Keeping Their Hands In
The Corporation Runs Harvard from a Distance But Exerts Unusually Strong Control
If the Harvard Corporation ever wanted to "get' the History Department, it could do it. It could block the department's appointments and refuse to OK a budget with any funding. But they would never do it.
The Corporation is Harvard's highest administrative organ--save the largely ceremonial Board of Overseers--but instead of getting involved in the day-to-day affairs of many different areas of the University, it concentrates on long range planning and only takes direct responsibility for major financial matters.
In many ways the Corporation is unique among university governing boards. It is the smallest of any major university and it meets more often than any other, the members taking an active role in many areas of Harvard policy. However, because it tends to deal with broad issues, most of the University community has little contact with it.
President Bok is head of the board, but he tends to work with the other members very much as an equal. He consults with them, and the group decides major issues by consensus. While earlier boards up until President Eliot's time often were sharply divided, no one can remember the Corporation having a single vote in at least 30 years. However, although it hasn't happened in recent memory, all seven Corporation members agree that if there were a major division on the board the President's side would win, even if he stood alone. But the reason they say there have been no such splits is that they avoid making a decision until they can work around each member's concerns to reach that consensus.
Only the Corporation can own property or spend Harvard's billions, although it may authorize others to do so. The Corporation must approve all appointments within the University, except for one of their number, which are authorized by the Board of Overseers. And only on matters sufficiently important as to constitute a new University "order" is the Corporation expected to consult with the Overseers.
However, in practice most of this authority is delegated. Harvard's well-known decentralized administrative structure grew from the Corporation's own initiatives. Almost all academic matters, including discipline, are delegated to the faculties. Only when a matter begins to involve the outside world does the Corporation begin to play a major role. And even there it delegates much of the work to Harvard's five vice presidents.
So what does it do, and why is it so important?
The largest responsibility is financial, with two parts to the job. The first is overseeing the endowment. In many ways the Corporation is more concerned with the class of 1995 than the class of 1984, or even the class of 1988. The class of '88 will be here in September, and the Corporation wants to make sure that the same resources and opportunities will be available five 10, or even 20 years from now. To manage Harvard's investments the Corporation founded the Harvard Management Company 10 years ago and through it keeps the University rich. (See accompanying article.)
The second part involves insuring the financial well-being of every department of the University. Every faculty, museum, and department must pass its budget through the Corporation. But again, the Corporation does not examine the budgets solely to make sure all the numbers add up. Every dean and vice president develops a five-year plan, and the budgets must all conform to that plan. "If the faculty comes to us and says it wants two new professors, the first thing we say is 'all right, where's the dough?'" says Francis H. Burr '35, who served on the Corporation for 28 years until 1982.
Deans and vice presidents say their meetings with the Corporation are always cooperative, never confrontational. Deans receive much latitude to plan the future of their faculties and then present the plans to the Corporation for approval. Usually the Corporation keeps abreast of the planning, and when they consider the move they usually look at it from two perspectives.
First, they ask, is this the best thing for the department involved and the University as a whole? In general the dean is supposed to have already considered this, and the proposal will have been discussed as part of the long range planning, but if the issue is controversial it may get a great deal of deliberation. "Most of the discussion comes when something is not in line with the general strategy," says Vice President for Administration Robert H. Scott.
The Corporation also looks at the process which has led to the proposal, Fellows say. "They do not want to second guess the substantive judgement of the people who have specialized knowledge, whose job it is to reach those decisions," says Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54.
The best example of this policy comes in the appointment of a tenured professor. Although it happened routinely over 100 years ago and is rumored to have occurred once or twice in the first half of this century, the Corporation today never vetoes tenure appointments--although it does have the power to do so. What it does do is critique the selection process. "[We] will frequently say, 'it looks to us as if, in connection with this appointment, there has not been enough attention paid to appointing a woman or minority group person, or, there hasn't been a hard enough search to insure that we're getting the best of the young people,'" says Corporation member Hugh M. Calkins '45.
