Faculty Air Governance Concerns

Harvard professors suggest administrative concerns override academic considerations.

Maya Jasanoff

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) devoted most of its last meeting of the academic year, on May 7, to an unusual, wide-ranging discussion of FAS and University governance. The subject was introduced as a formal agenda item, docketed in advance of the meeting, under this bland description:

On behalf of the Faculty Council, Professor Maya Jasanoff will lead a discussion on consultation, communication, and governance.

But the origins of the item—from the faculty’s elected Council representatives, rather than from a substantive committee—suggested that this was not routine business, a point made much more emphatic by a memorandum from Jasanoff (a council member and vice-chair of the docket committee) distributed as background to the conversation:

 The fourth item on the agenda for the meeting of the Faculty on May 7 is designed to give the members of the Faculty the opportunity to discuss issues of consultation, communication, and governance within the FAS and the University. Though the FAS holds a monthly meeting of the Faculty, has a Faculty Council that meets twice monthly, and dozens of faculty committees, there has been a sense that the lines of communication between the faculty and the administration are not as effective as they might be, and that existing forums do not provide sufficient opportunity to discuss or respond to issues bearing on the FAS that originate outside or extend beyond it (such as HarvardX, the library, and the development of Allston).

Over the course of the term, several experiments have been undertaken to try to address this weakness. After proposed changes to Reading and Final Examination Periods were presented at a meeting of the Faculty, a town hall meeting was held that allowed faculty to discuss a single issue of importance for a full hour and a half. The College used the feedback from this meeting to shape and refine the proposal.

The Internet has also been used to solicit faculty input. At the request of Professor James Engell, a Web page was set up that allowed colleagues to write considered responses to the draft principles on outside activities. A Web page has also been set up for faculty to respond to the preliminary report from the Committee on Academic Integrity. These pages allow colleagues to offer thoughts on issues important to the Faculty on their own time. They also give faculty access to colleagues’ responses, allowing dialogue to take place without a meeting being scheduled. Faculty contributions on these sites can then be used by committees and administrators tasked with formulating policy, as is, for instance, the case with the ad hoc committee recently established to synthesize faculty responses to the draft principles on outside activities.

At the meeting of the Faculty on May 7 we can explore the effectiveness of these experiments and brainstorm other ways to facilitate communication between the faculty and the administration. Questions for faculty discussion could include: which matters might best be addressed by means other than, or in addition to, meetings of the Faculty? How can faculty best offer input on university-wide issues that affect the FAS? How can faculty keep administrators informed of issues on their minds, and vice versa?

During the previous, tense, faculty meeting on April 2 (at which additional investigations of resident deans’ e-mail accounts were disclosed), Jasanoff, a professor of history, had risen to suggest that communication within FAS fell short of the ideal, and that many colleagues did not feel comfortable expressing themselves in such formal settings—making it difficult to establish an environment of trust.

Introducing the May 7 conversation, she said that the agenda item “grows out of a shared sense” that communication between professors and the administration had not been as effective as it might have been, throughout the year. Some of that sense arose from faculty members’ crowded schedules and e-mail in-boxes, she said, but she also attributed the sentiment to “significant changes in higher education, the nation, the world, and Harvard”—including the substantive changes alluded to in her memo: decisions made concerning HarvardX and the online education partnership with MIT, edX; the prospective move of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to Allston; and the forthcoming capital campaign.


The Context for Concern

As background, it is worth summarizing these and other issues.

No one remotely suggests that current concerns about faculty-administrative relations or about communications and decisionmaking—habitual elements in academic culture—approach anything like the crisis of 2005, when Summers and FAS members confronted one another in open forums. (The terms of that dispute were most vividly expressed by Conant University Professor Stephen Owen, who said, “The real issue at stake is the governance of the University.…From the very beginning the president claimed sole agency; he was going to do something to us. Perhaps that was the beginning of the anger.…We have the classic conflict between the autocrat and the polis, the self-governing community.…The very qualities that make a good CEO are inherently in conflict with a self-governing community. This disrupts the checks and balances of the system, changes the government of FAS, and creates resistance.…Are we citizens or employees? If we have become employees, I think we would like to know.”)

