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The Future of Knowledge 

 

Introduction by The Reverend Jonathan Walton

 

 

 

Remarks by James F. Rothenberg

 

 

 

Faculty Panel Discussion

 

 

A Conversation on Philanthropy

 

Introduction by Robert D. Reischauer

 

 

David M. Rubenstein and Bill Gates

 

 

 

The President’s Address

 

Introduction by Paul J. Finnegan

 

 

President Drew Faust

 

 

Closing Remarks by Joseph J. O’Donnell

 

 

Read President Faust’s campaign address, “To Seize an Impatient Future.”

 

The Harvard Campaign, officially launched on September 21 after the quietest of quiet phases, seeks $6.5 billion (the largest initial target ever set in American higher education) and begins its public phase with $2.8 billion already received or pledged. (That “nucleus fund” exceeds the total of $2.653 billion raised during Harvard’s last fundraising drive, the University Campaign, the public phase of which ran from 1994 to 1999.)

The announcement event was focused on the broadest themes: advancing the power of integrated knowledge; new approaches to learning and teaching; global Harvard; meaning, values and creativity; innovation and discovery; attracting and supporting talent; and creating the campus of the twenty-first century. President Drew Faust’s address (see below) put The Harvard Campaign in the context of changes in the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and its application to contemporary problems; universities’ continuing importance to society in sustaining liberal-arts learning and humanistic inquiry; and the changing external environment. The new campaign website is similarly thematic; detailed priorities, and aspirations—for professorships, new programs, facilities, and so on—will apparently unfold later, when a formal campaign case statement is published and individual schools’ campaigns emerge.

A general overview in the campaign news announcement suggests that funds raised will be applied to:

  • teaching and research (45 percent)
  • financial aid and “the student experience” (25 percent)
  • capital improvements (20 percent)
  • flexible funding “to foster collaborations and initiatives” (10 percent)

Details will presumably be forthcoming, but it is possible to tease out some further directions now.

• Research and teaching: Harvard will pursue interdisciplinary programs in neuroscience; the environment; energy; and global health. It aims to further global engagement through research and education around the world, and to emphasize innovations in teaching within each school, and across departmental and school boundaries. No information was provided on prospective growth in the faculty ranks, but the news release and prior comments by University leaders both emphasized expansion of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), which is apparently scheduled for robust growth.

Teaching priorities range from further development of the edX online learning partnership with MIT, pedagogical research and seed funding (among other programs) through the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (both of which now report to a newly appointed vice provost for advances in learning), and school-wide curricular and pedagogical revisions like that just announced by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

• Financial aid: Much as student need has risen—visibly in the College, but no less urgently for graduate students in the arts and sciences and many professional schools—administrators are pressed to put aid funding on a sustainable basis with permanent, endowed resources, relieving pressure on unrestricted income from tuition and other sources. (It is notable that even if a quarter of the entire campaign goal were raised and dedicated solely to FAS, that injection of endowment resources would just about finance the unendowed portion of the current undergraduate-aid program, leaving nothing to support graduate and professional students.)

• Capital improvements: The largest identified projects and programs are the science complex in Allston, where much of SEAS will be housed and its growth accommodated, and the renovation of undergraduate Houses, a $1-billion-plus effort now under way. “Common spaces” projects are also slated for a significant investment, notably a campus center that, The Crimson has reported, will be fashioned out of some part of Holyoke Center. (It is interesting to note that the most recent Allston institutional master plan filing with Boston regulators indicates an enlarged administrative building at the intersection of North Harvard Street and Western Avenue, encompassing 300,000 square feet—raising the possibility that a good number of administrative personnel might soon join the SEAS scientists in establishing Harvard’s presence in the emerging campus there.)

Additional Allston projects in the offing include athletic facilities—renovation and reconfiguration of Harvard Stadium, and a new basketball pavilion—as well as a series of Harvard Business School executive-education, conference, and academic facilities, all covered in the recent institutional master plan filing.

Other large projects being talked about include a prospective building to complete Harvard Kennedy School’s quadrangle. It is unclear whether any substantial construction is planned on behalf of HSPH, which has identified extensive needs in its many, scattered buildings, or for the essentially landlocked Graduate School of Design, which is out of space (and which may find opportunities for faculty members involved in materials and other technical fields to locate alongside SEAS colleagues in the new Allston facility or elsewhere).

