Faculty Senate Debate Continued

Harvard professors highlight governance concerns.

University Hall, where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is based

University Hall, where the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is based—and now the locus for considering new perspectives on Harvard governance | Photograph by niko Yaitanes/Harvard magazine

During an unusual special meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) on May 14, members continued the prior week’s lively, engaged discussion of whether to join efforts to explore a University-wide faculty senate. Opinion on the specific proposal to create and join a University Senate Planning Body remains divided; FAS members will be polled on the issue next week (to accommodate those who couldn’t attend the special meeting), delaying a decision on the matter. But interest is high (both meetings were well attended) and the debate has already revealed broad faculty concern about Harvard governance—and even anger at the Corporation in the wake of President Claudine Gay’s departure January 2 and other upheavals during the academic year. In this unsettled context, FAS and other University faculties are not the only Harvard constituents rethinking governance and the institution’s future (see discussion below).

Updated June 3, 2024, 2:20 p.m.: The Faculty of Arts and Sciences reported today that faculty members, casting their ballots electronically, had voted by a substantial majority in favor of the motion to join the Univrsity senate planning effort: 309 in favor to 146 opposed.

During this week’s meeting, Danielle Allen, Conant University Professor, again presented the motion being debated, on behalf of herself and seven FAS colleagues. Its language was offered in slightly amended form, calling for a senate planning body responsible for “researching and assessing potential designs and preparing and reporting back to each component Faculty draft bylaws for a University Senate for review and potential adoption” by each of Harvard’s faculties. The first italicized words, proposed in response to questions raised at the May 7 discussion, were aimed at reassuring skeptics that the planning body would not simply adopt the design for a possible University faculty senate from those at peer institutions, but would also evaluate their effectiveness and pitfalls. The second change underscored that the planning body, if authorized, would advance a proposal that each school’s faculty would have to adopt in order to bring a senate into being.

In other words, the FAS faculty were discussing, and ultimately voting on, whether to endorse a planning effort, subject to their future approval, not committing themselves now to a new structure or institution.

Allen reiterated the impetus for the motion, which originated in work among faculty members from across the University, beginning in January: the desire to advance shared understanding among faculties; enhance communication among faculties and between the faculties and Harvard leaders (including the Corporation) on University policies and issues; and to improve upon ad hoc means (such as temporary task forces) of effecting cooperative governance throughout the institution.

The debate on the amending language, and on the main motion itself, took multiple twists and turns, but brought out several significant themes discussed here.

Concerns about University governance.

 One professor said, “There needs to be some feedback from the faculty all the way up to the Corporation, which currently does not exist.” He suggested mechanisms ranging from a senate to direct faculty representation on the Corporation (as in the service of the late Henry Rosovsky, Geyser University Professor and FAS dean emeritus, a Corporation fellow from 1985 to 1997). However it is effected, he said, his chief concern is “that the faculty’s voice be heard at the highest level…as we go through these tumultuous times.”

Less diplomatically and abstractly, a successor speaker declared herself “angry” at the dismissal of President Gay, the reported December meeting of a group of faculty members with a group of Corporation members at a restaurant to discuss academic freedom and governance, and evidence of “megadonors” influencing academic priorities.

Although some professors expressed concern that their workload and commitments would preclude them or peers from participating in a senate were one created, another said that during the past academic year she had regularly heard colleagues invoke “faculty governance” as a concern—and they were “never saying we have too much.”

Framing the problem in terms of faculty contact with the Corporation and with the University administration, another professor said there was a “desperate need to have such lines of communication” in times of crisis. Citing recent campus developments, he said the faculty-administration dialogue about the pro-Palestinian encampment in Harvard Yard (vacated on the morning of May 14, before the special FAS meeting) should not be through exchanges like that with interim provost John F. Manning at the May 7 meeting, nor should such exchanges take place in settings like that “randomly organized discussion” at the restaurant last December.

Although expressing a preference for a broader study of options to improve governance, rather than the motion focusing specifically on a possible faculty senate, another professor said, “We’ve got to get this right. The governance of this institution has got to work. We’ve seen how it doesn’t.”

A colleague suggested that the faculty has no voice now. The Corporation, he said, can consult with or ignore FAS as it chooses, and its members are “individuals who are not in the classroom, not in the lab, not in the library.”

Dean of social science Lawrence Bobo, the most outspoken opponent of a faculty senate on May 7 and again in this week’s meeting, nonetheless prefaced his remarks by saying, “I share a deep concern about matters of governance in this University”—concerns he said he shared with colleagues in conversations the day after Gay “was forced to resign.” The faculty, he said, had to have a “voice within and insight into decision-making processes within the Corporation.”

Doubts about FAS’s self-governance. 

During the May 7 meeting, motions to indefinitely postpone (i.e., kill) the proposed faculty senate planning group, or to defer action until next fall, were defeated.

During the May 14 meeting, two further motions were offered. The first was to refer the study proposal to FAS’s own Faculty Council (an elected group of professors who act as a sort of executive body for the faculty as a whole, and counsel to the dean)—thereby deferring FAS’s participation in a University faculty senate planning effort (defeated 73 percent to 27 percent). The second was to broaden the motion to require research into “draft options for various ways faculty across the University could improve communication with the leaders of the University and with the members of the Corporation.” That motion was defeated 59 percent to 41 percent, indicating some wish for consideration of more options, but reluctance to make the FAS motion incompatible with those being presented in Harvard’s other faculties, thereby derailing progress toward a proposed faculty study even before it could take form.

In the course of debating these motions, two themes emerged.

Reservations about FAS’s organization and effectiveness. One professor worried that a senate would “threaten to further diminish the power of the Faculty Council,” a body he considered vital to FAS governance—but one whose role and influence had been “more restricted” during the past decade or two.