It is worth recalling just how far the University and FAS have come since those governance and financial crises, and equally worth knowing that many professors have personal recollections of those events.


Contemporary Concerns

Jasanoff prefaced the May 7 discussion by outlining three broad concerns for faculty consideration: 

  • Administrators, she said, find it increasingly hard to connect with faculty members: e-mail messages aren’t read, and attendance at meetings is sparse. They were uncertain about how to connect with whom, to keep abreast of faculty perspectives.
  • Faculty members, in turn, were increasingly frustrated and felt insufficiently consulted. They found it hard to reach administrators, to the point that “the remit of faculty governance” can seem “opaque,” as she put it. And on issues that affect the faculty but cross University boundaries—edX, Allston, the libraries—the difficulties are even greater. How best could faculty members offer their input?
  • Finally, she said, students felt a “similar sense of disjuncture from decisions that are shaping College life,” such as House renewal. Their perspectives, and staff members’, matter, too.

The common question, as she framed it, is, “How effectively do the forms available to us achieve the connections we need?” She invited the faculty to brainstorm about the efficacy of their elected Faculty Council (Dean Smith had earlier noted that 200 faculty members had cast ballots in the recent council election—about the same small fraction of members as regularly attend faculty meetings); the faculty meetings themselves; and the large infrastructure of substantive committees and standing committees.

During the spring semester, she said, amplifying her memo, three experiments in communications had been attempted:

Jasanoff sought views on how effective these mechanisms had been—and on whether the faculty felt there were issues that should be addressed in other realms, or issues that were not being addressed at all.


The Faculty Responds

Editor’s note: Under FAS rules, speakers can be identified only with their consent. As consent is obtained, the following account will be updated.

Addressing the absentees. Francke professor of German art and culture Jeffrey F. Hamburger, a Faculty Council member, said it was important to reach out to the majority of faculty members who do not attend faculty meetings. Asked why they didn’t appear, he said, they often responded, “You’ve got to be joking” or “Why should I bother?”—answers that might reveal genuine cynicism, or mere expediency masquerading as cynicism. Hamburger had found serving on the council constructive, especially this year, as its discussions became freer and unstructured. He urged colleagues to serve, and was distressed that only 200 bothered to cast ballots this year. Professors who expressed concern that no one listened to their concerns had the obligation to take opportunities to be heard.


A “sense of alienation.” Professor of history Alison Frank Johnson—one of those newly elected to the Faculty Council for the coming year—thanked FAS’s administrators for their service, as colleagues and fellow professors. She continued that colleagues, and she herself, believed that there had been “a proliferation of administrators who are not faculty members,” with new duties and responsibilities. That produced what she characterized as a “sense of alienation” and a “more corporate feeling” about faculty affairs—a condition “that not all of us fully understand.” Consultation is different from governance, she noted; people could be asked to share ideas, only to see them ignored as impractical or inconsistent with other aims. When asked to contribute, she said, faculty members would be more enthusiastic if they had a clearer sense of how their ideas made a difference in a decision or outcome. In raising these concerns, she emphasized, she did not mean to be ungrateful or impertinent; the administrators who are faculty members have heavy responsibilities to make decisions, but need to consider how consultation falls short of actual governance, too.


“Ceremonial” meetings. The next speaker said that many people avoided faculty meetings because they perceived them as “highly structured and ceremonial,” not as affording real opportunities for participation. Many faculty members new to Harvard worked “heart and soul” to effect change, only to find that the institution could not be changed—the downside of its sturdiness; that experience made it difficult to invest further energy in institutional matters. Finally, she said, “people have the sense that the administration greatly outnumbers the faculty” (a point on which data could be provided, she said). She explained that faculty appointments faced demanding hurdles of departmental, FAS, and University review—what she termed “braking structures”—but that no similar constraints governed administrative hiring, whenever a need was identified.