The rest of this report covers the launch events:

These accounts are followed by discussion of the campaign’s context, and of the next steps in explaining its aspirations to, and engaging, the wider Harvard community.

September 21: “An Illuminating Day”

The inaugural events for the launch, officially billed as “An Illuminating Day” for donors, volunteers, and a selection of administrators, deans, and faculty members (others were invited in a September 19 e-mail from Tamara Elliot Rogers, vice president for alumni affairs and development, to watch online), were built around a series of Crimson binaries. The invitation to events featured a quote from President Drew Faust: “Our task is to illuminate the past and shape the future.”

The substantive sessions themselves began in Memorial Church (an echo, in a way, of Harvard’s modest beginnings as a religious academy in the Massachusetts wilderness) and then transferred to Sanders Theatre, in Memorial Hall (a monument to service and sacrifice, built to commemorate the Civil War).

They progressed from a faculty panel, to a “conversation” on philanthropy, to President Faust’s address—and then, as reward, a private evening including cocktails, dinner, and celebratory entertainment at Harvard Stadium.

“The Future of Knowledge”: the faculty panel. Five senior professors (profiled here) began the proceedings in Memorial Church.

The Reverend Jonathan Walton, Pusey minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer professor of Christian morals, welcomed the audience to the church, calling it a place of both veritas (truth) and caritas (love and service), and therefore an appropriate venue to begin The Harvard Campaign.

Photographs by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

James F. Rothenberg in Memorial Church

James F. Rothenberg ’68, M.B.A.’70—Corporation member, Harvard treasurer, and campaign co-chair—then rose to introduce the panel. He recalled his 170 round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Boston for Harvard business since he was elected to the senior governing board. An English concentrator, he remembered learning to love literature, and had become philanthropically involved with the University. His business is investments, he said, but “it’s hard to find a better investment than Harvard.” He continued, “Traditional values, excellence, and innovation—that is a package worthy of our support.”  The faculty members, he said, would explore the future of knowledge, teaching, learning.

Moderator Jonathan L. Zittrain (professor of law, professor of computer science, and diverse other titles) had earlier expressed his hope that his colleagues would address large issues: would the work of universities proceed in a nonprofit or a for-profit environment, for example, and what was the academy’s role in countering the rise of “truthiness” (Stephen Colbert’s coinage for asserting claims of knowledge based on feel or gut instinct, without reference to evidence or logic)? He began by asking the panelists to describe how the nature of knowledge has changed in their own fields of expertise—and teasing out their view of their work as basic or applied.

“The thing in my field that’s changed the most is our ability to generate data,” said Hopi Hoekstra, Agassiz professor of zoology and curator of mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. “When I was a graduate student, we didn’t have a complete genome sequence. Now we can do this for approximately $1,000 for the human genome, and it can take just a few weeks. This is mind-blowing.” Fellow scientific researcher Peter Sorger, Krayer professor of systems pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, added that genomics has contributed to his lab’s study of cancer, as well as Hoekstra’s focus on evolution. Moreover, he said, that quantitative methods, which began with genomics, have spread to other areas of biology. “That’s faced us with the fundamental question, what does it mean to know something?” Increasingly, he said, biology has become computational.

Big data and computation have also affected the social sciences and humanities. “In business, the world has gotten a lot more complicated,” said Rebecca Henderson, McArthur University Professor at Harvard Business School (HBS). “Research has gotten much more focused and precise, because we have huge datasets now and better techniques. And simultaneously, we’re searching for ways to get inside these corporations and hang out with them, and feel what it’s like. Trying to keep those two things in balance is the name of the game.” Alison Simmons, Wolcott professor of philosophy, commented that as a graduate student, she frequently had to travel to archives to locate texts under study. Now, she says, “texts are available online, so I can spend more of my time trying to figure out what they mean, and not traveling to find them.”

Photographs by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

Faculty panelists Jonathan L. Zittrain, Rebecca Henderson, and Peter Sorger

Technology has affected not only the generation of knowledge, but also its distribution, and the role of the Internet and open access was a recurring theme. “A fundamental goal in the university has to be to get the information out there, and for the citizenry to understand it is theirs to have,” said Sorger, describing trends toward open-source software and open access in research journals.

