Committees, the Ceremonial and Purposeful
The bureaucratic answer to almost any sticky situation is to form a committee. A committee is a useful tool to the beleaguered administrator: It diffuses criticism, it shoulders blame, and, in some lucky circumstances, it performs efficiently and well. This latter quality, in most perspectives, in the crucial ingredient which traverses the chasm between the ceremonial and the purposeful.
Shareholder issues made the Spring of 1972 a long and trying one for President Bok. He asserted Tuesday that a full quarter of his time last Spring was devoted to deciding Harvard's proxies for a range of corporations being challenged by church and social responsibility groups.
The attendant problem of being displaced from his office while block students protected the Corporation's decision not to still Harvard's 700,000 shares of Gull stock did not contribute to Bok's leisure time. He works seven days a week already, he says. The situation was out of hand.
Bok's immediate conclusion was that a change was in order. He thought it over during the summer. Finally, the answer came to him. He formed a committee.
So it is that there are now not one, but two, committees to consider Harvard's role as a corporate shareholder. By nature, these committees are a testimonial to the aforementioned gap between the perfunctory and the functional.
On the one hand. Bok has created a 15-member advisory committee comprised of five students, five faculty members and five alumni. Its ostensible purpose is to gather information and to represent all important viewpoints to a Corporation subcommittee empowered to make final shareholder decisions.
Discounting the improbability of such a group being able to schedule more than one meeting every other month, there is some ominous writing on the wall for the Shareholder 15. Like its predecessors which "involved" students in the decision-making process, this nebulous advisory body is earmarked for oblivion. Unless Bok consciously picks firebrand members to insure the committee's aggressiveness, the Shareholder 15 will likely sputter in the shadow of its Corporation companion.
Now here is a committee full of purposefulness. Bok has named four Fellows of the Corporation to decide all future questions of Harvard's responsibility as a corporate shareholder. His name is consciously absent from the membership. But, he says, the subcommittee is not a dodge: It is a way to guarantee careful thought on shareholder questions, while leaving Bok free to "do all of the things that are expected of me in various areas of the University."
This is fine. But it is a little hard to accept his vow of non-involvement. This was Tuesday's dialogue:
Q: This Corporation committee, then, will make the final decision on all proxy challenges?
Bok: That is correct.
Q: And you are not even a member ex officio?
Bok: Right. The committee, after gathering information from the advisory committee and other available sources, will decide these questions and, I think, generate a more factual and orderly discussion of the issues.
It would seem daring on Bok's part to entrust Harvard's most volatile issue to a subcommittee with which he says he will have nothing to do. But there is no daring. The subcommittee is made up of the Treasurer of the College and three Corporation members -- a businessman, a physics professor and a lawyer. George Bennett is the most conservative Corporation member, and his successor as Treasurer is not likely to back divestment of Gulf stock. The subcommittee's most liberal member. Hugh Calkins, in a political and professional reflection of Bok.
Moreover, the formation of this subcommittee reduces the number of persons making the hardline decisions on stocks and proxies. Previously, Bok, the Treasurer and all five Corporation members shared the decision burden. Now only four viewpoints are involved. The subcommittee will diffuse criticism, shoulder blame and no doubt be efficient. How well it performs depends largely on how readily its members can overcome the inherent limitations of being a "solution" committee.
Bok was backed into a corner on investments last Spring. He was overworked, and since the Spring he has genuinely tried to find fair answers to shareholder problems -- particularly Gulf. But this latest solution only raises new doubts, and is really no solution at all.