Governance Reform from Below?

In a tumultuous year, Harvard professors discuss a University faculty senate.

Loeb House, where Harvard’s governing boards meet

Loeb House, where the governing boards meet | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

The last item discussed at the May 7 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting may, in time, rank first in importance: a motion, introduced by Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, brought forth with seven colleagues, that the faculty elect representatives to a University Senate Planning Body. Harvard, with its highly decentralized structure of strong schools, is almost alone among major research universities in not having such an institutional forum for a faculty voice. (Yale’s senate includes only two of its faculties; all other peers appear to have institution-wide faculty senates.) Similar resolutions are being brought before the business, design, divinity, education, government, law, medicine, and public-health faculties—all hoping for action by May 15 to constitute the planning body.

The interesting question now is whether a faculty senate could play a productive role in shared governance at a time of severe challenges—from clarifying policies for free speech and academic freedom to weighing in on academic and budgetary priorities—and, if so, whether all the diverse faculties can agree on a plan for proceeding. The University-wide,18-member informal working group on faculty governance, whose 19 pages of background material accompanied the motion put before FAS, includes professors from across Harvard’s schools: a preliminary indication of widespread interest. On the other hand, according to the Harvard Crimson’s account of a private town hall meeting of interim president Alan M. Garber, interim provost John F. Manning, several Corporation members, and FAS members on April 30, Manning—who was dean of the Law School—raised questions about whether one school would like the faculty of another having some say in its affairs, and the legal basis in the University Statutes for a representative body like the proposed senate.

Top-Down Reform

Two crises in the first decade of this millennium prompted the last significant changes on a comparable scale. In December 2010, President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation unveiled historic reforms of University governance: enlargement of the governing board’s membership, creation of formal committees to effect its fiduciary oversight, succession and leadership planning, and a regular process for assessing the institution’s governance in the future. Those changes in “composition, structure, and practice” were meant to respond to disagreements that had arisen among Corporation members about their role and its function during the presidency of Lawrence H. Summers (culminating in the very public resignation of Conrad K. Harper), and the failures of oversight that preceded the multibillion-dollar investment and other losses sustained during the financial panic and Great Recession—staggering even for an institution of Harvard’s size and wealth.

That effort was driven from the top, and as is the Corporation’s wont, was largely effected in private. In some respects, it has been an unqualified success: the enhanced financial oversight, combined with favorable economic conditions and the $9.6-billion University campaign, have yielded a decade of operating surpluses. The value of the endowment, adjusted for inflation, has been restored to the level preceding the disasters of 15 years ago—critical for the University’s mission, given that endowment distributions now provide more than one-third of annual operating revenues. But by other measures—communication about the Corporation’s work and general transparency in Harvard governance, and evidence of strategic and academic planning—the reforms could be said to be incomplete.

In this context, the events of the current academic year have again raised questions about the effectiveness of Harvard governance: the appointment of Claudine Gay as the thirtieth president announced in December 2022; her departure this past January after only six months in office—only a few weeks after the Corporation expressed its support for her presidency; criticism of how she was prepared for her critical testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives last December 5; and the Corporation’s opaque evaluation of claims of plagiarism made against Gay (initially lodged confidentially and anonymously, and then widely disseminated in the news media, for what could charitably be described as political, rather than academic or intellectual, purposes).

For a nearly 400-year-old paragon of stability, two presidencies cut short and a nearly existential financial crisis within less than two decades are apparently more than enough to shake confidence. The faculty group’s statement of the goals for a proposed senate and some of its specific concerns accordingly merit closer attention.

Making the Faculty’s Case

In a summary of its arguments for a senate, the informal planning group states the obvious: “Harvard currently faces unprecedented challenges.” In that context, “The absence of any means of consulting the faculty on matters for which its views are needed and desired has hampered crisis management recently and, more generally, weakens longer-term cross-campus strategic planning. Challenges flow from difficulties the faculty has faced in realizing three core values across schools,” which it spells out as:

Shared understanding:

● Lack of shared understandings of core University values, policies and procedures among faculty;

● No structure for faculty to get to know one another across schools, compare perspectives on University-wide policies from school-specific points of view, or engage together in longer-term strategic brainstorming.

