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|A Dean's Half Decade||Disunion, Continued|
|Harvard Portrait||Dreams Deferred|
|Front-Door Policy||Kroks Around the Clock|
|The Undergraduate||People in the News|
On Class Day in 1991, President-elect Neil L. Rudenstine appointed chemist Jeremy R. Knowles dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Beyond running Harvard's largest "tub" (FAS accounts for more than one-third of the University's budget), and serving as titular leader of the faculty ("herding cats" is the current metaphor for managing at Harvard), the dean indulges his passion for classical music by sponsoring occasional lunchtime concerts by the resident Mendelssohn Quartet in the Faculty Room at University Hall. Harvard Magazine visited him in late winter to take stock of his administration to date.
Harvard Magazine: The unrestricted operating budget of FAS has nearly been balanced. What has that required in terms of the organization and culture of the faculty?
Jeremy Knowles: When I walked in, there was a major budgetary imbalance-$12 million in fiscal year 1990, or 7.5 percent of the budget. Our first focus had to be to solve that problem. We didn't do it sharply or very quickly because I don't think educational institutions respond well to brutal changes of direction or policy. But we were very lucky that the alarm bell went off in 1990, because the past five years have seen low inflation and low interest rates. So we had the opportunity to put our house in order with the outside circumstances working with us rather than against us.
What did we do inside? In a word: scrutiny. With the support of the faculty and the staff, we looked at everything: from student financial aid to questions of consolidating administration, from building renovations and new buildings to how we pay for fundraising. We examined everything. I liken it to that wartime question, "Is your journey really necessary?" We asked ourselves, "Are we doing this in the best way? Should we be doing this at all?"
There isn't, therefore, any single act that balanced the budget, but the major effect has probably come from liberating funds from administration. We have shed more than 50 administrative staff and support staff from the unrestricted budget. That reduction came about despite necessary increases in staff for information technology and other things.
HM: Is FAS limiting its academic mission?
JK: For decades we enjoyed the happy presumption that as new opportunities presented themselves in the intellectual landscape, we would enter those areas. But like universities everywhere, we have come to realize that we can't do everything. We can't subscribe to every scientific journal-it is inconceivable that we should even try to. We have to be selective. As knowledge increases, we can't cover every subdiscipline. For example, we teach 52 languages, ranging from Old Norse, Middle Irish, and Swahili to more readily recognizable ones like Arabic, Chinese, and Italian. Some of them don't represent a major consumption of resources. But we have to ask the question, how do we deploy those kinds of teaching resources? Can technology help? Can we collaborate with other institutions? It would be lovely if there were no constraints, but we have to ask ourselves, in teaching languages as in every other area, how can we improve what we do without mindless expansion into bankruptcy?
HM: That suggests a transition from fiscal matters to broader questions of academic policy.
JK: While the budget has been an obvious concern, I don't want to imply that has been our only focus for four and a half years. Underlying that period are several threads of policy for this faculty.
The first major focus is on the humanities. The planning to draw the humanities back together began in the late 1980s, and that current has run quite strongly for all of my tenure. The driving force is intellectual and academic. Since World War II, continuing investment had been made in the sciences, and as new appointments were made, the social structure of the scientific research and teaching was maintained. Members of the departments were able to see each other, to talk about education and research, and to carry on a constant natural discussion about their disciplines.
This happened to a lesser extent in the social sciences, and to a still lesser extent here in the humanities. As new faculty arrived and as departments grew, space was found, more or less. We reached a point where many humanities faculty members had no departmental office at all, where departments were split amongst different buildings and the sense of collegiality was made difficult.
The future of intellectual disciplines is determined by faculty: in discussion, by scholarly work, and by interactions with their students. Deans don't make an imprint any more than gardeners trample on flower beds. It is my job to make sure that the opportunity is there for natural interaction and argument. So much of the exciting work is going on at the edges of classical departmental and disciplinary boundaries, and in creating the new humanities center, we are hoping to foster that intellectual work.
HM: What are the comparable priorities in the other disciplines?
JK: The social sciences contain the two largest concentrations in the College. We are planning a government and international affairs building that will bring together research and teaching in government, and liberate space in Littauer so the same can happen in economics. The theme is to provide the structure in which the faculty members can function.
Beyond buildings, the technological connectivity of the whole community is an important element. Last term, an average of 175,000 e-mail messages a day were sent within FAS-a dramatic difference from five years ago, when there were probably 200, or even from two years ago, when there were a few thousand.
The effects are very dramatic, from student interaction with each other and their teachers to faculty members' scholarly interaction with colleagues here and worldwide. The effect on teaching within Harvard is already surprising. Office hours surely will not be abandoned or abolished or forgotten-there will still be a place for personal, discursive interaction. Yet in terms of information transfer, office hours are being consumed much less by simple questions and answers because so much is being done more effectively by e-mail.