“Widespread concern about HarvardX.” Professor of philosophy (and interim chair) Edward J. Hall applied Professor Johnson’s general point to the specific matter of online education. Colleagues he had spoken to were invited to meetings on program implementation, he said, but not to consult on whether the overall idea or educational direction made sense.

Dean Smith, in response, said any faculty member could come to him to discuss these issues; that many faculty members were eager to experiment with online technology; and that it made sense for Harvard to be involved—since the world was moving in that direction—so professors could learn from what is discovered. As an industry sector, he said, education was growing explosively, but the jobs it required might be different in the future, requiring Harvard to train its professors and their graduate students to use new tools.

President Faust noted that the increased administrative population reflects the fact that “higher education has changed significantly.” It is expected to be much more accountable, and to serve its constituencies in new ways. Thus, during the past generation, staffing has grown for information technology; compliance and regulation associated with federal research grants; international operations; and expansion of services for students, such as improved advising. Some of these services enable faculty members to spend more time on research and teaching, she said, and she hoped they would think about that when they talk about the growth in the administrative ranks.

(Faust did not say so, but in the wake of the financial crisis, the University has also added personnel responsible for financial management, capital planning, and other, similar functions—a deliberate enhancement of “administrative capacity,” as the Corporation’s Senior Fellow has repeatedly called these changes in briefings for the community. The executive vice presidency, created at the outset of Faust’s presidency in 2007, is a focal point for some of these changes. The growth in the provost’s office—created in its modern form in the early 1990s, during Neil L. Rudenstine’s presidency—illustrates some of her points about regulatory and other kinds of oversight and management.)


“At the origin of policies.” Saltonstall professor of history Charles Maier observed that the faculty itself has changed over time. He distinguished governance from government: the former, he said, involved talking together to contribute to government within the University, but without the apparatus of a state. The sense had arisen, he said, that policies now originate within the administration. He cited the announcement of SEAS’s move to Allston; decisions about resources; the “debates and disquiet” about HarvardX (where it appeared that there was a rush to board the “fast train at the station” without being sure of the destination or even which train to take); and the University’s internationalization via institutes and structures that might better serve the needs of faculties such as Harvard Business School than those of FAS. As a result, he said, “We don’t quite know how to have an input.”

Maier wondered whether the Faculty Council is large enough to serve its intended functions, and whether it needs standing committees on each of the issues he listed. (This argument echoes those that led the Corporation to enlarge its membership from seven to 13, and to form standing committees to enhance its understanding of core, fiduciary issues, when it adopted sweeping reforms in December 2010.) Does FAS, he asked, “have the leverage to engage us the way we want to be engaged?” In his view, “The Faculty could be [involved] at the origin of policies as well as at the consultative stage”—a point that was greeted with applause.

Dean Smith pointed to the HarvardX website as a source of information on the faculty committees involved in its operation and activities, and the wide range of faculty input. The online experiment, he noted, was not driven solely by administrators. (The following sentence has been corrected as of May 10, 2013, at 1:45 p.m. The edX partnership with MIT, announced in May 2012, came together quickly, and although faculty members who were involved in planning courses were already engaged with the emerging effort, faculty advisory committees were not fully populated at the time of the announcement. The committees Smith mentioned were populated and disclosed in early 2013.)


The legislative intent. Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations Peter K. Bol, reflecting on his own past Faculty Council service and his engagement with many past FAS deans, said deans and administration were inherently never fully transparent. During moments of particular tension, he said, Faculty Council members had looked back to the 1970s, when the council was legislated into being, following the Harvard crises of the late 1960s. It might be time to revisit those intended purposes, he suggested, and to see whether those rules still obtained. At the same time, faculty members had to recognize that if they wished to take the initiative to make policy and decisions, they would have to invest their time and energy.


Faculty Council’s problems. Loker professor of English James Simpson, who served on the council in the past, said it was intended to perform two roles: as a sounding board for the dean, when he planned to bring issues before the faculty as a whole; and as a conduit to bring issues from the faculty to the dean. The first role, he believed, worked well. The second had failed. If the second function were performed, he thought, the council as presently constituted was an ideal size for deliberation—as the larger faculty meetings are not.


