Managing Harvard: A New Deal?

Editor’s note: President Derek Bok, who wrote annual reports on the University during his service from 1971 to 1991, did so again at the end of this year of interim service. The report begins with a review of the year’s events and ends with discussions about teaching, assessing student learning, and developing future academic leaders at the decanal level—issues covered as well in a conversation with Bok (see "Interim Accomplishments"). His written observations on how Harvard might better manage itself in pursuit of its academic mission are excerpted here. The full 33-page text is available at

Are universities, as currently organized and governed, truly capable of responding quickly and effectively enough to the challenges that confront them? Skeptics are not difficult to find. As I was once told by a wise older colleague, the late Milton Katz: “Leading a large university is like trying to steer a dog by its tail.” Recent reports on higher education make much the same point, albeit in less colorful language. A group of past and current presidents from major research universities has announced that “many observers of university life (including the authors) believe that the environment is now changing too rapidly and some external constraints, like the financial constraints, have become too strong to maintain the present decision process.”…[A] report from the National Commission on the Academic Presidency has concluded: “At a time when higher education should be alert and nimble, it is…hindered by traditions and mechanisms of governance that do not allow the responsiveness and decisiveness that the times require.”…

Such questions have been much on my mind this year as I have worked my way through my brief, unanticipated return to academic administration.

Listening to discussions about reorganizing universities, I have discovered that much of the talk comes down to a desire to expand the power of university leaders at the expense of the faculty.…The most common justification is that the world is changing so fast…that there is simply no time to engage in widespread faculty consultation without missing out on important opportunities. As the former president of the University of Michigan, James Duderstadt, puts it: “The academic tradition of extensive consultation, debate, and consensus building…will be one of our greatest challenges, since this process is simply incapable of keeping pace with the profound changes swirling about higher education.”

Such pronouncements sound plausible; they play upon a pervasive unease that changes are sweeping over America that existing institutions are unable to address adequately. Nevertheless, the diagnosis does not ring true to my experience. In four decades of observing the world of higher education, I have yet to encounter a significant problem that developed at anything approaching…a speed too rapid to allow for thoughtful deliberation.…

Looking further at proposals to strengthen the hand of those in charge, I suspect that they proceed from an unspoken premise that unilateral decisions by the leadership will somehow be bolder, sounder, and more creative than decisions arrived at through faculty debate.… Countless tales have been told through the years about the inherent conservatism and political infighting of university faculties. When asked why he gave up the Princeton presidency to enter public life, Woodrow Wilson famously replied that he “left the hard politics of Princeton for the easier politics of Washington.”…

It is certainly true that professors can resist change and that, like most human beings, they are often loath to give up their prerogatives. For all that, however, American universities have fared quite well over the past 50 years, the very period when faculty power reached its zenith.…Moreover, when I try to recall serious errors of judgment on the part of universities, I find it easier to think of examples beyond the customary purview of faculties, such as the excesses of intercollegiate athletics or the money lost through expensive forays into for-profit distance education, than to list comparable mistakes at the hands of professors.

It is also well to remember that there are severe limits to what one can accomplish by adding power to the administration. In universities like Harvard, where professors do not belong to unions, the most important activities under faculty control have to do with teaching and research.…No one ever raised the level of scholarship by ordering professors to write better books, nor has the quality of teaching ever improved by telling instructors to give more interesting classes. In these domains, good work depends on the talent and enthusiasm of professors. Much of the time taken up by faculty deliberation, however frustrating it may seem, is…a necessary process for generating the sense of ownership and shared commitment that is needed to elicit the best teaching and research.…

A much more substantial issue about increasing the effectiveness of universities involves the appropriate division of authority between the center and the several faculties. Among universities, Harvard has long been known for its high degree of decentralization. The president can hire and fire the deans and review appointments to tenure, and the central administration must approve the budgets of the faculties and their plans to launch new fund drives and construction projects. Within these limits, however, the several schools have traditionally enjoyed great autonomy in devising their own curricula, setting priorities for teaching and research, hiring and deploying their administrative staff, buying supplies, and more.…[D]eans are largely responsible for raising their own revenue and keeping their budgets balanced. As long as they do so successfully, they are left relatively free to develop in the way they see fit.

