President Will No Longer Chair Faculty Meetings

Larry Bacow reforms another Harvard tradition.

Lawrence S. Bacow and Claudine Gay

At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on March 7, President Lawrence S. Bacow used his “President’s Business” time to introduce a surprise change in a hallowed tradition. Saying that he wanted to address “the role of the president in chairing these meetings,” he told the faculty that his predecessor, Drew Gilpin Faust, had advised him to stop doing so. Although he rejected that advice upon becoming president, he continued, he had now reached a different conclusion and would advise his successor, Dean Claudine Gay—the first FAS dean elevated to the presidency—not to chair faculty meetings once she moves from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall.

This recommendation, and Gay’s announcement that she would accept Bacow’s advice on this point, are interesting for what they say about:

Harvard traditions; 

how the place operates today;

Bacow’s institutional instincts (which have led to changes that no one had previously thought possible); and 

the evolving status of governance within faculty meetings.

Ending a tradition. As Bacow explained to the faculty, having the University president chair FAS meetings is a custom, not a requirement of any Harvard statute. FAS of course thinks of itself as the center of the University, and so there might be sentiment for having the president sit in the central chair in the faculty room (or, in this case, on Zoom). But, as he noted, FAS is the only Harvard school where the president has chaired such meetings; in all other schools, they are properly seen as deans’ meetings, at which the president is not expected or invited to participate. The president, he said, typically does visit other schools’ meetings annually, and on occasions when his or her presence is thought to be of substantive importance.

Despite Faust’s advice, he said, “I thought it was a good thing to do.” Chairing the meetings would enable him to get to know FAS members, and would give them an opportunity to see and get to know him. As a logistical matter, he said, that has not worked out terribly well: the president usually asks the secretary of the faculty to recognize members who wish to speak during debates, to avoid any appearance of presidential partisanship. Nor has it been necessary: he has maintained an open-door policy, meeting with any University faculty member upon request, and also engaged with them outside the formal confines of faculty meetings—for example, during Faculty Council sessions, in ad hocs (reviews of candidates for tenured appointments), and in pursuing with departments the recommendations of visiting committees.

FAS faculty meetings themselves, Bacow noted, “represent a not insignificant but also not complete” roster of faculty members. Attendance is typically one-fourth to one-fifth of the 800 or so eligible voting members.

Atop all that, he said, the president’s presence generally diminishes the role of the dean, whose faculty and meeting it really is. In the case of Gay’s appointment as president, were she to chair FAS meetings, the situation would be especially “awkward” for her successor dean. In debates, Bacow suggested, faculty members might attempt to draw her in, further diminishing the role of the new dean. 

“These are the dean’s meetings,” he concluded, and “the dean should chair” them—a matter he discussed with the Docket Committee and the Faculty Council earlier, in advance of this full FAS meeting. In practice, as chair the president has gone through the motions procedurally: guiding the meetings through the formal agenda, calling for debate and votes, but adding little of substance. Thus, the evidence pointed toward ending the practice.

Dean Gay thanked Bacow for “prompting reexamination” of this “historical practice,” and welcomed his useful advice during the presidential transition—and his willingness to explain his reasoning to the faculty. Given her deep commitment to FAS—her intellectual home since she was a graduate student, Gay said, the place that has “shown me what the pursuit of academic excellence looks like”—and to the success of her decanal successor, she agreed with his logic.

During the early stages of the search, she said, she saw the “ambitions and profound hopes this community has for its next leader,” and was at pains to assure that whoever becomes the next FAS dean has full “authority to chart the path” forward without being beholden to a Harvard president who has just come from that position. She will, she said, of course be available to help the FAS dean, and will engage “when I’m invited to be here”—but on an exceptional basis, not by “chairing the monthly meetings of the faculty.” (She, too, pledged to maintain an open-door policy of faculty members’ access to the president.)

How Harvard operates today. In at least one sense, the president’s announcement is not surprising. Formal faculty meetings are increasingly given over to procedural requirements and routine approvals (voting to accept the courses of instruction, for instance), rather than deep pedagogical debates. Gay’s sweeping strategic planning for FAS, for example, is proceeding entirely outside the framework of the monthly faculty meetings. No one can recall a substantive discussion of FAS’s fundraising priorities within the confines of such meetings. And so on. This is no longer where the action is (explaining why so few voting members regularly attend).