Maya Jasanoff’s perspectives. At this point, Professor Jasanoff rose to reflect on the conversation thus far. The council, she said, had determined to examine its origins and intended functions in light of contemporary conditions, as Bol suggested, and had established a committee to do so during the 2013-1014 academic year. (Her term of service is ending, so she will not be involved.) As for the comments by Hamburger and Simpson, on the role of faculty members as participants in two-way communications, she said, there was much more evidence of that occurring in the current academic year. The very discussion the faculty members were conducting arose from just such a faculty initiative and input. But, as noted, it took place in an environment where only a small minority of eligible faculty members vote on Faculty Council candidates, few members stood for election, and there was “low uptake” on requests for faculty members to participate in discussion. Those concerns set the stage for the council’s discussion next year on how it can function better—and the larger question about whether the council and the faculty meetings themselves are workable mechanisms for the kinds of discussion the faculty feels it needs to have.


Who steps up—and who doesn’t. Jones professor of African American music Ingrid Monson agreed that all members of the faculty need to step up to the challenge of engaging in such discussions—but the people present are the very faculty members who are already engaged. They do a great deal of service, and are exhausted from their committee responsibilities—work that often seems to have no effect. Resources have remained scarce, and within FAS, the arts and humanities faculty has found it impossible to grow. That leads to frustration in light of academic and other demands. When initiatives such as HarvardX arise, she found it interesting, but realized she would be investing many hours all summer if she wished to prepare an online course—time that is unpaid, and content for which key intellectual-property issues (involving the use of music) are unresolved. All faculty members should step up, but they need the mechanisms and resources to support their work if they are to put in the required effort.


Progress this year. Professor Hamburger rose again, noting, in light of Professor Simpson’s comments, that there had been real progress in how the Faculty Council functioned this year. He cited discussions there regarding concerns about edX and HarvardX; conversations about resources, including both research support for faculty members and library funds; and the initiative for the faculty discussion now under way. (Dean Smith had announced at the beginning of the meeting that research support would be enhanced for next academic year, and that acquisition funds for the library collections would also be expanded, by $1.1 million, next year—perhaps in part as a result of the council conversations, Hamburger said.) These steps were all evidence of changes for the better this year, he concluded.


“A very welcome conversation.” James Engell saluted “a very welcome conversation.” He wanted to advance several specific recommendations. The Faculty Council might communicate better with its constituents in person or by digital means, at the very least by disseminating agendas for its meetings, rather than merely having the dean report on its votes after the fact. The faculty are deluged with websites and e-mails bearing important information; might not a clearing-house function be created for faculty communications, in the office of the secretary or elsewhere—and might it not at a minimum circulate preliminary agendas for faculty meetings a week in advance? (The former practice has lapsed; agendas now appear in final form two to three business days before faculty meetings.) He also urged more extensive use of websites and discussion boards, rather than one-way e-mails, so faculty members could actually hear and see one another’s ideas; the mechanism had worked well in the discussion he was overseeing concerning principles for faculty members’ outside engagement with online educational media. The central administration, too, could make an effort to reach out—perhaps by releasing agendas for the Corporation meetings, so the community could have some sense of what issues the senior governing board is taking up.

Overall, Engell said, in an era of proliferating electronic communications, “As we all seem to have more at our fingertips, we seem to have less in common.”

President Faust said the Corporation did wish to communicate better with the community, and had instituted regular briefings for the media by the Senior Fellow. But evidently the effort had not been effective, and the Corporation would be interested in finding the right vehicles to communicate better.


“Having to acquiesce.” Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas returned to edX. The faculty had not really had extensive discussion about the implications for academia, and the applications of, massive online courses, he said. He referred to recent reports that philosophy professors at San Jose State University had appealed to Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel to withdraw the HarvardX version of his “Justice” course, lest it be deployed in ways that would undercut their own teaching and ultimately their jobs. There are faculty and research committees for HarvardX, but its leadership group is dominated by administrators. Where would the broader, philosophical discussions—concerning the monetization of HarvardX courses, and their application to teaching within the College—take place? Similarly, the decision to move SEAS was presented with virtually no input by that faculty. “There is a sense of being treated like idiots and having to acquiesce,” he said. “There seems to be a fiction at times that we’ve discussed intellectual matters.”