Effective communication:

● No formal or regularized way for faculty to deliberate with faculty from other schools on matters of University-wide policy about which opinions diverge;

● Underdeveloped formal channels of communication between the faculty and University leadership, including the Corporation and Board of Overseers.

Cooperative governance:

● A reliance on ad hoc faculty task forces that, however useful, lack institutional memory, face repeated start-up and wind-down costs, and lack the ability to speak for the University’s component faculties in any robustly democratic or representative way;

● Policy variation across schools on themes, such as classroom disruption, where University-wide policy, developed with formalized faculty input would be valuable, even while some variation in school policies can be necessary;

● Under-leveraging the commitment of the faculty to the mission of the organization, and potential for partnership with University leadership, including the Corporation, on behalf of the whole.

This list appears abstract, but it is grounded in distinct realities. Procedurally, of course, the critique of governance-by-task-force is timely and sensible on its face. The current ad hoc University task forces on antisemitism and anti-Muslim and -Arab bias, and the working groups on open inquiry and constructive dialogue (free speech) and institutional voice (institutional neutrality on political issues)—all of which reported separately to the May 7 FAS meeting (see a separate Harvard Magazine report, forthcoming)—were necessarily hastily assembled, had to build a support staff and outreach mechanisms from scratch, and involve a limited number of faculty members. Their ability to engage the faculties broadly, and the question of memory, both pose challenges.

Philosophically, the planning group invokes the American Association of University Professors’ statements on faculty engagement in and responsibility for shared governance. Broadly, as the AAUP put it:

[T]eaching and research are the very purpose of an academic institution and the reason why the public values and supports it. This means that the faculty, who are responsible for carrying out those central tasks, should be viewed as having a special status within the institution….[and as] partners with the trustees….[T]he office of faculty member should be ... “one both of dignity and of independence. ” Allocation of authority to the faculty in the areas of its responsibility is a necessary condition for the faculty’s possessing that dignity and exercising that independence.

More pointedly, the Harvard planning group observes:

[T]he AAUP’s fundamental principles assert that the “faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” As a result, questions of a curricular nature are within the core legislative prerogative of the faculty. Likewise, because “scholars in a particular field or activity have the chief competence for judging the work of their colleagues, ” it “is the faculty—not trustees or administrators—who have the experience needed for assessing whether an instance of faculty speech constitutes a breach of a central principle of academic morality, and who have the expertise to form judgments of faculty competence or incompetence,” including with respect to questions or issues concerning academic integrity. [Emphases added.]

The latter passages have contemporary relevance. During Columbia President Minouche Shafik’s testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee in April, she agreed with committee members’ criticisms of individual faculty members, and said one “will never teach at Columbia again.” Inside Higher Education’s headline on its account of the hearing was “Columbia President Accused of Dishonest Testimony, Throwing Professors ‘Under the Bus.’” Shafik and a Columbia trustee participating in the hearing also agreed with a committee member’s criticisms of faculty members’ research and the terms used in that scholarship. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Len Gutkin, commenting on that aspect of the proceedings, wrote, “When members of the board pass invidious comments on sociological concepts from academic fields they know nothing about, academic freedom is in peril indeed.” Such challenges loom large for faculty members, who have reason to worry about erosion of standards for academic freedom and free speech, among universities’ other core attributes, even at the strongest institutions. (An unspoken worry, in the context of the proposed faculty senate planning group, is the challenge to such core attributes arising from large donors applying pressure on or publicly criticizing governing-board members and senior administrators, as has been widely reported here and at peer universities.)

Closest to home, the Harvard planning group’s language about “questions or issues concerning academic integrity” can be interpreted as a restatement of faculty primacy in matters pertaining to plagiarism, following established procedures—which do not appear to have been followed last fall when the Corporation reviewed Gay’s work.