And there is an opportunity cost, as Bacow noted. The president has to prepare to chair the meetings and suit his or her travel schedule to FAS’s calendar, not knowing whether any substantive business will be on the docket. Given the demands on the president to work with lawmakers and regulators in Washington, D.C., attend alumni events around the world, and raise funds continuously, devoting those days on the calendar to FAS meetings has probably come to seem increasingly less valuable.

President Bacow, reformer. Bacow is nothing if not an institutionalist: a graduate of MIT and Harvard, a long faculty and administrative career at MIT, the Tufts presidency, service as a member of the Harvard Corporation, and now University president. His academic work often addressed how institutions work, and how to make them work better—and his experience has only reinforced that pragmatic inclination. 

So beneath the dominating news narrative of his service in Mass Hall—steering the community through the COVID-19 pandemic—are now at least three important reforms of long-established Harvard practices.

With graduation exercises moved online in the spring of 2020, Bacow moved subsequently—through an interim, online alumni and reunion experience in 2021—to effect the formal separation of Commencement from Harvard Alumni Association’s annual meeting, the former “afternoon exercises” of Commencement day. As of last year, Harvard Alumni Day takes place later (this year, Commencement is May 25 and the alumni day, built around reunions, is scheduled for June 2). That bows to logistical constraints—Tercentenary Theatre simply can’t hold all the graduates, family members, friends, and alumni who wanted to crowd in together—and it makes the guest speaker’s remarks a true graduation speech after the conferring of degrees, rather than a sometimes-awkward, and ill-attended, occasion much later in the afternoon, following celebratory lunches. Many alumni regretted the ending of the tradition, but the deed is done; the morning hoopla focusing on the proud graduates promises to work much better now; alumni-focused reunions and events (including a keynote speaker) will develop their own new customs; and a long-sacred practice has proved mutable.

During the pandemic, when the Harvard Graduate School of Education moved its one-year master’s degree program online, the academic results were good, especially in terms a broader, more experienced, and in some ways more qualified applicant pool who could earn degrees this way—but who could not afford take a year away from work and absorb the expenses of living in Cambridge for a degree in residence. Now the school regularly offers a master’s degree program online. And so, during Bacow’s presidency, building on his earlier optimism about the potential for online education, Harvard has relaxed a formerly inviolable requirement that degrees be earned in residence, period. That may become a big deal for all kinds of programs and degrees in years to come.

Today’s announcement about ceding the chairmanship of faculty meetings to the FAS dean is of a different sort. It ends a custom, as Bacow noted, rather than changing a rule. The timing of the announcement clearly matters in the FAS dean search: any canny candidate would want to be confident that she or he can truly lead, rather than implicitly deferring to a president who was dean immediately before—or being subject to faculty members’ assumptions about who is calling the shots. It also recognizes the reality: FAS looms large within the University, and always will, but it is only one part of a much larger Harvard with powerful faculties and other resources across the professions. The president’s business is with the totality of the place, and each dean’s is principally with the separate schools.

Governance. At the meeting’s conclusion, Bacow characterized it as an exercise in faculty governance. Sort of. Much of the meeting was taken up with discussing, and attempting to amend, a motion dealing with how undergraduates are to be guided to fulfill their foreign language requirement. Neither the language requirement itself, nor other academic requirements, were under debate. Rather the question focused on whether students who haven’t completed their requirements were to be warned in a punitive way by the Administrative Board (the current practice), or advised, in academic counseling sessions, to do so—and encouraged to do so early enough in their careers to study abroad, take a secondary field in a language, and so on. 

That motion, introduced in the February meeting, underwent two amendments, one of which occasioned two votes because of confusion over what was being proposed, and the second of which ended, improbably, in a 57-57 tie.

The president, as chair, asked the parliamentarian what to do. She said the chair would have to decide the matter: precisely the sort of substantive decision Bacow had said, at the outset of the meeting, the president should never make on the faculty’s behalf. Not having anticipated such an outcome, he was then forced to ask the dean her recommendation in light of her expertise on the matters at hand. Dean Gay, having been put on the spot, recommended that the amendment not be accepted, and that the motion as advanced by the faculty’s Educational Policy Committee be adopted, and so it was: students will be advised to complete their language requirement, but not sanctioned for failing to do so within their first two years of College study.


With that proceduralist outcome, faculty governance did work, in a way. But it did not get at the substantive matters—what Harvard students should be required to study, and when in their undergraduate education. Those kinds of debates now seem largely beyond the scope of faculty meetings. It will be up to the next FAS dean to determine whether that is a good thing, and if not, what to do about it. But neither President Bacow nor, come next fall, President Gay will be directly involved in the debate or its outcome.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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