Turning to the truthiness problem (Zittrain played several audio clips throughout the panel as amusing prompts), Simmons said, “What we’re able to do here with our students is help them figure out what to do with so much data, so much knowledge. Our job is to help them sift through what’s the reliable data, what’s not the reliable data, what’s a reasonable inference to make from the data. The same is true with texts.” As for individual scholars’ role and that of the institution, Simmons said it is “highly important that the university remains a place where our job is to inquire disinterestedly.”

The panelists agreed that in a world where information and data are abundant and accessible, critical thinking is indispensable. Drawing on her field of evolutionary genomics, Hoekstra noted, “The question used to be who could generate the data—who has the access to the equipment, who has the funds, and so forth. Now in a lot of fields, the data’s there, so I feel like our job as educators is to teach students how to think critically and creatively.”

Henderson concurred, pointing out that in her own field of climate change (she is co-director of HBS’s business and environment initiative), parsing the enormous amount of available information is a daunting task requiring expertise. Of people who simply search websites for information, she said, “The idea that you could navigate with no background, with no understanding of where to look—I really think it’s a mistake. [Academics] should be on the ’net, we should be reaching out, we should be connected to the world. But the idea that you don’t need training, that the real knowledge is not difficult to understand, I think is just really wrong.” In thinking about how to share knowledge with the public (Zittrain prompted with the introductory music for a TED talk), Henderson cautioned that the temptation to speak for large fees or to popularize research for publication “changes behavior.” The temptation to popularize, she said, risks losing “that connection to what really grounds you.”

“Knowledge is a process; it’s not an artifact,” said Sorger. “Knowledge doesn’t live either stacked away in the libraries of yore, or now on the Internet. It is the process of thinking about problems—that’s the critical role of the university.” Education and research, he said, are intimately coupled. “If you ask what renews a university, it’s students and graduate students.”

Simmons added that traditional forms of education are still important even as online initiatives are on the rise. “It’s one-way, the Internet,” she maintained. “What you really need is a two-way street. If you’re getting bored, I can start challenging you in one way or another and get you engaged. If I see that you’re confused, I can pause and explain. Education happens in a two-way direction.”

In a complementary vein, Sorger emphasized the need for what he called “curiosity-driven research” as opposed to programmatic research driven by set agendas. Here, he declared, universities can excel: “Nobody is more curiosity-driven and more resistant to an agenda than a graduate student.”

Henderson said that unlike corporations, with their shorter time horizons, universities pursue problems that have broad application. That matters especially, she implied, because looking ahead, she is “afraid the world is going to get harder and rougher over the next 20 to 30 years, and I think one of the things the university can be is a place to step back and say, what are the things we value in the long term? How do we hold space for that which we think is most important?” Whether their research is basic or applied in some more immediate sense, all the panelists felt strongly that its importance and aims pointed toward dissemination and advancing knowledge through peer review and public critique, more than to any monetary return.

“I share in common among all of us being very curiosity-driven,” said Zittrain in conclusion, “and looking with anticipation and joy, even with the challenges and perhaps some of the problems ahead, at what the University can contribute and what we can contribute to the fun, the creative advancement of knowledge and the human condition.”

Photographs by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

David M. Rubenstein and Bill Gates in Sanders Theatre

“The Opportunity to Make a Difference”: a conversation on philanthropy. After a change of venue, to Sanders Theatre, Harvard Alumni Association president Catherine A. Gellert ’93 welcomed the audience and introduced a four-minute video of alumni, ranging from baker Joanne Chang ’91 and Goldman Sachs chairman and CEO Lloyd Blankfein ’75, J.D. ’78 (talking about financial aid) to Jack Reardon ’60, the executive director of the alumni association (“I never got married until I was 50 years old because I was married to Harvard”), and professional football player Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05.

The Corporation’s senior fellow, Robert D. Reischauer ’63, then explained his seven-decade association with Harvard, beginning with boyhood exploration of the campus steam tunnels from his professor-father’s Harvard-owned house on Divinity Avenue. He thought then that they were what powered Harvard, but he had come to have, he said, “a somewhat more elevated perspective” on what made the University go: the resources with which it was entrusted, and the use of those resources by the president, deans, and faculty. He then introduced two people who, he said, understood the importance of higher-education institutions to the well-being of humankind, and Harvard’s role in educating leaders, pursuing discovery, and sustaining culture. Campaign co-chair David M. Rubenstein (who now also chairs Harvard’s global advisory board) then engaged Microsoft co-founder William H. (Bill) Gates III ’77, LL.D.  ’07, in a conversation on “The Opportunity to Make a Difference” (read about their philanthropic work here).