Dean Smith acknowledged that HarvardX was experimental, and that it had not answered many questions. Nonetheless, it reflected much faculty input, and much further faculty discussion was warranted. Thomas said the edX venture seemed to imply that all of higher education would move in this direction in the future, an assumption that was not fully vetted. Smith said that higher education’s future warranted much more discussion.

President Faust said that edX arose from decanal discussion of faculty interest and indications that outside vendors, including for-profit institutions, were approaching Harvard faculty members to offer online courses. It seemed better, she said, for Harvard to respond as an institution. That was under discussion in late 2011. When MIT approached to offer participation in its online platform, that seemed a good opportunity to join forces and enable Harvard faculty to engage, and so the University entered the edX partnership. It was begun not as an imposition on faculty members, but in response to their requests to engage with online teaching and learning.

Robert Lue, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology and the HarvardX faculty director, noted that its faculty committee and research committee had broad FAS representation, and that HarvardX aimed to explore and enhance both online education and “the brick and mortar space.” No one knew the implications for higher education, he said, but HarvardX had begun wide discussions with FAS’s education policy committee on just those concerns. HarvardX was, he noted, just one year old, with much to learn, and many more opportunities for faculty input already planned.


“How do we create an engaged community?” The last speaker, Rakesh Khurana, Bower professor of leadership development—a Harvard Business School faculty member, but also a member of FAS in his capacity as master of Cabot House—said that he studied organizations and organizational culture. Returning to Jasanoff’s introductory presentations, he said the issue for FAS was “How do we create an engaged community” that feels genuinely consulted? Specific issues had been raised—the growth in administrative ranks, the Faculty Council’s composition, and, more broadly, the norms and culture of the place: what it feels like to be within the community. These issues, he added, arose in an uncertain era for higher education—conditions that made engagement more important than ever before.

The faculty needed to act to “create a psychologically safe environment” for engagement, Khurana said, where silence was not interpreted as agreement, where there was no pressure to behave simply so as to create unanimity, and where people were not judged for raising ideas before they were fully formed. He suggested some steps to bring such conditions about: creating discussions to raise questions—and actively encouraging participants to do so—while deferring the presentation of solutions; and soliciting written feedback after meetings. His remarks elicited applause.

President Faust concluded by noting that she had begun attending FAS meetings in 2001 (in her capacity then as dean of the reorganized Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study). Then, she said, there had been many presentations of prepared speeches. Today’s discussion, in contrast, was a genuine discussion.



There is an enduring, inherent tension between individual faculty members, who may act in concert as a legislative authority, and executives who make decisions and manage institutions as a whole.

In many respects, the comments at the faculty meeting seemed procedural proposals advanced to address substantive differences about the faculty’s direction. And to outsiders, some concerns might seem parochial or temporary in nature. But in fact, experiments like HarvardX and edX involve matters essential to professors’ concerns and dear to their hearts: in particular, how they teach, at a time when everything about teaching is under question. The recent decision of the Amherst faculty not to join the edX partnership—mentioned during the May 7 faculty meeting—turned on small-class, personal instruction. Where a class in the past might require no more than a syllabus and a blackboard, a full-scale MOOC, with videographers, computer programmers, and support services, might involve an investment of $250,000 per course—and a much more centralized approach toward “producing” a course.

That evolution arrives in the context of other centralizing, increasingly administrative processes. The University libraries in effect are now led by professional managers, not by a faculty member. Harvard’s severe financial problems in 2008-2009, when the University suffered because most of its liquid funds had been invested alongside the endowment, and when interest-rate swaps produced enormous losses—the result of central financial decisions—resulted in an era during which budgets had to be cut and financial-management processes were further centralized to produce better controls.

All these factors have reshaped the context for faculty-administration relationships today, bringing that discussion to the fore within FAS once again.

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