By most indications, Harvard has prospered under this arrangement. By keeping power so decentralized, the University has given responsibility to those most knowledgeable about the different fields and programs in which its intellectual work goes on. The quality of academic decision-making has probably benefited as a result. Experience also seems to show that the added burdens placed on the deans to raise their own revenue and balance their budgets and the granting of greater authority in return for greater responsibility have made the job more interesting.…

[Bok then discusses ways in which the central administration can use unrestricted funds, the president’s time, and other resources to help schools for the lower-paid professions, which have difficulty raising money. He also cites some administrative benefits of centralization: in reviewing schools’ increased hiring of nonacademic staff; in securing efficiencies in purchasing supplies or processing checks; and in coordinating academic calendars. He then turns to the governance of intellectual matters, such as the recent work to facilitate interdisciplinary scientific research and teaching across the University.]

These reforms represent a departure not only from traditional forms of academic organization but from familiar ways of addressing…centralization and decentralization at Harvard. Instead of taking power from the faculties and giving it to the central administration, the changes create new forums drawn from the center and the faculties to provide the mix of people best qualified to address the problems to be solved. In the case of the new committee on science and engineering, the proper mix consists of professors who can weigh the potential importance of new fields…and administrators who also understand the financial implications of pursuing such opportunities.…

The challenge now will be to convince…deans that new interdisciplinary programs are not merely exotic creatures of the central administration but important extensions of the faculties involved that enhance their stature and deserve their willing…support.

In the longer run, it seems unlikely that the process just described will be confined exclusively to the sciences.… [T]eaching and research on environmental issues bring scientists together with faculty from the Law School, the Business School, and the Kennedy School. Efforts to teach leadership and administration in the public sector could profit from increased cooperation among faculty members from the School of Education, the School of Public Health, the Business School, and the Kennedy School.…[C]ollaboration of this kind, however, could easily stumble over problems similar to those that have bedeviled life scientists, causing…wasteful, disconnected, and duplicative efforts in several parts of the University. To avoid such difficulties, some forms of University-wide structure may be needed….

In addition…the central administration is working with the faculties to foster a more comprehensive planning process…. The Corporation and the University Budget Office have long exercised responsibility for reviewing and approving the budgets for the various faculties and other units within the institution.…More recently…the process has been enlarged to include a broader dialogue with individual faculties over plans and priorities.…

[These larger discussions] reflect a growing realization that an ongoing conversation between the center and the separate faculties and units can produce better results than allowing the constituent parts to develop pretty much as they please so long as they do not run deficits.…

Weaknesses in planning can be costly. For example…similar programs [may] emerge in several faculties, resulting in duplication of effort and even competition to recruit new professors and raise additional funds. Our work in health policy and administration offers a case in point. Today, units in this field exist in the School of Public Health, the Medical School, the Kennedy School, the Business School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital, with an added professor or two in the department of economics and even the Law School.…Granted, such duplication is not always harmful. Still…without adequate coordination, the odds are great that the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts.

The central administration lacks the knowledge to overcome these problems by itself. Faculties will always possess superior knowledge to perceive opportunities, identify needs, and set academic priorities. What the center can do is to engage the faculties in a planning process that allows it to ask questions, raise legitimate issues, and help to avoid unwitting errors and short-sighted, expedient decisions. Fortunately, the elements of such a procedure are already visible in the planning process recently instituted between the center and the faculties to ensure that incremental funds resulting from the stellar performance of the Harvard Management Company are spent on basic priorities and not frittered away on matters of lesser importance. Gradually, the process is evolving to include such other matters as a review of projected growth in student enrollments, faculty appointments, and size of staff. Once again, however, the trend has less to do with taking power from the faculties and giving it to the center than with creating new forums that bring a wider range of views to the process. If conducted properly, the resulting discussions should do a better job of avoiding mistakes and costly oversights while encouraging the University to grow and develop in prudent ways.

[Having “exhausted my slender stock of suggestions, drawn from a quarter century of administration at Harvard,” Bok offered thanks to the Governing Boards, alumni, and faculty, and declared himself] heartened by the realization that much that I care about has come to pass during my brief return to Massachusetts Hall. I leave with gratitude for all those who made this progress possible, with high hopes for the administration that will succeed me, and with renewed appreciation for the special love so many of us have for this remarkable institution.

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