Neither is, strictly, a Harvard graduate. Gates dropped out of the College (read Walter Isaacson’s account of his undergraduate years and the creation of Microsoft) and returned to deliver the 2007 Commencement address and to receive an honorary degree. Rubenstein, a Duke and Chicago Law alumnus, knows the University in part as the father of Alexandra Nicole Rubenstein ’07 and Gabrielle W. Rubenstein ’10, and his wife, Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, who earned her M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1978.

Gates and Rubenstein, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of The Carlyle Group, represent twin paths—technological entrepreneurship and finance—to immense wealth in recent decades (and the underpinnings of many current capital campaigns). They have also deployed their net worths (depending on how one counts, a multiple of Harvard’s $31-billion endowment) to support diverse styles in philanthropy. (Gates’s foundation has $36 billion in assets—more than the Harvard endowment—and dispenses $4 billion annually: about the same as the University’s budget.)

Rubenstein has been broadly supportive of arts, cultural, higher-education, and historical institutions. Gates, perhaps even more prominent today as a philanthropist than as a globally recognized business leader, established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on global health, global economic development, and, domestically, on preparing students to succeed in higher education and completing degrees that will ready them for economic success. It underwrites fundamental research and deployment in fields such as vaccines for difficult-to-treat diseases, and emphasizes program evaluation and measurable successes. Gates has been relatively uninvolved in traditional charities like underwriting scholarships or endowing professorships. (He and classmate Steven A. Ballmer ’77, Microsoft’s CEO, did make one significant, conventional gift to Harvard, however: they underwrote Maxwell Dworkin, the 100,000-square-foot home to Harvard’s computer sciences and electrical engineering faculty, named for their mothers, Mary Maxwell Gates and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer.)

Rubenstein set the conversational tone with direct, sometimes teasing questions (“Have you ever thought what you could have made of yourself if you had stayed and gotten your degree?”), and in so doing offered the audience the opportunity to hear and see the richest man on the planet speak candidly about the course of his career and his evolution from single-minded software entrepreneur—who said that he knew the license plate of every car in the Microsoft parking lot and when the drivers arrived and left—to the world’s leading philanthropist. Along the way, he elicited a short history of the rise of Microsoft and other segments of the computer industry, and of Gates’s personal maturing and reinvention: Gates said the excitement he feels when working with experts from many fields (malaria and other diseases, for instance) on possible ways to help the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation do its work better reminds him of the excitement he felt in his twenties when writing software and building his company.

As for finishing his undergraduate degree, Gates made a plug for lifelong learning and online education, explaining that he now takes a lot of online courses, including one on oceanography last month.  (The foundation is funding research on the effectiveness of massive open online courses, MOOCs, of the sort offered through edX and other enterprises.) He also described himself as not a usual dropout, because he did attend the College for three years and took a lot of courses—a plug of sorts for the residential college experience, too.

A rigorous, analytical philanthropist, Gates nonetheless offered a cautionary riff on the importance of relying too much on metrics to track the progress of one’s giving. His foundation employs detailed metrics in tabulating the decrease in children’s deaths from diseases in underdeveloped countries (“The greatest inequality in the world”), but that works much less well, he noted, for another major priority: trying to assess how effectively various initiatives may improve K-12 education. Insisting too much on exact measures of progress might, perversely, divert a philanthropist from ever taking on such hard challenges, he said.

When Rubenstein asked why the Gateses planned to have their foundation go out of existence within 20 years of their deaths, rather than make grants in perpetuity, Gates said that he expected its missions to be solved, and that its approach (for example, involving tailored research on the health problems it addresses) meant that, unlike other entities, “It’s a purpose-built organization.”

The conversation on philanthropy concluded with comments on wealth and children (“It’s certainly distortionary” to have parents who are very wealthy and/or very well known); on how to turn down requests for funding that don’t fit your objectives; and on Gates’s legacy. On the latter point, he said, Microsoft obviously did well, but there were many other important computer-industry companies, and the personal-computing and Internet revolution would have unfolded in any event. His most exciting accomplishment, he said, would be eradicating polio (it persists in just three nations now)—and, if that works, addressing malaria and measles.

