The Centralization of FAS

Under the auspices of budgetary efficiency, Smith draws in the disparate units of FAS

It’s a call for unity.

Faced with the largest financial crisis in recent history, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith has enhanced the rhetoric of shared priorities across the traditionally decentralized school. FAS’ path to recovery, Smith says, will require staunch commitment to a “core mission.”

But even as Smith successfully trims a daunting budget deficit, his approach has struck a nervous chord among faculty members who benefit from the incongruent academic and spending methods of the school. Led by affiliates of some of the traditionally independent FAS centers, they have voiced concerns that an overarching financial mission could intrude into their own academic priorities.

But in establishing a series of financial priorities—centered around student instruction and faculty research—Smith expects the many and varied stakeholders of the school to fall into line.

“We as a Faculty must apply our resources, both financial capital and human capital, to the pursuit of our core mission first and foremost,” Smith wrote in a letter to the Faculty in February.


“This is an affirmation of what we all know to be true,” he wrote.


In FAS, decentralization is epitomized by a spate of centers and institutes. Developed across the school in the last 50 years, these hubs, many of them interdisciplinary, are composed of faculty members and affiliates with shared interests and the funds to act on them—distinct from degree-granting academic departments that focus on student instruction in the classroom.

In a time of increased efforts at centralization, the quasi-independent and often self-generated and self-governed nature of the centers affords them a unique place in the University.

Harvard’s traditional “bottom-up” structure—in which the “very, very best ideas” are produced by the Faculty and gain broader administrative support—is the source of the University’s “great genius,” says former FAS Dean William C. Kirby.

“It’s the capacity for good ideas to come from the Faculty and gain the support of deans,” says Kirby, who left his position as dean to head the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies in 2006. “It encourages what you might call the best kind of academic entrepreneurialism.”

“The centers are the jewels in the crown,” says Anthropology Professor Arthur M. Kleinman, who heads the Harvard University Asia Center, of the centers’ relationship to the University.

“We have faculty who are very entrepreneurial, who are incredibly imaginative and effective in doing things, and the University has always encouraged that,” Kleinman adds. “We don’t want to see that change.”


At a Faculty meeting on March 2, professors went public with their angst about the centralized priorities for FAS.


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