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Governance at Issue

July-August 2013

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) devoted most of its last regular meeting of the academic year, on May 7, to an unusual, wide-ranging discussion of FAS and University governance.

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

Maya Jasanoff

The formal agenda item was introduced blandly: “On behalf of the Faculty Council, Professor Maya Jasanoff will lead a discussion on consultation, communication, and governance.” But its origins—from the faculty’s elected council representatives, rather than from a substantive committee—suggested this was not routine business, a point emphasized by a background memorandum from Jasanoff (a council member and vice-chair of the docket committee). That noted 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).”

At the tense faculty meeting of April 2 (at which additional investigations of resident deans’ e-mail accounts were disclosed, during a review of student cheating on a spring 2012 final exam—see “E-mail Imbroglio,” May-June, page 46), Jasanoff, a professor of history, had suggested that communication within FAS fell short, and that many colleagues did not feel comfortable expressing themselves in such formal settings. Introducing the May 7 conversation, she said the “shared sense” that communication needed improvement arose both from faculty members’ crowded schedules and e-mail in-boxes and from “significant changes in higher education, the nation, the world, and Harvard.” The latter included some items from her memo: decisions about 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.

As background:

• Faculty members uncertain about HarvardX and edX (the development and deployment of “massive open online courses,” MOOCs, that disseminate classes worldwide electronically)—and their costs and implications for teaching and such matters as who controls credit for online education—have raised concerns in prior faculty meetings (see “Online Education Accelerates,” March-April, page 50 and www.harvardmag.com/edx-growth, and this issue, “Online Overdrive,” page 50.)

• At the February 5 faculty meeting where President Drew Faust and Provost Alan Garber outlined the relocation of SEAS to Allston, several SEAS area deans rose to object that the decision was presented on short notice, and to express their then-unaddressed reservations about the prospective move (see www.harvardmag.com/seas-13).

• Although a large University capital campaign is under way (see “Campaign Chatter,” May-June, page 50), many—perhaps most—FAS members seem to have little sense of its aims and impact on research and teaching, beyond the known goals of funding financial aid and renovating the undergraduate Houses.

Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

Evelynn M. Hammonds

• Other recent issues disquieting faculty members include the centralization of library services, under the provost’s direction; the provost’s spring 2012 announcement that financial-planning services for professors were being discontinued (see “Faculty Finance Frustrations,” July-August 2012, page 48); and throughout this academic year, the investigation of undergraduate academic misconduct, and the administrative probing of resident deans’ e-mail accounts, with the initial approval of FAS dean Michael D. Smith and University general counsel Robert Iuliano—and, subsequently, by Harvard College dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, without Smith’s knowledge or consent (see “E-mail Update,” below). The announcement on the Tuesday of Commencement week that Hammonds would step down at year end proved a kind of punctuation markfor this controversy.

Longer-serving faculty members remember the trauma—focused on discussions within FAS—that surrounded the administration of Lawrence H. Summers, his abrupt dismissal of an FAS dean, and the early end of his own presidency, in 2006. That was followed by the financial crisis of 2008-2009—especially stressful for a faculty that had become particularly reliant upon the endowment for operating revenue. The University and FAS have come quite a distance since then, but many professors retain personal recollections of those governance and financial crises.

Although the May 7 discussion framed these mostly substantive differences in terms of communications processes and procedures, faculty comments illuminated some of the deeper concerns.

Francke professor of German art and culture Jeffrey F. Hamburger, a Faculty Council member, urged reaching out to the faculty majority who skip faculty meetings, either from genuine cynicism or mere expediency.

Professor of history Alison Frank Johnson—newly elected to the council—said colleagues, and she herself, believed “a proliferation of administrators who are not faculty members,” with new duties and responsibilities, had produced a “sense of alienation” and a “more corporate feeling” about faculty affairs “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. Professor of philosophy Edward J. Hall said colleagues he had spoken to were invited to meetings about online program implementation, but not to consult on whether the overall idea or educational direction made sense.

Saltonstall professor of history Charles Maier observed that governance involved talking together to contribute to government within the University. The sense had arisen, he said, that policies now originate within the administration. He cited the announcement of SEAS’s move; decisions about resources; the “debates and disquiet” about HarvardX (where it appeared there was a rush to board the “fast train at the station” without being sure of the destination); and the University’s internationalization via structures that might better serve the needs of professional-school faculties than those of FAS. As a result, he said, “We don’t quite know how to have an input.”

Other speakers’ specific suggestions for rethinking the Faculty Council or revisiting its originating legislation, and for enhancing digital communications, provided grist for future meetings.

The last speaker, Rakesh Khurana, Bower professor of leadership development at the Business School (but, as master of Cabot House, a member of FAS), a scholar of organizational culture, returned to Jasanoff’s introductory presentation. The issue for FAS was “How do we create an engaged community” that feels genuinely consulted? An uncertain era for higher education made such engagement more important than ever before. The faculty needed to “create a psychologically safe environment,” Khurana said, where silence was not interpreted as agreement, where there was no pressure to create unanimity, and where people were not judged for raising ideas before they were fully formed. He suggested creating discussions to raise questions—and encouraging participants to do so—while deferring the presentation of solutions; and soliciting written feedback afterwards.

These may seem soft solutions to hard problems. Experiments like HarvardX and edX involve matters essential to professors’ concerns, such as how they teach, at a time when everything about teaching is under question. A single MOOC—with videographers, computer programmers, and support services—may involve an investment of $250,000—and a much more centralized approach toward “producing” a course. And further centralization has occurred. The University libraries in effect are now led by professional managers, not by faculty members. The 2008-2009 financial crisis resulted in budget cuts and even more centralization of financial management to produce better controls. Funds from some faculty research centers continue to be tapped to shore up FAS’s budget—a source of continued unhappiness.

Such factors have reshaped the context for faculty-administration relationships today, bringing discussion of governance to the fore within FAS once again. Khurana’s remarks elicited applause, suggesting the faculty members’ hunger for solutions to their current disquiet, and their enthusiasm for context-changing suggestions from someone they view as a colleague.

For a fuller account, seewww.harvardmag.com/governance-13.

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