Photographs by Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office

President Drew Faust

“To Seize an Impatient Future”: President Drew Faust’s address. Corporation member and campaign co-chair Paul J. Finnegan ’75, M.B.A. ’82, revealed the campaign’s $6.5-billion goal to the audience—and expressed confidence that those assembled could help “meet and beat that goal,” before introducing Faust. “In my world,” he said, “it’s all about leadership.” Praising Faust for her decisive response to the financial crisis, for the reform of the University’s governance, and for initiatives in financial aid, online education, and the arts, he called her “a leader of ‘we’ vs. ‘I.’”

Faust began her 29-minute address, “To Seize an Impatient Future,” on a highly emotional, evocative note:

Just one month ago, nearly 300 men and women, from the Class of 1961 to the Class of 2017, from across the country and around the world, descended on Harvard, took to the Charles, and rowed.

They rowed to honor the late and legendary Harry Parker, Harvard crew coach for more than half a century. They rowed because each of them knew vividly and personally what Harry Parker meant when he said, “I think of myself first as a teacher.”

But they came for another reason, too. They came because Harvard draws you back. Harvard is a place, an experience, you never really get over. It’s as if our university years are larger, magnified, out of proportion to any other time in life, a time when we can let our minds range and roam, when we can find our passions and follow them, test ourselves and stretch ourselves.

What you learned on the river, in the Houses, in the classrooms in Sever or Andover or Langdell, in the carrels of Widener or Gutman, in the laboratories on Oxford Street or off Longwood Avenue, on the stage here in Sanders or at the Loeb—these experiences made you different people. We know how education has transformed each of us, and we know it can change the world. That is why our lives, and our sense of ourselves, continue to flow through Harvard, and Harvard through us.

A campaign, she said, called upon its constituents to determine what they stand for. She outlined a future of demanding change in which “knowledge will be the most important currency”—and hence, the priority of the research mission, itself evolving as the nature of discovery changes and crosses disciplines. An associated priority is “to reimagine how we teach and learn.” Third is greater global involvement—bringing the world to campus, and getting students and faculty members out into the world. In support of their work, investing in the campus is a fourth priority. Attracting and supporting those professors and students—“who we are and who we will be”—is her fifth priority for the campaign (a point where Faust emphasized financial aid heavily, but provided no further detail about the faculty).

“Creating new knowledge, reimagining teaching and learning, engaging globally, reinventing the spaces where we learn and live, attracting and inspiring the best students and faculty: These are essential to our enduring strength. But the future requires something more,” she continued. That something is defining and reasserting the case for the special role of the university in contemporary society, a case she first outlined in her installation address in 2007. As she put it in the campaign address:

Each moment in history, to those who live in it, may seem distinctive, pivotal. To us, at this moment, there can be no doubt that we live in a pivotal and transformative time for the future of knowledge and universities. For nearly four centuries, Harvard has recognized that colleges and universities are special institutions, with an irreplaceable role in society. Almost a millennium since their invention, they continue to challenge us to look beyond the here and now. They bring to bear the critical eye; they incite the imagination; they encourage the skepticism, the rigor, the intellectual adventure and unbounded curiosity that yield our deepest understandings. When I was privileged to be installed six years ago as Harvard’s president, I reflected on what has always seemed to me the essence of a university: that among society’s institutions, it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future. A university must make an impact on the world we inhabit today. But its responsibilities extend much further. Universities must help define aspirations and possibilities for the long term. Even as they engage the present, they must help us transcend the immediate and the instrumental to explore where human civilization has been and where it hopes to go.

We undertake this campaign in a time when public discourse about higher education focuses narrowly on outcomes measured in products and dollars, numbers and jobs. Make no mistake: These are important, and universities are crucial to those outcomes. But to see universities through so restricted a lens is to fail to recognize their most distinctive strength; it puts at risk their most vital and enduring contributions to society—their singular power in the search for meaning, values, and creativity, in the constant and ever-changing pursuit of truth. This campaign must help us support the structures and modes of academic inquiry, especially but certainly not only the arts and humanities, which devote themselves to pursuing these questions. At the heart of all our research and teaching is the necessity for interpretation and for judgment, for making meaning and making sense out of the world around us. Technology has rendered this effort ever-more challenging, as we are bombarded with information that we seek to transform into knowledge and wisdom. Technology offers magnificent tools, but how shall we use them? How do we know what is true? What is good? What is just? How do we nurture the imagination that kindles innovation and change? How do we understand ourselves, our values, our common humanity in a world that in one sense seems flat, yet at the same time is shaped and often shaken by its contrasts and differences?