Finally, the planning group notes that faculty members have already begun working on matters of common concern: “Thanks to ongoing campus controversies, Harvard faculty are in regular and intense conversation with one another across schools for the first time in generations. Faculty are leading on dialogues about University-wide policies from institutional neutrality to academic freedom to anti-bullying, inclusion and belonging, and equity and diversity. This represents an opportunity for faculty to support University leaders in important strategic decision-making about our shared future.”

In passing, the group notes other longer-running concerns “not currently within the ambit of any ad hoc faculty task force.” One of these is “the ongoing development of the Allston campus and its relation to the broader mission of the University.” That is a nod to the nearly four-decade-long process of acquiring land, ostensibly for academic development, which has yielded a single engineering and sciences complex and what is now likely a large commercial developmentwith uncertain financial returns for a decade or more. To date, the University has invested at least hundreds of millions of dollars in Allston apart from the academic building, and untold hours of presidential and senior administrators’ time, dating from the Summers presidency—not inconsequential opportunity costs for Harvard.

More parochially, the planning group pivots from a larger question about use of University resources to a point that has particularly exercised FAS members in the past:

[A]s the AAUP’s statements emphasize, the “allocation of resources among competing demands is central in the formal responsibility of the governing board, in the administrative authority of the president, and in the educational function of the faculty.” In this vein, the Association goes on to observe that “[t]he faculty should actively participate in the determination of policies and procedures governing salary increases.” Consistent with these principles, in 2020, when Johns Hopkins University faced a serious financial crisis, faculty got involved in the restructuring of the budget. Importantly, because of faculty involvement, suspension of retirement benefits, as was originally proposed, was avoided. By contrast, at Harvard, faculty have recently been required to assume a greater share of the cost of their medical benefits, following a previous reduction in the University’s contribution to faculty retirement savings—both actions undertaken unilaterally by the administration.

Across the Higher Education sector, faculty engagement with budget questions is on the rise as a necessary part of protecting the academic mission. Increased faculty financial literacy improves campus deliberations about critical decisions.

Pro and Con

In a recent Crimson op-ed, former FAS Dean William C. Kirby (who is president of the Harvard Magazine Inc. Board of Directors) articulated a broad critique of the Corporation and the University’s governance, and advocated, among other measures, “establish[ing] a University Senate…as a powerful advisory body to the president and board, composed of faculty and (in lesser numbers) students from each school of the University. How can there be ‘one Harvard’ without a University-wide voice for faculty in governance?”

Advancing the opposing perspective, dean of social science Lawrence D. Bobo argued in the Crimson that the faculty should reject a senate, not least because:

First, no one joins the Harvard faculty to spend their time serving on a slate of faculty senate committees. Second, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences enjoys a privileged position in University life, with the College as the acknowledged heart of the institution. I could not possibly imagine this status being preserved under a University-wide senate structure. Finally, Harvard’s selectivity has historically been a critical element in its incredible vitality and preeminence. In my experience, structures such as a faculty senate are consensus-seeking and prioritize an eventual regression to the mean, rather than a fidelity to seeking true excellence.

It might be noted, in rebuttal, that faculty members have effectively ceded much of their involvement in FAS governance in recent decades—markedly so after FAS’s financially oriented Resources Committee lapsed, and as professors resigned themselves to FAS’s belt-tightening after the financial crisis and to the priorities for the University Campaign, with virtually no substantive discussion. (To be sure, faculty members are aware of these shortcomings in their own governance; as Bobo points out, FAS’s new dean, Hopi Hoekstra, has appointed a committee to examine how FAS might enhance its meetings to improve its conduct of its business.) It is perhaps in reaction to that disengagement and Harvard’s current straits that the proposal for a senate has advanced. Bobo also advanced the argument that Manning reportedly made about faculties’ involving themselves in one another’s business; the senate planning body’s materials explicitly reserve to each faculty management of its own business—but of course that would be a major concern to be hashed out in the senate planning process.

