Dear Members of the Harvard Community,
The sun shone bright as we celebrated our 359th commencement on May 27. From the festive morning exercises to Justice David Souter’s eloquent and important afternoon speech, the day brought an uplifting end to an academic year of reinvigoration and renewed momentum.
Now that the happy commotion of commencement week has given way to a rare feeling of quiet in the Yard, I thought I’d offer some brief reflections on the year just past.
It’s been a year when we have advanced a range of ambitious academic initiatives, while continuing to adjust to a changed economic landscape. And it’s been a year when we’ve drawn new strengths from the creative interplay of Harvard’s distinctive parts, while focusing on how what we do here can serve the common good.
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This past fall we launched Harvard College’s most significant curricular reform in a generation, our new Program in General Education. Gen Ed has already infused the undergraduate experience not only with scores of new and redesigned courses, but with more purposeful connections between classroom learning and life beyond college. Every time I hear about one of the new courses — on the sciences of the mind, or Hindu art and culture, or how technology shapes the way we live — part of me wants to be a student again. Through Gen Ed and otherwise, we’ve worked to make our undergraduates feel more and more part of not just a college but a university — offering them more courses taught by faculty from other Harvard schools, creating new concentrations in bioengineering as well as human development and regenerative biology, and exploring potential opportunities in areas as diverse as public policy, architecture, and religion.
More broadly, we have redoubled our commitment to increasingly robust collaboration across our schools. Especially with financial resources more constrained, we have an important opportunity to consider how each of our schools can benefit more from one another’s academic strengths. One prime example is Harvard’s newest degree program, the doctorate in education leadership, a venture led by the Ed School in partnership with faculty from government and business. Starting in August, its first class of 25 students — drawn from more than 1,000 applicants — will experience a novel practice-intensive curriculum meant to prepare them for leadership roles in K-12 education.
To cite another example, in May we expanded our university-wide commitment to global health, as three outstanding faculty members stepped forward to lead the Harvard Institute for Global Health: Sue Goldie (Public Health), as director, teamed with colleagues Paul Farmer (Medicine) and David Cutler (Economics). HIGH is already pursuing an extensive cross-disciplinary research agenda in areas from infectious diseases to national health systems to children’s health. In addition, HIGH’s faculty affiliates are mounting a host of new courses for undergraduates and graduate students, many of them combining classroom study with fieldwork and clinical experience.
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As I reported at commencement, this has been a year when we affirmed public service as a core university ideal, at a moment when the call to service seems exceptionally resonant and strong. We had a university-wide public service week in October, featuring prominent alumni such as Governor Deval Patrick, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone. The Kennedy School led a conference in Washington on creating better pathways for federal service, and the Law School initiated a venture fund to support students in a range of public-interest activities. The Harvard Alumni Association organized a global month of service in April, and helped us launch a new portal, “Public Service on the Map,” that will offer our students, alumni, faculty, and staff fingertip access to a worldwide web of opportunities to serve the greater good.
We have also extended our global reach, as more faculty and students take advantage of opportunities for learning abroad — studying water systems and clean energy in Brazil or ancient civilization and classical literature in Greece, business and social enterprise in Rwanda, or modernity and social change in South Korea. Early in 2010, our emphases on global health, public service, and international engagement powerfully converged when faculty, students, and staff — including many from Harvard’s affiliated hospitals — pooled their energies through organizations such as Partners In Health and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to help allay the devastation caused by the earthquake in Haiti.
I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa and Botswana in the fall and to Japan and China in the spring, connecting with some of Harvard’s most active alumni communities abroad. I will never forget the experience of visiting a hospital in Botswana where a Harvard team, led by Professor Max Essex, has devised a drug regimen that is curtailing the transmission of HIV-AIDS from breastfeeding mothers to their infants. Nor will I forget the spirited March opening of the Harvard Shanghai Center, where I joined colleagues from the Business School, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and several other schools to launch a venture that exemplifies both our more expansive international agenda and the rising appetite for inter-faculty cooperation.
