The Most Exclusive Club
"THE OLDEST self-perpetuating body in the Western Hemisphere." That's how one top University administrator likes to refer to the Harvard Corporation, the seven-member governing board with final responsibility for University decisions ranging from expansion projects to tuition increases to tenuring faculty to investment policy. His appraisal couldn't be more accurate--and it suggests some serious problems with Harvard's equivalent of a board of directors. In particular, we worry about the Corporation's total unaccountability to the current Harvard community and its gross lack of internal diversity.
In its long history, the Corporation has never had a woman or a minority member. By contrast, every other Ivy League governing board has included at least one woman and one minority, and all but one currently have both. "It's very clear that minorities and women bring a different perspective to the board and certainly...that is a definite plus," one University of Pennsylvania board official argues.
There seems no reason why that logic should not apply at Harvard. Certainly a more diverse Corporation could help improve the University's notoriously spotty record of hiring women and minority faculty and lend a more enlightened ear to issues than its homogeneity currently permits. Quite conceivably, a Corporation including minorities would have been more receptive to student demands for divestiture of investments tied to the apartheid-ruled regime of South Africa.
That the Corporation chooses its own members for life also seems an anachronism, one present at no other Ivy League university and largely responsible for its lack of diversity. At least half of the members of every other Ivy board are selected with the formal input of faculty, alumni, students, or others. And with the exception of a handful of ceremonial lifetime seats, no other board allows members to serve beyond 12 years or seems so fundamentally anti-democratic.
THE RESIGNATION last month of 28-year member Francis H. Burr '35 provides an excellent opportunity for the Corporation to become more representative and responsive. The Corporation is slated to select a replacement this spring; it should do everything possible to select a qualified--and independent--minority or woman to fill the vacancy.
Equally important, the Corporation should revamp its selection process, preferably in time to help fill Putnam's spot. Faculty, alumni, and students all deserve to be able to vote to help appoint the Corporation members whose decisions often have such impact on them. At the same time, the Corporation should expand its size to make it more akin to the boards of other Ivy schools--a move that would make diversity more immediately attainable and that would make the board less of a coterie. Regular elections for seats with limited terms would also increase the body's responsiveness to a changing University community.
There seems no reason why the Corporation should delay acting to improve its diversity and accountability, and with them, its sensitivity and sensibility. Of course, it would have to yield its status as the oldest self-perpetuating body in this hemisphere--but that seems a small price to pay to bring Harvard's most exclusive finals club in step with the times.