These are vital questions that universities have long asked and continue to ask. The Harvard Campaign must affirm—it must insist on—their importance. It must shine a light on why universities matter—and why the higher purposes of higher education must continue to claim a central place in our national life and its educational agenda.

Toward the end, Faust summoned a drumroll of Harvard accomplishment and excellence, beginning with the prior guest:

At Harvard, Bill Gates began to lay the foundation for the personal computer revolution, and Mark Zuckerberg honed the algorithms that spurred the rise of social media. 

At Harvard, poets like Longfellow, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, and Seamus Heaney all cultivated their craft.

Fairbank and Reischauer pioneered our study of China and Japan. 

Edward Purcell and colleagues discovered nuclear magnetic resonance—the foundation for modern-day imaging. 

At Harvard, Henry Adams received his famous “Education,” and John Rawls conceived his “Theory of Justice.”

Drinker and Shaw invented the iron lung; and Warren demonstrated the use of ether as anesthesia.

At Harvard, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin explained the composition of the sun.

At Harvard, Jack Lemmon, Stockard Channing, and John Lithgow graced the stage; Leonard Bernstein got his start as a conductor; and Yo-Yo Ma played here in Sanders for 75 cents a ticket.

At Harvard, W. E. B. Du Bois explored ideas that would change our understanding of race in America.

Thoreau took his first courses in philosophy, and Emerson delivered the oration hailed as America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence.”

At Radcliffe, Helen Keller wrote the story of her life, and Gertrude Stein probed the nature of consciousness with her professor William James.

At Harvard, Ralph Bunche and Ban Ki-Moon, Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Brundtland, prepared for their careers on the international stage.

At Harvard, George Washington quartered the troops that would win American independence, and George Marshall, on the steps of Memorial Church, announced the historic plan that would bear his name.

Before concluding her appeal for support, she again summoned the spirit she had evoked in her opening:

We will gather again tonight, on the other side of the Charles. When you cross the river, think for a moment about one of those scores of people who returned to Harvard just a month ago. Think of what she said about her teacher and mentor Harry Parker, in words that reach beyond her experience and capture something essential about Harvard. “He made people prove themselves to themselves,” she remembered. “It’s like he said, ‘This is what you could be. Do you want to be that?’” 

Tonight, as we cross the river, we can pause to ask that question of ourselves, and of Harvard. “This is what you could be. Do you want to be that?” It is what we ask of our students, and what our campaign asks of us all. What is it that Harvard could be? What will we do to make it so?

Read the president’s complete text here.

Corporation member and campaign co-chair Joseph J. O’Donnell ’67, M.B.A. ’71, then rose to close the remarks—rueing that he had been chosen to follow an eloquent oration. He thanked vice president Tamara Rogers for her effort to organize the campaign, expressed confidence that “we’ll exceed that” campaign goal, and summoned his own experience as a scholarship student. After graduation, he recalled, his mentor, Fred Glimp—longtime vice president for alumni affairs and development—asked him to chair his College class fifth reunion. O’Donnell, a consummate fundraiser, said that he would consider the request, but he was busy—whereupon he was advised, “I’m not asking. I’m calling in my marker.” As someone who relishes the work, he let the audience know that his daughter Kate ’09 was picking up the baton, serving as her fifth-reunion chair. The implications about the work ahead, and who would do it on Harvard’s behalf, were clear. And with that, O’Donnell brought the afternoon to a close.

The Campaign in Context: Managing Expectations

From any perspective, $6.5 billion is a lot of money. But Harvard was never going to cede bragging rights to Stanford (The Stanford Challenge, concluded at the end of 2011, raised $6.2 billion), not to mention The University of Southern California’s current $6-billion goal.