A former Faculty Council member recalled, “We really had very little power.” The council was not the right group to consider larger issues such as a University senate engaging other faculties, she said. Meaning no disrespect to colleagues serving now, she continued, colleagues could “ask the Faculty Council why it is so ineffective,” characterizing it as a “rubber stamp.”

“One of the reasons I’m here,” a professor said, broadening the analysis of FAS, “is a feeling we really can’t speak freely at faculty meetings.” She cited the inhibiting customs of clearing subjects for discussion or question in advance, and the formal rules that control meetings. In general, she said of FAS’s formal meetings, members were “not able to make ourselves available in the present arrangements.”

Although he was speaking at a different moment, unspooling his reservations about a senate, Bobo provided further perspective on that point. FAS meetings are now chaired by the dean, not the president (a change introduced by President Lawrence S. Bacow in the spring of 2023)—and so are directly under the faculty’s control—they remain “underattended, people are not participating.” He saw that as a sign of the faculty not making use of the self-governance channels already available to them.

(As several speakers noted, the Faculty Council is examining FAS governance; and on March 5, Dean Hopi Hoekstra introduced a committee examining how FAS might use its faculty meetings to improve its governance, chaired by Parimal G. Patil, professor of religion and Indian philosophy. As reported, the other members are Lawrence professor of engineering Robert D. Howe, Porter professor of art, film, and visual studies David Joselit, Bussey professor of organismic and evolutionary biology Elena Kramer, and Hazel associate professor of the social sciences Hannah Marcus. Patil was a member of the Faculty Council and Joselit and Marcus are current members, so they are an attuned, expert cohort.)

Frustration about inaction. After the May 7 motion for indefinite postponement of the senate study proposal, the separate motion to defer action to the fall, and the May 14 motions to refer the matter to the Faculty Council or to reword and broaden its mandate, one faculty member unloaded on the extensive proceduralism. Exploring a University faculty senate alongside the Faculty Council’s assessment of FAS governance, she said, would be useful and informative. The faculty’s proceduralism and rules, she said, “tend to obscure, obfuscate, and delay” taking up important issues. The effect is to “keep us from having the kind of direct conversation that many of us are here to have.”

FAS’s sphere of influence.

 Finally, a cultural matter of deep importance to faculty members arose repeatedly: FAS’s role, as home to the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS)—homes to undergraduate and Ph.D. education—as Harvard’s historic core.

The faculty member who expressed her anger at what she considered governance failures during the year also wanted to make sure that “FAS doesn’t lose power over making decisions about our undergraduates,” if it participates in a senate in which the professional schools, with their separate, large faculties, are well represented. Another expressed her worry that “The collective representation of the FAS would be swamped by the professional schools,” few of whose professors teach within FAS.

Allen and other proponents of the senate planning group said the University’s statutes specifically reserve to each faculty the matters directly under its purview, and that the senate would have to be designed to address matters of University-level concern.

(Although not a part of the faculty’s May 7 and 14 conversations, FAS might, in the course of its self-analysis, consider its changing status within the modern Harvard. Certainly, the public focuses on the College; certainly, faculty members from across the University venerate the training of scholars of the future via Ph.D. education, which remains under FAS control. But FAS’s wildly diverse disciplines and pedagogies make it more difficult to understand and to manage than professionally focused faculties. Its recurrent financial constraints and its inability to grow its professorial ranks since the Great Recession, and its unchanged enrollments, necessarily mean that its relative position is changing. Students have moved en masse from liberal arts toward engineering and applied sciences [see “Here Come the Quants!” January-February 2017, and this Crimson report]—since 2007 embedded within its own school, albeit in FAS. They can, and do, cross-register in more courses in the professional schools, and hang out in the iLab and in Allston. These changes have subtly shifted FAS’s focus—from the traditional disciplines, and Harvard Square—a change as perceptible on campus as it is in the wider society. That may produce some agita, which for some FAS members could be exacerbated, and for others alleviated, by joining with other faculties in a University senate.)

On deck

The various attempts to postpone, refer, or reconfigure the main motion for a faculty senate planning group having failed, and the amendments proposed by Allen having been approved, all FAS members will now be invited to vote on whether to proceed. The process, run by the FAS Secretary, is expected to begin within a week. Given Commencement, now that it will proceed on May 23, the results may be some time in coming. Whatever the outcome, the higher-education press has taken note of the faculty’s discussion.

In the meantime, professors are not the only members of the extended Harvard community discussing governance. Sam Lessin ’05, who sought a place on the Board of Overseers ballot this spring via petition, continues to talk about changing governance, principally through an online thread call the 1636 Forum, a self-described “Community of Harvard Alums and Students Focused on Academic Excellence, Academic Freedom, Good Governance.” During his petition effort, he said, “Harvard needs to return to its roots as an academic institution not a political one,” with “clear and consistently enforced rules” and a focus on “fostering a safe and open environment for academic free speech and protect the academic focus of the institution.”

And in various forums during the past week, Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, whose $300-million gift to FAS was recognized in naming the GSAS, sharply criticized the campus protests over the Mideast war as “anarchy” and said, in sorrow, that the kinds of informed conversations important to educating the leaders of the future were not occurring at many universities. He has reported reaching out to the Corporation’s senior fellow during the uproar over student expressions of support for Hamas last year—a different level of involvement with Harvard governance.

So even as FAS and other faculties examine whether and how they might enhance channels of communication to Harvard’s leaders and governing boards, and the governing boards themselves take stock of the University today and its needs tomorrow, other constituents are likely to pursue other conversations. The fissures revealed during this past, testing year are likely to resonate on many levels, in multiple forums, for many months to come.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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