Harvard's head says academy needs the best of both worlds

July 8, 2010

The president of Harvard University has warned that harsh austerity measures imposed in response to the global recession are putting the future of higher education in peril.

In a lecture at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin last week, Drew Faust cautioned that "too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future".

Professor Faust argued that although higher education had "critical and ever-increasing importance", it was dangerous to see it only as a driver of economic growth. This view is "so powerful that it will distort our understanding of all that universities should and must be".

Professor Faust cited the loss of philosophy at Middlesex University as among the "especially painful cuts" in disciplines "whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real". She called on academics, the "stewards of centuries-old traditions", to ensure that the "effort to promote what is valuable (does) not eclipse our support for what is invaluable".

Professor Faust expressed concern over the trend for governments to demand evidence of research "impact". She added that in the US, public funding already favoured "conventional, risk-free proposals" at the expense of "less predictable, more ambitious and possibly paradigm-shifting endeavours" because of demands for "tangible" returns.

She also noted that Chinese universities were looking to expand their output in the humanities when other nations were scaling it back.

As well as the impact on research, Professor Faust cautioned that the loss of the humanities could have a detrimental effect on students.

"How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now?" she asked.

Urging governments and funders to "look to the past to help create the future", she added: "Look to science and to poetry; combine innovation and interpretation ... we need the best of both, and it is universities that best provide them."


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