As Endowment Tumbles, Harvard Struggles To Preserve Mission05:35

This article is more than 11 years old.
The weather may be getting nicer at Harvard, but the economic climate is less sunny. (Christian Holland/WBUR Intern)
The weather may be getting nicer at Harvard, but the economic climate is less sunny. (Christian Holland/WBUR Intern)

On a beautiful spring day, Harvard Yard is bustling with students studying for exams. The birds are chirping and the glee club is singing.

But behind the bucolic setting, faculty, staff and students are suffering some of the most severe cutbacks the university has implemented in decades. Some will be felt in the classroom, such as admitting a smaller number of PhD candidates, not hiring proctors to watch exams and scrutinizing whether any new hire is really necessary.

Greek and Latin professor Richard Thomas is concerned the cuts will damage the school’s core mission of research and teaching.

"It’s a profound, serious problem confronting Harvard and other institutions," Thomas said. "It is going to change things in fundamental ways and the greater the change — particularly once the change starts cutting into the muscle — the more perilous it becomes in terms of the institution sort-of quality being maintained."

Harvard refused to make someone available for comment and referred questions about the cuts to the new Web site. Some of the most dramatic reductions are in the libraries' budgets, which must be cut 31 percent over the next two years. Harvard announced it will close the only library at the Harvard Quadrangle, an area of housing about a half mile from the main campus.

Junior Laura Horton used the quad library just before finals.

"I was in there for the past 12 hours just writing a huge paper for a final for one of my classes," Horton said. "I think when I have big assignments I’ll go over there."

Her friend Kathryn Bilder, who is also a junior, says closing the library is a good place to trim because it’s under-utilized, and she understands Harvard has to tighten its belt.

"There’s been a really big deal made about the cuts, but that’s something that everyone in America is having to deal with," Bilder said. "And Harvard's been such a bubble that I think everyone assumes it's exempt from it — and it’s not."

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is primarily made up of Harvard College, has offered voluntary early retirement for 1,600 non-faculty staff. Thirty percent have accepted. The FAS dean was not available for comment, but he told a campus publication that the financial situation can be something that makes Harvard much stronger in the future.

Some faculty don’t believe that rosy outlook. Among them is Gisela Striker, who teaches ancient philosophy. She's retiring at the end of 2010 and a search for her replacement has been called off.

"This is called, you know, not harming the educational mission," Striker said, laughing. "Of course it is. The problem with Harvard, I believe, is that as far as I know their endowment wasn’t hit more than that of other universities, but they do have very, very large financial commitments in Allston."

In June, Harvard’s endowment was $37 billion, but it’s since fallen more than 22 percent. It supports more than one-third of the school’s annual operating budget, and its decline has affected Harvard’s planned expansion into Allston. In a letter to the Harvard community last year, President Drew Gilpin Faust said the slowdown was necessary to avoid overextending the university’s near-term financial commitments.

But Professor Striker says Harvard is already overextended and it’s going to affect the classroom, with fewer professors and, next fall, fewer graduate students, who often teach undergraduate courses.

"This year we had a 10 percent cut in graduate admissions. We compared with some other departments in the same field," Striker said. "This is of course anecdotal evidence, but nobody was as restrictive as Harvard. And students talk to one another, they know those things. It's not making things more attractive."

Harvard said it did admit fewer grad students for the fall, but wouldn’t detail the reduction. The university is also doing a lot of trimming in areas that affect student life. Shuttle service will run fewer hours, the heat will be lowered to 68 degrees in the winter and some university-run cafes will be closed.

"There’s a sense that Harvard has been living high off the hog for sometime and that there are areas where one can cut back, but not on the order of magnitude that we're talking about," said classics professor Richard Thomas.

The new Web site doesn’t mention any cuts to financial aid or scholarships. Harvard offers a free ride to students whose families make less than $60,000 a year, and guarantees that middle- and higher-income families won’t pay more than 10 percent of their income.

But with the endowment continuing to fall, many are quietly wondering if the school can maintain its commitment to spend more than $137 million on scholarships.

This program aired on May 12, 2009.