It is with profound gratitude and immense admiration for her singular service that I write to announce that Dean Leslie Kirwan will retire from her role as the Faculty’s Dean for Administration and Finance this spring. We have each been drawn to Harvard to participate in its enduring mission, one that betters the world by championing truth, advancing knowledge, and deepening our understanding of what it means to be human. While the casual observer may see in its historic buildings and well-loved rituals evidence of undisturbed constancy, we who live in this academic community know that the pursuit of our mission in fact demands of us continual innovation and adaptation in order to advance the ambitions of the Faculty in a world that is constantly changing around us. Harvard’s continued vibrancy has relied not only on the accomplishments of our students and insights of our faculty, but also on those who would fight to keep it strong as it prepares to meet the demands of the future. Dean Kirwan personifies this deep institutional commitment and fearless stewardship in service of our enduring mission.
No stranger to hard problems and demanding roles, Dean Kirwan joined the FAS at a time when Harvard found itself confronting the unprecedented challenges posed by the global financial crisis. Needing a strong leader to both navigate the resulting uncertainty and to take on the work of putting the School on a path to financial sustainability, Dean Kirwan was recruited to the FAS in 2009 to oversee all FAS administrative functions. A graduate of Harvard College (AB 1979) and the Harvard Kennedy School (MPP 1984), Leslie served as the Secretary of Administration and Finance for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2009, the first woman to hold that role in the state’s history. As a member of Governor Deval Patrick’s cabinet, she was responsible for executing key finance and administrative duties, including preparation of the Governor’s budget recommendation, the development of a state capital budget, monitoring and management of financial activities across state government, and the development and analysis of fiscal policy. Leslie had previously served in other administration and finance leadership roles in the Commonwealth and at the Massachusetts Port Authority for over 20 years. Before joining the FAS, she had led efforts to cope with the state's multibillion-dollar budget gap as the economic downturn had depressed capital gains, income, and sales taxes. In enlisting Leslie’s service and manifest talent, the FAS had gained a seasoned and resourceful administrative leader and dedicated alumna who was ready to roll up her sleeves to meet the challenges the same crisis had visited upon higher education.
Over more than a decade of leadership in the FAS, Dean Kirwan’s accomplishments have been considerable and wide-ranging. In 2009, Dean Kirwan joined a reimagined Academic Planning Group that brought together academic and administrative leaders into one senior leadership team for the FAS. She played a central role in fundamentally reconceiving FAS academic and budget planning as an integrated process driven by academic priorities and founded on shared data sets. In addition to implementing multi-year financial planning and the introduction of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, Dean Kirwan initiated comprehensive annual public disclosures of the FAS financial position in the form a standard managerial report. She strengthened the administrative support functions of the FAS across all units, introducing additional professional expertise to meet the challenge of increasing regulatory demands in units like Human Resources and working to create more efficient structures to meet the Faculty’s needs, such as the integrated model of Harvard University Information Technology. At the same time, she drove considerable improvements in the FAS financial position, closing a $220 million structural deficit and reducing the FAS debt burden, while enabling the simultaneous expansion of financial aid, maintaining the size of the faculty, and taking on a multi-generational challenge—the renewal of the undergraduate residential Houses, renovating more than 800,000 square feet in these 80 to 100 year old buildings to meet the 21st century programmatic goals intrinsic to the residential experience at Harvard.
Dean Kirwan strengthened the administrative model of the FAS and successfully wrestled daunting macro-level challenges, but she has never been someone who distantly manages from University Hall. She knows that behind every budget number is a person and a commitment to the activity that number represents and she puts a premium on careful consultation in order to achieve real understanding. This approach not only ensures that local expertise can contribute to FAS decisions, but it also has meant that concerns are heard and perspectives considered. Across an organization as large as the FAS, Leslie has the uncanny ability to identify and connect with talented staff at every career stage, to know how they think and what they have contributed, and to cultivate their Harvard careers. She has increased opportunities for professional development and building networks and has created transparency and community through her Administrator Town Halls and other outreach. As the number of administrative systems and processes has increased, her investment in open channels of communication and strong relationships has proven essential. Anything but a technocrat, Leslie is a leader who lives her belief in the dignity of every person and who will never shrink from the challenge when she is defending what she believes to be right.
I have been lucky enough to work with Leslie for five years, originally in my role as Dean of Social Science. It was knowing that I would have strong partners like her that eased the transition to my current role. Now, as the FAS confronts the unprecedented challenges of the global pandemic, we do so with the benefit of Leslie’s wisdom and experience, of the strong teams she has built, and of a community that knows how to work together on hard problems in the face of considerable uncertainty. And even as the Zoom calls stretch from early morning to late at night, Leslie’s warmth and humor, her dedication to her team and to the success of our academic community continue to lift me up when I feel my own energy flagging. As a leader, a partner, and a friend she is a truly singular person, and, on behalf of the Faculty, it is my honor to thank her for her distinguished service to our institution. Please join me in congratulating Leslie on her well-deserved retirement and the proud legacy she leaves at Harvard. An international search will be launched this fall to identify her successor.
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences