Harvard classrooms, labs feel pinch of budget cuts

Teaching ranks to get thinner

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / June 17, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - It’s not just the hot breakfasts and shuttle bus service that have been targeted by Harvard University administrators in the age of the shrinking endowment. Once untouchable classrooms and laboratories are about to be hit - cuts that some on campus worry will diminish Harvard’s academic ambitions.

Facing the largest endowment decline in its history, Harvard officials said they can no longer afford to fully replenish the faculty ranks when star professors retire or are wooed away by other universities. Cuts to the number of graduate teaching fellows will mean larger class sizes next fall and, some professors warn, possibly lowered expectations. The university has also rescinded its funding of some research activities and lab equipment, a blow to Harvard’s goal of ramping up the sciences.

Despite Harvard officials’ stated intentions to avoid hurting the university’s fundamental purpose, many faculty fear that the cuts, which the officials say will deepen, will leave Harvard a weakened institution in the coming years.

“The cuts will absolutely impact academics,’’ said physics professor Eric Mazur. “Everyone has said it’s not going to affect the core mission of the institution - which is teaching - but indirectly, it will. All the things around education might suffer.’’

While the dismal economy has pummeled university endowments everywhere, Harvard - the world’s wealthiest college - is in a particularly precarious position because it relies heavily on proceeds from the endowment for day-to-day needs. The endowment supports a third of the university’s $3.5 billion operating costs, and more than half of the $1.1 billion operating budget of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest of Harvard’s 10 schools.

Harvard’s $36.9 billion endowment, as of last June, is expected to drop by at least 30 percent by the end of this month. That would still leave Harvard with about $26 billion, close to 2005 levels. But the university, along with its ambitions and budget, has grown substantially since then as it added faculty, overhauled buildings, and embarked on a groundbreaking - and expensive - financial aid initiative.

Further exacerbating Harvard’s financial crisis, some professors said, are the risky financing decisions stretching back to the early part of the decade. The university borrowed money on a large scale for construction while its endowment soared. Those debts now must be repaid, and Harvard is struggling because so many of its investments have lost value.

That new reality leaves administrators scrambling to scale back. Early retirement, already offered to staff, is now in the works for faculty, professors say. The music department is set to lose the world’s leading Bach scholar when he retires next year. The classics department, already down two classical archeologists, will lose one of two specialists in ancient history.

Without replacing key faculty, Harvard will be unable to run graduate programs in certain specialties and risks damaging its academic reputation, said classics professor Mark Schiefsky.

“These areas have had a pretty strong tradition here,’’ Schiefsky said. “We have to be careful that things don’t die.’’

The curbs on hiring also directly affect undergraduates, who will have fewer courses to choose from, said several professors. The economics department will cut its highly coveted junior seminars, designed to introduce students to research in various fields. The inability to replace a statistical finance professor who left for Columbia University last year hurts the statistics department’s efforts to build a specialty in that area. A popular political science class is in jeopardy now that the only government professor teaching about elections is decamping to Duke University; at least four government faculty have left this year.

“Harvard’s relative standing among the major universities will suffer,’’ said Theda Skocpol, a government professor and former president of the American Political Science Association. “It already has in some fields, and it will continue to if we can’t keep moving.’’

Five senior physics professors are being courted by other universities, said Christopher Stubbs, physics department chairman; if they all were to leave, he said, that’s 10 fewer courses - from general education undergraduate classes to highly specialized graduate classes - taught each year.

In addition to halting most tenure-track hires, the university has less money for adjunct positions and graduate teaching fellows, who lead many of the discussion sections for large lecture courses and foreign language classes. Although the number of students in those sections, which range from 12 to 18 students, is not expected to grow dramatically, some professors fear that expectations, attention, and feedback to students will suffer in courses with heavy homework loads.

“One of the ways to teach the same number of students with less staff is to demand less of them,’’ said a longtime professor who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the ongoing budget cuts.

Bumping up the classes by even a few students would be a slide backward for a university that has worked diligently in recent years to lower the student-faculty ratio to 7-to-1, said German and comparative literature professor Judith L. Ryan.

Many students are also worried about increased class sizes.

“People are concerned that faculty-student interaction will become even more rare because of the cuts,’’ said Andrea Flores, president of Harvard Undergraduate Council. “There would be less academic mentoring.’’

Some types of scientific research could also be at risk, professors warned. Harvard has backed out of its commitment to buy a multimillion-dollar helium liquefier, which enables researchers to conduct low-temperature experiments. Scientists must spend more money on liquid helium, whose price has skyrocketed 66 percent in the last two years, professors said.

“If you run out of money, you can’t cool your apparatus and you can’t do your research anymore, period,’’ Mazur said. “Federal agencies will say, ‘If I give Harvard money, I get less bang for the buck than if I go to institutions that do have a liquefier.’ ’’

Some professors, though, say that being forced to suddenly shrink expenses down to 2005 budget levels will not harm the Harvard brand.

“Of course, Harvard was a great university in 2005 and so will still be after the cuts,’’ said government professor Gary King, who directs the Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which recently cut $77 million from its budget, is only a third of the way toward closing a projected $220 million deficit. To save money, the university has closed one of its libraries and is asking residence halls to trim their budgets by 25 percent, which could reduce Harvard’s extensive house tutoring program.

University officials acknowledge that future cuts to academic programs will significantly affect Harvard’s teaching and research mission. But in a letter last month to faculty and students, FAS dean Michael D. Smith wrote: “I refuse to let this crisis diminish our unsurpassed commitment to academic excellence, innovation, and discovery.’’

Still, many professors remain skeptical. “This is the biggest budget crisis in the history of Harvard University,’’ said Ingrid Monson, a professor of music and African and African American studies. “Everyone is worried here that no matter what they say, the level of cuts that are required threatens to change the character of this institution.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at