That is just a trivial first step in changing the way education goes on. We must realize that there are really major challenges, and major opportunities, ahead for us. We are going to have to ask, "What is the value-added for a student in coming to Cambridge? How can we create a hierarchy in this extraordinary mass of information now available electronically? How can we guide our students, and be guided ourselves?" Among the many challenges is how to handle the intersection of the library and digital information. We are going to have to make certain that faculty members who advise on information technology issues and those who advise on acquisition and library issues walk forward together.
More generally, there will be changes in the way we live and work that are much sharper than any we have seen in education over the past 50 years. Already a professor of English is making it possible for his students to download Anglo-Saxon fonts so they can write their papers in the appropriate format. In chemistry, undergraduates are redesigning protein molecules "on screen"-something graduate students were just doing, excitedly, only five years ago. Technology is developing so fast that we must not imagine we have the wisdom to create a rigid plan. Instead, we must grow nimbly, as we need to and as the opportunities present themselves.
HM: Can the slowly evolving academic culture adapt to much faster change?
JK: If you had asked me that question two years ago I should have been concerned about the imbalance between the "mouse-competence" of our students and the perhaps slower acceptance of new approaches by the faculty. But I would have been wrong. Something like 98 percent of the 700 or so faculty members in the FAS use e-mail. That change has occurred for the majority within the past two years. Where the value-added is clear, our colleagues react and absorb it and use it.
HM: In your annual letter to FAS, you talk about "reallocations" of resources to "reshape the Faculty" and pay for new initiatives. What is at stake in that reallocation?
JK: Our faculty-student ratio is lower than that of most of the universities with which we compare ourselves. So I am concerned about what one might call faculty stress. As society changes, a professor is expected to do more and faster, even though the human brain is not doubling in its capacity every two years like a memory chip.
If we want new technology and more faculty sooner rather than later, we must find the resources through reallocation, because we won't have the new resources until later, as the University Campaign comes to fruition.
Another concern is the nature of the educational process. I don't think the declamatory format-the lecturing professor who synthesizes, informs, and inspires students-is going to change dramatically. Yet as I've indicated, we must examine the nature of the teaching act, much as we have in language instruction, where electronically interactive learning is so successful. The immediate resource issue is maintaining pressure on making section sizes smaller. From my own experience, I should much rather have a discussion for 55 minutes with 12 people than with 20. With 12 there is a real possibility of ensuring that every person has the opportunity to contribute.
HM: Section sizes depend on the availability of graduate students, who are under severe financial pressure. Your letter mentions declining graduate admissions. Might graduate education be restructured, and how will that affect teaching in the College?
JK: The education of our undergraduates and our graduate students is symbiotic. In the College, we rely on the energy and skill of our graduate students to teach classroom sections. That teaching is also critical for the education of the graduate students themselves, and it is largely the instructional budget that supports them. But this symbiosis means that one can't make changes in the Graduate School [of Arts and Sciences] without affecting the College.
Having said that, I am quite concerned about time-to-degree. I am disturbed that in the humanities, the average time-to-degree of a graduate student is more than eight years. Young scholars are nearly 30 before they can spread their own intellectual wings. We could be more effective, and that is why fellowships and graduate student support are part of the Campaign.
At present, many departments are trying to focus their resources on the very best students. That may mean some reversal of the small increase in the size of the graduate school that has occurred over the past decade.
Apart from that, there is concern about what has been called the "overproduction" of Ph.D.s-meaning that a relatively low percentage of Ph.D.s are now obtaining employment as professors. But a Ph.D. is not a preprofessional degree. It is an intellectual expansion, and I don't have a concern about Ph.D.s who don't become academics. I should be concerned only if a person felt he had been seduced with improper expectations of the future into a program that is really designed for intellectual exploration and development. As senior associate dean Phyllis Keller says, "We are not here to fill minds but to open them." If students want to go on, and go into a subject more deeply, why not? That may be marvelously expanding intellectually, it will enrich the whole of their lives.
HM: Beyond reconciling those daily demands, what ought the dean of FAS aspire to do?
JK: The level of talent that this institution attracts represents an extraordinary responsibility. I should like to feel that the faculty and the students were able to enjoy an irresistibly exciting time in scholarly terms and in learning from each other.
We must ask ourselves the extent to which the experience that our students have here-let us say between 18 and some time in their twenties-is determining for the rest of their lives. What I hope is that the physics concentrator will suddenly, at age 55, have a yearning, have a hunger, to learn more about Corot or Mantegna. Just as much as I want her colleague who is a fine arts concentrator to want to buy Scientific American at the age of 55 and worry about why we have two tides a day. The generation of curiosity and creativity is what is important.
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