full advantage of all that Harvard is, while vividly imagining all it may become.

– Drew Gilpin Faust