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President Faust on Finances, Scientific Misconduct, the Martin Peretz-Muslim Furor, and More

9.22.10

President Drew Faust and ABC news veteran Charlie Gibson—at Harvard as a Shorenstein Fellow this year—took the stage together in Sanders Theatre on Tuesday afternoon for a ticketed “Opening Year Dialogue” in question-and-answer format. It gave Faust an informal way to respond to queries from Gibson (and, later, by card from the audience, and electronically from the webcast audience) on issues from the old and familiar (Harvard’s financial situation after the negative 27.3 percent return on endowment investments in fiscal year 2009 and the 11 percent positive return in fiscal 2010) to the new and vexing (the findings of scientific misconduct against professor of psychology Marc Hauser; the fund raised to honor long-time social studies lecturer Martin A. Peretz, Ph.D. ’66, who has lit a firestorm with his recent New Republic blogging assault on Muslims worldwide). Some of the conversation echoed Faust’s views expressed in an interview earlier in the month, reported here on September 10. The University has posted a video recording of the Faust-Gibson discussion here.

After Gibson and Faust were introduced, respectively, by the presidents of the undergraduate and graduate councils, the event began with a video featuring all of the University’s deans (most of them Faust appointees) and the provost—a deliberate way for the president, perhaps, to underscore her cabinet-style governance by a team of academic leaders. Gibson cracked, “As an outsider, I want to say you have a lot of deans.” 

Among them, Nitin Nohria (business) stressed joint-degree programs and collaborations with other faculties. Julio Frenk (public health) emphasized the production of knowledge, its reproduction through teaching, and its translation into solving problems. Cherry Murray (engineering and applied sciences) spoke about Harvard’s innovative and entrepreneurial instincts. Martha Minow (law) echoed the Divinity School’s Bill Graham in lauding the quality of the students. And Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael Smith spoke about the General Education curriculum as a particular epicenter of innovative student experience. His colleague Evelynn Hammonds (dean of Harvard College) spoke of the community of scholars—remarks Smith underscored in a clip about innovation, creativity, and above all, community at Harvard, a place an undergraduate returning for the semester referred to as being “back home.”

University finances. Gibson began his questions by asking if Harvard was, financially, “out of the woods.” Faust said the endowment was still worth considerably less than it had been two years ago [it peaked at $36.9 billion in fiscal 2008, and is now valued at $27.4 billion]. But she maintained that the University had “absolutely” adjusted to changed realities, after the 2008-2009 period of colliding with a “highly unexpected and volatile future.” 

Gibson followed up with a question about the administration’s citing of financial straits for everything from termination of hot breakfasts in undergraduate Houses, to the halting of construction in Allston, to faculty and staff salary freezes. Addressing meals first, Faust explained that Harvard had focused on essentials: teaching, scholarship, and financial aid; confining undergraduate hot-breakfast service to one location, rather than 12, made sense as the University trimmed dispensable spending. 


 

On campus development, Faust said Allston “is critical to the future of Harvard”—but visions for academic use would be realized “much more slowly” because of the financial crash. She insisted that the University now has no timetable for development, and is, as reported, emphasizing leasing of properties it has bought; community amenities; and explorations of options including commercial co-development—part of a broader “re-envisioning” that might yield a lively mixed-use community of academic, institutional, and private investors during the next 50 years.

Would faculty hiring resume? Gibson asked. It never stopped, even during the financial crisis, Faust said. It would proceed, but carefully, given both past growth (FAS's ranks expanded 20 percent during the decade) and the large proportion of University expenses accounted for by compensation.

