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Arts and Sciences’ Inflection Point

11.3.14


Students of learning and teaching at Harvard will find two especially interesting disclosures in the new annual report from Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith, covering the 2013-2014 academic year:

  • The number of undergraduates concentrating in engineering and applied sciences (775) now exceeds those concentrating in arts and humanities (746).
  • The faculty’s ranks now number 730 members (assistant, associate, and full professors)—up from 713 in the prior year, and the largest cohort in FAS history.

The report includes other points of interest, but these two merit further attention first.

What They Study

The undergraduate concentrations, shown in the exhibit above, vividly demonstrate the broad shift in student interest. From a recent peak of 1,104 arts and humanities concentrators in the 2003-2004 academic year, the ranks decreased by nearly one-third during the ensuing decade. (See “Addressing a Decline in Humanities Enrollment” for context on the phenomenon, locally and nationally.) Social-sciences concentrators peaked at 2,695 in 2005-2006, and have decreased by about 19 percent.

But the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) is burgeoning, with the number of concentrators up 165 percent within the past nine years. (“Cherry Murray Steps Down as Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean” provides context on the academic programs attracting student interest and driving enrollment growth—and shaping SEAS’s capital-campaign objectives.)

When SEAS concentrations are combined with enrollment in the life and physical sciences, the number of College students pursuing science-related concentrations may equal, or even exceed, those focusing on social sciences as soon as this year.

Who Teaches What

FAS invested in faculty growth during the first several years of the twenty-first century, only to put on the brakes in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and reduction in distributions from the endowment (its largest source of revenue).

As Smith’s first annual report, in 2008, showed, the ladder faculty numbered 586 during the 1999-2000 academic year: 214 in social sciences, 178 in arts and humanities, 143 sciences (72 in life sciences and 71 in physical sciences), and 51 in SEAS. By 2007-2008, the total was 712 (252 in social sciences, 210 in arts and humanities, 180 in sciences, and 70 in SEAS).

And there the faculty ranks largely stayed. A year ago, the ladder faculty numbered 713 (social sciences 231, arts and humanities 193, sciences 212, and SEAS 77).

Entering the current academic year, following a heavy schedule of searches and offers, each division had grown, yielding a new high of 730:

  • Social sciences, 239
  • Arts and humanities, 196
  • Sciences, 213
  • SEAS, 82

SEAS is targeted for substantial growth in faculty positions during the capital campaign. The student appetite for SEAS courses, and the mix of faculty positions in an era of rising enrollment in science subjects generally, suggests some of the urgency behind that fundraising goal and planned growth in SEAS facilities. In arts and humanities, there are indications that the new theater, dance, and media concentration, for which President Drew Faust recently provided $5 million in seed funding, will be staffed with additional lecturers, rather by appointing more ladder faculty members.

Other Developments

Smith’s report also highlights these issues.

• Graduate School of Arts and Sciences diversity. The graduate school “continued to make a concerted effort to improve the diversity of the graduate student body,” with applications from underrepresented U.S. minorities increasing 15 percent compared to the prior year. The number of such applicants who accepted Harvard’s offer of admission rose to 57, and underrepresented minorities made up 7.5 percent of the entering class.

• Graduate sciences programs. The graduate school is conducting a faculty review of science programs, in light of challenging financial circumstances. The study will address allocation of FAS unrestricted funds, principles for the size of each program, and coordination of faculty size and the graduate program in each field.

• New programs. An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to Eve Blau, adjunct professor of the history and theory of urban form and design, and Julie Buckler, professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature (a leader in rethinking the humanities curriculum), will support study of urban environments for the humanities, including exploration of a new secondary field in urban studies. Involved entities include the Graduate School of Design, Mahindra Humanities Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and FAS division of arts and humanities.

And research on the brain and in neuroscience—an FAS priority, and one of Harvard Medical School’s campaign goals—advanced through a joint MIT-Harvard Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines. It is examining circuits for intelligence; the development of intelligence in children; the integration of visual, motor, language, and social intelligence, among other subjects. Separately, FAS and the medical school’s department of neurobiology launched a Harvard Brain Initiative to advance the field University-wide.

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