Occasionally the Corporation must deal with a specific policy question which cuts across faculty boundaries. Calkins and Burr, who were both on the Corporation during the student upheavals of the late 1960s, say much could have been avoided if the University had adopted its decentralized structure earlier and been more responsive to community concerns. Calkins says that if Harvard then had a vice president in charge of community relations, many of the issues of the day either would not have developed or could have been dealt with much more easily.
Burr agrees, and he says that while the events of 1969 posed the toughest problems of his time on the board, they did not bring about the sweeping changes in Harvard's administration they are often given credit for. He says an administrative reshuffling was needed anyway and that they just accelerated the process. Most issues and decisions are still tackled in the same careful style. "I don't think a hell of a lot was accomplished by all that churning around," he says.
Fellow Robert G. Stone Jr. '45 says that when the Corporation faces an unfamiliar issue, its first response is to consult with as many people around the University as possible. "Very seldom we say unilaterally seven people can make the best decisions, because very often we have to seek advice from as many people as we can. We don't know all the answers," he explains. This process was most evident recently when the University considered a proposal from Professor of Biochemistry Mark Ptashe to set up a profit-making genetic engineering company within the University. After extensive consultation within the Faculty and with experts inside and outside Harvard, the idea was rejected.
The issue on which the Corporation has been most visible during Bok's tenure as president has been shareholder responsibility. It first surfaced in 1972 when a group of Black students occupied Mass Hall, demanding that Harvard divest from companies doing business in Angola. The University refused and has also resisted persistent pressure to divest from firms with operations in South Africa. Except perhaps for the Mass Hall takeover, which ended peacefully after a week, there has never been a crisis and the Corporation has been able to study the issue in excruciating detail. Treasurer George Putnam Jr. '49 went to South Africa a few years ago, and as chairman of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility Calkins has become something of an expert on the subject.
The Corporation's way of thinking about the issue reflects its characteristic caution. It refuses to discuss the problem from the purely ideological perspective divestiture activists take. Members acknowledge that there are serious problems in the apartheid state and have pledged to do all they can to alleviate conditions there, but they consistently refuse to simplify the issue.
Nothing annoys a Corporation member more than the kind of statement often heard from demonstrators, that "We are right and you are wrong." On every issue the Corporation tackles, members say they must make the best effort they can to handle the problem rationally and analyze it from as many perspectives as possible, and they resent accusations to the contrary.
Calkins' involvement in the investment issue reflects a somewhat informal arrangement within the Corporation. Although not strictly defined, the members do tend to have "spheres of influence," areas in which they have particular expertise. Calkins is the authority on investment policy. Stone is best known for his fundraising ability--he serves as chairman of Harvard's ongoing $350 million Campaign and says it is one of the most important things he does on the board. The Campaign is raising money for Harvard's fundamental programs, teaching and research, as well as such affiliated areas as housing. Stone says, "You have to get at those basic long range issues, and that takes money." Of Stone, Calkins says, "Bob Stone is the world's finest fundraiser. He is without doubt the best there is. When you talk about the sheik of somewhere who might have an interest, his eyes light up and he's off taking the next plane. He's indefatigable; he has absolutely no hesitation to say to people. 'I'm sorry, that's just not enough.'"
Andrew P. Heiskell '28 took charge of finding Roderick M. MacDougall '51 to replace Putnam--who retires this month--as treasurer, and says he is especially interested in helping choose who gets Honorary Degrees at Commencement Charles P. Schlicter, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois, is widely respected for his judgement on academic matters. The freshman member of the board, Colman M. Mockler Jr. '52, has not yet received wide attention in any specific area.
The makeup of the Corporation--one professor, one lawyer and four businessmen--reflects the way the board operates. Originally the Corporation consisted of Harvard professors and clergymen, but for more than 100 years it has been dominated by lawyers and businessmen. Members say this is because of the kind of issues the board deals with.