And what of capital-campaign planning? asked Gibson, citing a 2004 Crimson story. “A lot has happened at Harvard since 2004,” said Faust—the understatement of the day. A campaign is tied to the institution’s president, she noted, and had been among her highest priorities in 2007—but the financial events of 2008-2009 (implicitly, on campus and off, but she did not say so) made it impossible to move forward rapidly. She said that during a period of planning and consulting with prospective donors, neither the timeline nor the size of a campaign goal could be set or publicized—a point she made earlier in the month, and her development vice president repeated earlier this week. Whenever a campaign begins, Faust said, she is excited by the opportunity for her decanal team to work together on the fundraising. [In showcasing the deans, and in emphasizing priorities such as openness, access, financial aid, and interdisciplinary collaborations, the president was in effect elaborating what may become the themes of a campaign and its case statement, and presenting the team who will be its leading figures—but neither she nor Gibson made that connection explicitly.]

Financial aid, openness, and access. Turning to the use of University resources, Gibson asked how much was spent on financial aid, so that undergraduates emerged without onerous loans. Sixty percent of entering freshmen receive grant aid, Faust said, with packages averaging $40,900. Is that sustainable? Gibson asked. It is, Faust said firmly, because the most important of Harvard’s commitments is to attract talented individuals regardless of their financial circumstances. The aid program had increased the proportion of the freshman class whose families earn less than $60,000 per year to 18 percent, she added—a significant change from mid decade.

The presidency in changing circumstances. Gibson then noted how circumstances had changed since Faust became president in 2007, so that she found herself in another job, forced to be reactive to financial circumstances, rather than proactive. What vision would she now propound for the central aim of her presidency? Faust redefined the query: from a life in universities, she said, she knew that they were always filled with surprises, and she never expected to fill a defined role or set of expectations. The presidency, she said, was like marriage: for better or worse, for richer or poorer. The financial circumstances created opportunities for Harvard to enhance and improve itself.

As for her vision, “I would like people to feel that Harvard is open to them,” she said—to enroll, and, within the institution, to cross any internal boundaries that might stand in their way of their research, teaching, or learning.

Gibson suggested that her emphasis on “one University” was a hoary chestnut, and later followed up by noting that some members of the faculty, ever balkanized, chuckled at the idea of common pursuits. Faust, ever the historian, recalled a University Archives exhibition for her installation in 2007 that featured a letter by Charles William Eliot (president from 1869 to 1909) celebrating the apparent unification of the University then. But today, she said, this notoriously decentralized place is converging as knowledge converges (as in the life and physical sciences); as people work to solve common problems (she cited public-health and design school experts working on suitable shelter for tuberculosis patients); and as students themselves reach across boundaries in pursuit of learning. These forces, and the faculties and students engaged in research and learning, she suggested, are arrayed “on my side,” and so the task of unifying the University was one of just “clear[ing] away the debris” and “get[ting] our feet untangled.” As members of the community seek to draw upon one another, she said, Harvard thrives as an intellectual community because there are “so many others to draw upon” here.

The University and scientific misconduct. Turning to the FAS finding of eight counts of scientific misconduct by Marc Hauser, Gibson referred to the Harvard motto, “Veritas,” and asked, point blank, why Hauser was still a member of the faculty. In a follow-up, he suggested that University-level silence on the issue had been “somewhat deafening.” Faust’s response (as in her comments on Martin Peretz, below), displayed a nuanced preference for respecting established procedures (and revisiting them, as necessary), and for deferring to faculty prerogatives in such matters. Integrity, she insisted, was fundamental to the University’s work. There were elaborate procedures in place in the faculties to address allegations of misconduct—and properly so, because it requires experts in the research protocols to know whether they have been adhered to. Further, faculty members are appropriately guaranteed academic freedom, so they cannot be punished for political or other reasons; an essential element of that guarantee is that they be judged by their peers. Within the University, she explained later, the investigation and possible sanctions are all governed by what is called a “Third Statute process” (from Harvard’s fundamental laws). It is a faculty-based process.


 

That said, Faust continued, the misconduct investigation “still has some parts to continue”—namely the federal inquiries regarding Hauser’s conduct while using public funds to support his research. 

