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Harvard to curtail major land purchases in Allston

FAUST ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY 'We don't look at the endowment as an endless source of funds,' said Drew Faust, Harvard president. FAUST ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY
"We don't look at the endowment as an endless source of funds," said Drew Faust, Harvard president.
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 26, 2009
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Harvard's president, Drew Faust, said yesterday that the university owns nearly all the land it needs to expand in Allston, but she stopped short of pledging a moratorium on acquisitions in the neighborhood, where residents are increasingly vexed by decaying Harvard-owned parcels as development plans are put on hold.

"The great bulk of our land purchasing has happened," Faust said. "There may be a few discrete parcels that could be involved in rounding that out, so we don't want to make a commitment to no further acquisitions."

The university, which already owns more than 350 acres in Allston, is dramatically slowing its development plans in the industrial neighborhood amid the recession. Last week, Faust announced Harvard's intention to delay, and possibly halt, the completion of a $1 billion science complex originally scheduled to open in 2011. With multiple Harvard-owned properties languishing, Allston residents had asked for a cessation on new land purchases.

In a wide-ranging interview with Globe reporters and editors yesterday, Faust said the university is committed to renting out or sprucing up its vacant lots and buildings. "We certainly recognize that sentiment," Faust said.

She acknowledged that Harvard's slowdown in development across the Charles River should be accompanied by new efforts to make university-owned properties more attractive and useful to the community.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that Harvard should give the city an outline of its plans to improve the neighborhood. He plans to send Faust a letter today, specifying conditions that he said would protect and advance the interests of both the university and Allston.

"We want to insure . . . that the actions by Harvard in the community are universally understood to be responsible actions of an institutional partner committed to the community, and not a series of ill-considered, opportunistic pursuits precipitated by the weakened economy," the letter says.

Menino is asking Harvard for a timeline for completing community improvements in Allston and a report on the condition of its Allston properties, along with plans to keep them in use while development is delayed.

"There's lots of abandoned property over there," Menino said in a phone interview yesterday. "What is Harvard's commitment to the neighborhood?"

The university had tried to rebuild neighborhood trust over the last decade, since disclosing in 1997 that it had secretly acquired 52 acres through a third party. But since the announcement of the science complex delays, tensions have resurfaced.

"There was a lot of hope that the science center would bring some life back into the neighborhood," said Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association. "Harvard could repair some of the damage done to the relationship by getting out there and working hard at putting people back into these buildings. It's really important that they get started on this now."

While Harvard, with an endowment reported at $36.9 billion as of last June, remains the wealthiest university in the world, Faust said it would be irresponsible to draw upon the endowment to complete the science complex. Capital projects, she said, are paid for through a combination of philanthropy and debt, which must then be repaid.

The endowment is expected to shrink to $26 billion by July, she said. And the university draws $1.4 billion from the endowment to fund its $3.5 billion annual operating budget.

"We don't look at the endowment as an endless source of funds," Faust said. "The art of endowment management is balancing the claims of the present against the obligations to the future."

During the interview, Faust also reflected on her 19-month tenure. She reaffirmed her commitment to the liberal arts, saying a broad-based education that teaches students to think critically, challenge the status quo, and ask hard questions is more important now than ever.

"It's a luxury that people cannot afford to do without," she said.

Despite the global financial crisis, Faust said Harvard will move forward with initiatives she had planned since taking over in 2007, though more slowly than she had expected. She said she has made the arts a priority and hopes to expand arts facilities and add more art courses, including a master of fine arts degree. She would also like to add and redesign common spaces on campus to encourage students and faculty to gather across disciplines and houses.

"It's been an unexpected year," said Faust, who sees her presidency like a marriage - something she is committed to "for richer or poorer, for better or for worse. I signed on for whatever hand I was going to be dealt."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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