Deficit Warnings at Harvard Suggest Concerns About Black Studies:
Ominous news last week from Harvard. The dean of arts and sciences, William C. Kirby, publicly warns of deficits facing Harvard College $40 million this year, heading for $80 million in five years.
Usually dire announcements of this nature are preparation for major academic cutbacks ahead. Former Harvard dean McGeorge Bundy used to say of such warnings, "Look for the embalming fluid in the next room."
Clearly, Harvard president Lawrence Summers has a secondary interest in the humanities. The Harvard president' s big spending goals lie in huge science expansion projects across Boston' s Charles River.
Of great concern to JBHE is the future of black studies at Harvard. President Summers has repeatedly shown that he has little respect for this academic field. (See JBHE Number 46, Winter 2004/2005, p. 20.)
Several years ago, Summers said that black studies would no longer have the blank check it enjoyed under President Neil Rudenstine. Any cutback in the humanities is likely to find black studies as an early target. Summers' loss to Stanford of Professor Lawrence Bobo, his largely unwarranted attack on Cornel West, the Harvard loss to Princeton of K. Anthony Appiah, and recent disagreements with Harvard' s black studies head Henry Louis Gates Jr. all suggest that President Summers may be part of the school of thought that considers black studies to be an unnecessary part of the academic discipline.
Keep in mind too that when Summers took a swipe at Harvard' s grade inflation four years ago, his first target was black studies.
Of concern too is that a cutback in black studies at Harvard is likely to justify similar moves at many other colleges and universities, cutbacks they never would have dared to do before.
As to the seriousness of the deficit, keep two things in mind. Harvard has an endowment of $25.9 billion. Harvard' s endowment managers have consistently shown an ability to produce an investment return of $10 million a day. With the huge flood of daily cash, it seems most unlikely that Harvard' s arts and sciences needs to face significant cutbacks.
It may be suggested too that members of the arts and sciences faculty ask Dean Kirby to detail the items in his calculation of the deficit. Possibly the calculation includes cost items only remotely connected to the arts and sciences programs of Harvard College. Deficit threat announcements are frequently a form of academic "spin" that exaggerates a problem that, when closely examined, is not particularly serious.