Gibson pressed further: Did the process leave the University appearing to withhold information, at a risk to its reputation for “research integrity” and possible future funding? Faust said any challenge to Harvard’s integrity would have profound implications; money matters were the least of the issue. Such misconduct investigations were traditionally confidential, at Harvard and at peer institutions, she noted. In the Hauser case, Harvard had departed from that tradition somewhat by publishing findings of the faculty investigation and taking steps and making disclosures to correct the published scientific record [in FAS Dean Smith’s August 20 statement; the journals that published Hauser’s suspect articles are still in the process of clarifying what material is questionable]. More generally, she said, Harvard had to explore what level of confidentiality is appropriate—a task Smith said he set out to do within FAS, but that Faust now suggested would be undertaken at a University level. [This suggestion goes beyond her remarks on the matter on September 8.]

Martin Peretz, Muslims, the First Amendment, and more. Gibson then turned to Martin Peretz, whose teaching and mentoring experience are scheduled to be honored September 25 during the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of social studies (an undergraduate, interdisciplinary concentration): friends have raised a fund, named for him, that is intended to support student research. Peretz had been scheduled as a luncheon speaker at the event [but as of September 22 is no longer scheduled to speak], along with Faust and University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann.

[Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, wrote a blog post in which he said, “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” and added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.” Coming at a time of controversy over siting a Muslim center near the location of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and a plan by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Koran, these comments prompted Nicholas D. Kristof '82 (recently elected an Overseer), of the New York Times, to write a column titled "Is This America?", to lament the “venomous and debased discourse about Islam” represented by Peretz’s blog post. James Fallows ’70, writing for TheAtlantic.com, denounced Peretz for “an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia,” and followed up with several more critiques. On September 13, Peretz posted “An Apology,” saying he was embarrassed about the sentence concerning Muslims’ First Amendment rights, but stating about his other sentence, “This is a statement of fact, not value.” For Yom Kippur, Peretz followed up with “Atonement,” noting that “in this past year I have publicly committed the sin of wild and wounding language, especially hurtful to our Muslim brothers and sisters…. I allowed emotion to run way ahead of reason, and feelings to trample arguments.”]

Ought Harvard to be honoring this man? Gibson inquired.

For Faust, who had just talked about making Harvard open, welcoming, and inclusive, these are obviously fundamental matters. She referred to her remarks at Morning Prayers on September 1, at the beginning of the fall term, devoted to just this theme. [She had said, after recounting the University’s increasing openness to blacks, women, gays and lesbians, “Much of Harvard’s history, especially in the past half century, has been a story of extending the opportunities for belonging, challenging not just our own institutional assumptions but working to become an agent of change and openness in society more broadly.” On a related theme, during the past academic year, she had delivered a series of addresses on racial inclusiveness.]

Peretz’s comments, she said, “struck a very different chord”—the suggestion that there are people who don’t belong, who aren’t valued. Those sentiments, she said, were hurtful and clearly at odds with the fundamental values Harvard wished to embrace. “Professor Peretz” himself, she said, had recognized the “wild and wounding” nature of his remarks.


 

As for the funds raised, she continued, they reflected his former students’ appreciation of his work as teacher, research mentor, and adviser. The money would support undergraduate research and engaged teaching—and that was an “entirely appropriate basis” for such a gift, which should proceed. So it would be accepted, a situation that Faust acknowledged was a matter of “but/and.”

Universities' place in society. Turning to universities’ larger role, Gibson asked about Faust’s concern that in straitened economic times, society would look at higher education principally in economic, instrumental terms. [See her summer address at Trinity College, Dublin, for instance.] We must not allow the economic circumstances “to erase our sense of universities’ larger purposes,” Faust warned. For all their role in fostering economic growth (through research and teaching), universities have a fundamental role in helping people interrogate their own purposes as citizens of the United States and of the world, their values, and so on. This role—the pursuit of the big picture and the long view through the liberal arts—she deemed “irreplaceable.” 

A few further exchanges and some questions from the physical and virtual audience concluded the event. Faust and Gibson exited the stage at 5:15—just as news services were reporting the White House announcement that Faust’s predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers, would depart his post at the National Economic Council to return to his Harvard professorship at year end

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