"Fifty years ago a university was still the great great grandchild of the original university, the place people took refuge to do research and teach," says Heiskell. "Today the university has suddenly been tossed into the world and is set upon by the environmentalists, OSHA, issues of race and religion, etc. Everything that goes on in the world swirls right through the university. Fifty years ago you could get by with just a single president and a couple of advisers. Today you have to have more management in the university, you have to have more lawyers and businessmen."
Schlicter's appointment, however, in 1970--along with Yale historian John Morton Blum '43, who has since retired--marked a significant turning point for the board. It was the first time a professor from another university had been chosen, and members say it was an important move, bringing an additional perspective to the University.
One issue that still dogs the Corporation is the question of representation. All of the current members come from the traditional Corporation member background: wealthy, successful, middle aged white males, and many critics continue to await the first woman or minority member.
Fellows acknowledge the problem and say a broader membership will surface in a matter of time, but they caution against overt tokenism. Calkins says the board must avoid having a specific slot for a woman or minority. Heiskell adds that in recent years the Corporation has made a concerted effort to appoint a woman or minority but thus far has been unsuccessful. "Unfortunately one of the qualifications of being on the Corporation is having the time and energy to do it," he says. "If you go to a successful Black lawyer the chances of his being able to give that kind of time [as much as two months a year, he says] may be slim."
Fellows say the most significant change in Corporation business over the last 15 years, and the one which will continue to pose the toughest long range problem, is the University's increasingly complex finances, complicated by the growing role of the federal government in university education.
One of the worst times for the Corporation in recent years came in the middle 1970s when recession hurt the endowment and inflation drove up operating costs. At the time the board responsed by a lot of fancy footwork on the investment side and by saving money at home, primarily by keeping faculty salaries down. Those days are past, the endowment is growing tremendously and faculty salaries are back on par with those around the country, but members remain worried.
Complicating the issue of faculty salaries, says Stone, are wealthy state institutions like the University of Texas which have begun what could turn into a bidding war with schools like Harvard by offering large salaries and research benefits to "star" professors. He says a principal reason for the Campaign is to insure that Harvard will be able to compete financially in such a market and be able to maintain the University's prestige to attract top-flight faculty.
Other looming issues Fellows cite also revolve around money. These include the skyrocketing costs of health care and how it will affect the Medical School and Harvard's affiliated hospitals. A related problem is the increasingly high cost of equipping professors, especially scientists. It costs $1 million to endow a professorship at Harvard, but a scientist's lab equipment may cost more than that.
Funding for research is complicated by the uncertain future of federal grant money and the increasingly complicated government regulations.
And finally, they say, the Corporation wants to insure all students access to Harvard. This means providing adequate levels of financial aid, but some Fellows believe that as tuition rises, even though Harvard still offers complete and to anyone who needs it, some qualified but poor students may simply decide not to apply.
Fellows are also worried that financial considerations are beginning to influence students' career choices. In his Baccalaureate address Tuesday, Bok urged students to consider public service work and not simply "take the money and run." Some Corporation members are even considering forgiving debts for students who enter low-paying public service careers. "I think those debt loads are sufficiently large that they affect the career choices that people make, and I'm sure they affect people's family planning," says Calkins.
Except for the president, none of the Corporation members are paid. The job requires a heavy time commitment--the board meets for most of the day every other Monday--but the members say the pride of helping Harvard makes it worth it.
"One of the reasons I became a lawyer in the first place is because it is easier to combine a private practice type of career with doing other kinds of things," says Calkins. "I have done it because I enjoy it and I want to make some contribution to an institution which is important and I get a certain sense of satisfaction out of it. It is not a financially rewarding thing to do but is rewarding in other respects." Heiskell cites similar reasons for serving but pauses and adds with a chuckle, "I admit I've enjoyed it, but sometimes I wonder why I do it and so does my wife."
These articles were reported by John F. Baughman, Camille M. Caesar, David S. Hilzenrath, Peter J. Howe, and David L. Yermack.