Within universities, basic disciplines tend to be represented by departments. Disciplines and their departments change or dissolve very slowly. Universities have evolved myriad organizational forms to facilitate work on problems or in fields that are not adequately treated by discipline-based departments. At Harvard, we tend to call such forms centers or programs or, less commonly, institutes.
Universities need both the stable foundations that departments and schools provide and flexible organizational forms that can be launched and grown, shrunk and eliminated or absorbed, or crystallized into more permanent forms, depending on the ebb and flow of intellectual opportunity and change.
When centers are appropriately designed, ably led, regularly reviewed, and carefully integrated with a school’s core mission, they can make essential and powerful contributions to Harvard’s academic life, as many of them have. On the other hand, as the Deans have recently discussed, centers can also create serious administrative, fiscal, and intellectual problems for the faculties and the University.
For example, some centers are only tangentially connected to the core mission of a School, having been established to meet donor interests or by an entrepreneurial faculty member or affiliate without adequate input from a school’s leadership or from significant group of faculty members. Moreover, certain centers have become long-term homes for non-faculty appointees who are not subject to the kind of academic review required of faculty members.
Furthermore, centers designed as vehicles for exploring emergent fields can persist long after the intellectual case for them has eroded. In some cases, they compete with departments for funding, space, and other resources, distracting the faculties from their core activities. Although some subjects are appropriately addressed through durable or semi-permanent programs or centers, centers should presumptively be viewed as flexible, time-limited organizational forms.