More pragmatically, since the last campaign ended in the previous millennium, Harvard has not conducted a consolidated fund drive—essentially missing an entire campaign cycle as the presidency of Lawrence H. Summers ended prematurely, in 2006, and then financial crisis and the Great Recession made it difficult to proceed. During the early years of that decade, the fruits of the University Campaign, robust endowment returns, and rising federal support for research encouraged Harvard schools to enlarge their faculties, to erect millions of square feet of new facilities (many of them expensive-to-operate laboratories), and to invest in information technology and international research. Financial aid was liberalized. In short, Harvard became a larger, more costly place to run: operating expenses were $2.1 billion in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2001; $3 billion in fiscal 2006; and $3.8 billion in fiscal 2009—the year during which the value of the endowment declined by $11 billion and the University’s financial prospects turned decidedly dark (and demand for aid rose as the recession pressured family incomes).

Those factors shape The Harvard Campaign: the University remains a bigger place (fiscal 2012 expenses were just over $4 billion) with a smaller endowment than it enjoyed several years ago ($31 billion at the end of fiscal 2012, down from $37 billion at the end of fiscal 2008).

So one task facing University leaders is managing expectations. President Faust set about doing that, almost bluntly, in her September 10 academic year opening talk to the community (with financial themes echoing her Commencement address last May). “When markets and the endowment were booming,” she said, “Harvard had a greater margin for error. We could afford to focus less intently on hard choices about what to do, what not to do, and what to stop doing. We didn’t need to aggressively seek out new and nontraditional sources of revenue. Those days are gone.” She cited new worries, such as the federal sequester, which could reduce federal support for research at Harvard by $40 million annually (offsetting which would require substantial new annual giving, or the distribution from an extra $800 million of endowment funds). And she telegraphed the University’s fiscal 2013 financial results, noting that “we expect a deficit this year”—a result anyone inaugurating a capital campaign would prefer to avoid.

In this sense, the campaign begins its public phase in a context of unusual volatility. The financial crisis and recession were unusually sharp and protracted, their effect on the endowment was historically adverse, and the government’s fiscal path is remarkably opaque (but not promising). Prudent administrators are trying to shock-proof this institution, like any other. At the same time, opportunities may crop up at any time, and may involve substantial investments even in a pilot phase: the edX online learning venture with MIT came together almost overnight in the spring of 2012—with an entering ante of $30 million in commitments and funds to be raised by each partner. The institution’s capacity to fend off unexpected adversities and to pursue new opportunities in an era of rapid scientific and technological change thus drives the architecture not only of fundraising, but of Harvard’s financial strategy and decisions generally.

And so, Faust warned on September 10, on the verge of the largest higher-education fundraising effort in history, “The Harvard Campaign, set to launch next week, is one strong and important response to these pressures.… But we should be clear: the campaign, for all that it will help us achieve, is not and will not be a panacea.”

It is easy to see why, and to imagine the tradeoffs the University has made in setting priorities for The Harvard Campaign. Consider the priorities in just one, admittedly large, part of the University. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is ramping up a $1-billion-plus effort to renovate and reimagine the undergraduate Houses. At the same time, its undergraduate financial-aid budget has risen about 90 percent—an annual increase of nearly $90 million—since 2007; dedicated endowment funds now cover just 46 percent of that expense. If through this campaign FAS were to seek, and to be able, to fully pay for House renewal and to endow 80 percent of current undergraduate-aid costs (a stretch, but one that would maximize its future flexibility to invest unrestricted tuition income in new academic programs), it would likely need to raise more just for those priorities than it is attempting to do in this drive in toto. And of course the FAS campaign likely has many other aspirations as well: investing in faculty, enhancing teaching, renewing athletic facilities (as shown in the Allston master plan submission), enlarging the scope of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and so on.

Across the board, most aspirations included in the campaign cannot be fully funded by it—and many other goals are not included in the campaign at all. Any campaign of course requires winnowing of priorities. But the passage of time since the University Campaign, and the shifting external landscape, make The Harvard Campaign’s tradeoffs more acute—a balance of commitments from the past (financial aid, facilities modernization) and hopes for the future. As Faust put it, even a wholly successful campaign cannot be a panacea.

Expectations are likely being shaped in another way, too. As large as the $6.5-billion goal looms, fundraisers leaven their optimistic animal spirits with conservatism. No one wants an unobtainable goal. Everyone prefers to be able to meet and exceed it. As honorary campaign co-chair Sidney Knafel ’52, M.B.A ’54, told The Harvard Crimson, even before the launch events, this campaign’s goal is “a big figure, and I think we’re going to go beyond it.” (Knafel speaks from experience: he is veteran of the University Campaign, which handily exceeded its initial $2.1-billion goal.) That confidence was echoed repeatedly during the afternoon remarks.