In the sciences, we started the academic year on a high note when Jack Szostak of the Medical School won a Nobel Prize for pioneering work on telomerase, an enzyme that protects chromosomes from degrading. We carried forward our commitment to innovative interdisciplinary science by designing flexible new lab facilities for our programs in stem cell and regenerative biology and biologically inspired engineering, even as we delayed our eventual expansion into Allston. Our undergraduates benefited from new introductory science courses and more opportunities for faculty-mentored lab research; our graduate students continued to bridge institutional borders through new consortium programs in microbial sciences and in energy and the environment; and our faculty again demonstrated the vibrancy of our scientific enterprise by attracting an impressive volume of federal stimulus grants — more than 250, plus many more secured by faculty in our affiliated hospitals.
In the arts, building on the work of last year’s university task force and buoyed by a new University Committee on the Arts, we’ve seen a stream of new courses that permeate the boundary between learning and doing by integrating artistic practice and performance into traditional modes of study. Now, for instance, when students in a freshman seminar study the music of Leonard Bernstein, they can experience it in a whole new way, dancing to selections from “West Side Story.” The wonderfully imaginative Silk Road Project, led by Yo-Yo Ma, announced that it will make its new home in Allston starting this summer — a move that promises to boost learning through the arts in both coursework and co-curricular pursuits. Diane Paulus has brought a jolt of energy to the local theater scene since arriving as artistic director of the American Repertory Theater. And, after years of planning, we have started renovating the home of our art museums to create space that is worthy of our extraordinary collections and that invites our students and faculty to study masterworks of art much more closely than before.
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Throughout the year, we have kept our focus on adjusting to our changed economic landscape. In the wake of the global financial crisis, we have reduced the amounts distributed from our endowment accounts by 8 percent for the academic year now ending, and by 12 percent for the year to come. We’ve had to cut costs in many parts of the university. But the exercise has involved much more than that. It has focused our attention on how we can deliver our programs and services in more disciplined and integrated ways — how we can seek out efficiencies through new combinations and assure that our spending aligns with core academic priorities, especially during a period of unaccustomed constraint.
The challenge is not just to tamp down costs but to re-imagine aspects of how we do our work, to make sure we embrace best practices and direct our resources to their highest and best use. For instance, we have made encouraging progress in a major effort to rethink organizational dimensions of our highly decentralized library system. We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to reconsider and rationalize how we administer one of Harvard’s greatest treasures and to renew it for an era of unprecedented change in how we collect, transmit, and preserve knowledge and information.
In the face of our economic challenges, it’s been a year when we have taken care to sustain our strong programs of student financial aid. Even as we have scrubbed our budgets, we have made it a priority to hold our doors open wide to students of ability and promise, whatever their economic means. And we have attracted outstanding applicants in record numbers. For the first time, applications to Harvard College surpassed 30,000, for approximately 1,650 places in the entering class. Applications climbed in nearly all of our graduate and professional schools, with numbers at or near historical highs in business, design, education, government, law, and medicine.
It has also been a year when we welcomed new leaders in key domains. We’ve benefited from the energetic leadership of two first-year deans, Martha Minow at the Law School and Cherry Murray in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Nitin Nohria, a scholar of leadership and organizational change, will become dean of Harvard Business School this summer, as Jay Light retires after 40 years as a mainstay of the HBS faculty. Katie Lapp joined us from the University of California as our executive vice president, and has undertaken a careful review of how the central administration both performs and funds its work. Lisa Coleman arrived from Tufts as our chief diversity officer. And Bill Lee, a leading expert on intellectual property and a former Overseer, will join the Corporation on July 1, succeeding Jamie Houghton, who steps down after 15 years of distinguished service.
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For everything I’ve remarked on, for every example I’ve highlighted, there are dozens of others worthy of mention. The point is simply this. We share membership in a university community of remarkable resilience and energy. It’s a community with an uncommon capacity to weather challenges, to learn from them, to adapt and move forward. That we do so, individually and together, matters a great deal — not just to what happens on campus from day to day, not just to the realm of ideas, but to the prospects for progress and enlightened action in a complex and sometimes confounding world. Looking out from the commencement stage, at the tapestry of talent our graduates embody, I couldn’t help but think what a privilege it is for me to be part of that effort and to help weave its many diverse strands into a larger whole. As we finish another academic year and look ahead to the next, I’m grateful to all of you who together make Harvard’s promise real.
Warm wishes for the summer ahead.
– Drew Gilpin Faust