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John Harvard's Journal

A New Model

March-April 2002

For a University committee, HCECP--which included faculty members, administrators, unionized workers, and both undergraduates and graduate students--was unprecedented in its composition. Given this, perhaps its most remarkable accomplishment is the degree of consensus it reached on a controversial issue. "It was clearly a broad committee, both in terms of breadth of knowledge and different perspectives," says professor of economics Lawrence F. Katz, who served as chairman. In the course of its work, HCECP collected responses from more than a thousand members of the Harvard community, including many postings garnered from the committee's website. "People [on the committee] took the issues very seriously and put real effort into gathering the facts, both quantitative data and qualitative information," adds Katz, who was officially on leave yet worked at least full-time on the task for much of the fall term. "This created a common pool of information that was quite rigorous and was extremely important to have before debating the analysis and the issues. If at the outset we had started debating whether there should be a living wage, we couldn't have resolved differences and come to an agreement.

"The strict deadline--far enough away that you had time, but close enough that you had to work very hard, also helped," he continues. "The structure worked well. It's not for day-to-day things that change marginally over long periods. But this kind of structure might also work for other important issues that are time-sensitive"--such as grade inflation and the status of ROTC, both issues that interest President Lawrence H. Summers. "The key lesson here," Katz concludes, "is not necessarily about student activism, but that thoughtful deliberation and getting all points of view is extremely valuable."