In fact, Harvard has received gifts (for endowment and current use, and nongovernment research grants) of approximately $600 million to $650 million during each of the past four fiscal years (roughly on pace with the prosperous years just before, when business- and law-school campaigns were concluding). A campaign, by projecting initiatives and needs that engage donors, aims to lift giving significantly. With $2.8 billion pledged or received during the quiet phase, during the next five years of public fundraising, University development officers would have to increase that annual rate of giving by $150 million or so to achieve the announced goal—a goodly sum, to be sure, but not otherworldly. (Their work during the campaign’s quiet phase has shown up smartly in the annual financial report, with pledges receivable up 20 percent, to $908 million, during fiscal 2012.) Fundraisers like to announce a campaign with 35 percent to 40 percent of the goal in hand or pledged; The Harvard Campaign, aiming to raise enormous sums, begins at 43 percent—a comforting place to be.

The gifts secured during the quiet phase have provided another reassuring proof of concept. Gifts and pledges are being counted back through fiscal years 2012 and 2013 (with a few significant gifts made earlier, in anticipation of the campaign—perhaps including those for the Fogg Art Museum reconstruction and other priorities—grandfathered in the tally at the donors’ request). During the quiet phase, Harvard has announced $30-million gifts each from campaign co-chairs Joseph J. O’Donnell and his wife, Katherine O’Donnell, and Glenn H. Hutchins and his family foundation; $40 million from Gustave and Rita Hauser to launch the learning and teaching initiative; a second $125-million gift for a bioengineering institute; $50 million for developing life-sciences and medical technologies from University laboratories; $40 million focused on an executive-education project at Harvard Business School—following an earlier, separate building gift of $50 million; a recent $15 million in gifts for curriculum and pedagogical innovation and other projects at Harvard School of Public Health; and $10.5 million to underwrite Radcliffe Institute programs. There is a rumored huge gift to be applied, somehow, to construct an activities center in Holyoke Center—one of the “common spaces,” like the refurbished Science Center Plaza that guests crossed en route from Memorial Hall to Sanders Theatre during the launch events. And then there are other members of the Corporation who are campaign co-chairs with a record of generous Harvard philanthropy; they can be expected to back up their leadership with further gifts. And so on. 

Many such pledges and gifts are in hand, awaiting announcement in turn—and of course many more will be needed to meet the goal. So far, the campaign is working—certainly well enough to give very strong confidence in setting the overall target.

In Prospect

Even as expectations are managed—particularly the expectations of those who will use the campaign proceeds (prominently, deans and their faculty colleagues, and students)—fundraising is about exciting prospective donors and raising their sights. The presentations, video, and co-chairs’ pep talks on September 21 were certainly about that. And as the fundraising progress to date demonstrates, celebratory spirits were warranted.

From here, the work of engaging the broader community begins.

Following the launch events and announcement of the campaign’s goal, alumni and faculty members may still find themselves eager to understand the University’s specific aims—in the aggregate and for each school or programmatic area in which they are most interested. In this regard, it is instructive to compare The Harvard Campaign’s launch with the 1994 beginning of the University Campaign (the only previous institution-wide capital drive). It was preceded by then-president Neil L. Rudenstine’s 24,000-word report to the Board of Overseers the previous autumn, virtually a line-by-line campaign prospectus, detailing investments from expanding access to freshman seminars and undergraduate research opportunities to renovating the outdoor running track and building a new facility for racquet sports—and on through the programs at each professional school and the interdisciplinary, interfaculty research initiatives. The 1994 kickoff event itself featured 10 faculty symposia on fields of knowledge, and another 10 alumni forums on leadership in the various professions. No one involved in the campaign could have left without a clear idea of its specific aims.

The twenty-first century is clearly not the twentieth. Uncertainties abound amid the many opportunities that Harvard’s leaders perceive. The Harvard Campaign, off to a roaring start, is proceeding so as to secure the maximum flexibility for University officers and deans to strengthen the institution. It will be interesting to see how specifically they propose to do so, and how alumni and friends continue to engage with those priorities, as the schools begin rolling out their individual campaigns during the next 15 months—beginning with the Harvard School of Public Health, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at the end of next month.