The faculty advocates of the formal senate planning body do acknowledge that “an additional governance body might slow down some decision-making, could be co-opted by special interests, and will require a higher level of education of the faculty about the workings of the institution in order to succeed.” On balance, they have reached the conclusion that the state of Harvard governance, and the external challenges the institution and higher education face, outweigh these possible risks.

Once Professor Allen got the floor and introduced the proposal for the University-wide senate planning entity, Kirby and Bobo made the major arguments on its merits. Observing that Harvard was a far larger place than the institution of centuries past, Kirby noted that as “a confederation of independent faculties,” its diffuse professoriate did not often come together to share perspectives. He drew on the recommendations made by then-FAS dean John Dunlop and colleagues in 1972, following the campus upheaval of 1969—among them, for a faculty senate. Despite the efforts of Presidents Neil Rudenstine, Drew Faust, and Larry Bacow to foment “One Harvard,” he said, there is “so little connective tissue,” and no faculty body with whom the University’s leaders can consult. The Council of Deans, on which he had served, plays no governing role. At moments of crisis, as in the late 1960s and in 2005-2006, FAS had indeed played a role as “the Harvard faculty,” but to the exclusion of the other schools. And the absence of a senate here, he noted, is an aberration; the idea is widely known, and in moving toward planning a senate, he said, “We are not rushing into this.”

The reaction to the Dunlop reports, he noted, had been defensive. People said Harvard’s venerable governing institutions “have worked.” To that, he said, “Yes, until lately.”

Bobo rose to move indefinite postponement of Allen’s motion—a measure that, if adopted, would end debate and kill the notion. In support of his motion, he said he had been “deeply frustrated and profoundly affected” by Harvard’s tribulations during the academic year. Much about the place needed to be changed, but, he argued, a faculty senate would be “counterproductive.” It would neither assure a faculty voice in major decisions, nor effect transparency in governance—matters depending on changes in the “self-appointing…structurally unaccountable” Corporation.

In subsequent exchanges, other faculty members said the kinds of changes needed might be brought about by adding faculty representation to the Corporation (a change which is beyond any faculty’s power to bring about—although, as Bobo pointed out later, the Corporation did reform itself significantly in 2010), or by strengthening each faculty’s governance and then building a strong sense of confederation among them. In this perspective, a plan to study a possible senate focused too narrowly on only one option for needed reform.

Kirby noted that there was no guarantee a senate could solve all the problems requiring solution. The Dunlop-era recommendations evolved from three years of careful study—and were thereafter largely ignored. “Inaction in times of crisis also has very heavy costs,” he continued—pointing to the two presidencies cut short and the financial crisis during the past two decades. “No corporate board I know of would have survived” that, he said. The Dunlop proposals having “been tabled forever once before, let’s not do it again,” he concluded.

With that, interwoven with another motion to postpone debate until the fall, the FAS members took the first step toward at least thinking about what a faculty senate at Harvard might look like and do.

Next Steps

The motion Allen introduced May 7 is substantive—and FAS rules require that such matters not be voted upon until a subsequent meeting. Because the May 7 meeting was the last general FAS business meeting of the year, action on the substantive motion depended upon agreement to schedule a special faculty meeting next Tuesday, May 14—at which point faculty members can vote on whether to join in the senate planning work. In the event, those attending May 7 agreed to schedule the May 14 session: they now have a week to think about the proposed senate planning group, and to vote for or against proceeding.

Similar action is required from Harvard’s other faculties. If all approve, the vision is for the 37-member University Senate Planning Body to draft bylaws for a senate, for presentation to each faculty, by next January 1.

That is a tall order, complicated by the compressed timetable, summer, and of course the difficult challenges the University faces. It will be revealing to behold the community’s conversation about Harvard and this way forward (among others), at a moment when, as Allen and her colleagues write:

[We] believe the formation of a Faculty Senate is of critical importance, at a challenging time for Harvard University and for higher education. By enhancing our faculty’s capacity for shared understanding of our institution, for effective communication with other University stakeholders, and for shared responsibility in governance, a Faculty Senate will serve the long-term interests and mission not only of the collective faculties of Harvard, but of the University and the entire Harvard community.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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