The Failure of the Verba Report
MANY people at Harvard know about the Verba report, which was compiled last year by a senior faculty committee appointed by Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence. In response to the Minority Alliance (MSA) 1988 report on minority faculty recruitment and hiring at Harvard, the Verba committee made specific recommendations towards improving the recruitment and hiring policy for minorities and women.
Fewer people realize, however, that since then, the Verba report has failed almost completely. It has failed not because its recommendations were poor, but because the Faculty Council, the steering committee of the faculty, vetoed them without letting the full Faculty consider their merits. The only success achieved was in terms of good publicity for the Administration, which has been able to make it appear that the Faculty is responding to the Verba report, when in fact almost nothing has been done.
TO understand what the Verba committee set out to do and why the process was a failure, we should go back to the first meeting at which representatives of MSA expressed to Dean Spence their concern regarding Harvard's embarrassingly low number of minority faculty members. Spence said that his office could not interfere with the autonomy of the departments in hiring decisions, so he invited MSA to talk directly to the department chairs about the problem.
MSA recognized that the root of the problem was confusion and complacency inside most departments, and that the solution lay in effecting change at the departmental level. Since professors in many departments react strongly against the possibility of such change, a mechanism had to be devised to some-how make the departments accountable for their efforts to improve their attitudes and policies.
Thus, the Verba committee's primary task was to devise such a mechanism. Most of the discussion between MSA representatives and the committee members focused on this--MSA sought an institutional insurance of accountability.
The committee, taking more than twice as long as it had originally promised (in order to get opinions and suggestions from all sides), came up with a three-part structure that had some possibility of success.
The first part consisted of a series of official Affirmative Action representatives in each department, whose responsibility would be to effect change from the inside. The second part was that these representatives would meet as a group, forming a Standing Committee of the Faculty on Affirmative Action, which would evaluate all the departments. These first two elements would be the key to establishing the needed departmental accountability. An assistant dean (the third part) would chair this committee and coordinate its actions. The members of the MSA believed this was a step in the right direction.
BUT the big surprise came when the Faculty Council, after a few weeks of closed meetings, decided that the first two recommendations (the department representatives and the standing committee) would not work, and refused to bring them up to a vote of the full Faculty.
By eliminating the two key elements of the three-part structure, the Faculty Council in one stroke doomed all the work of the Verba committee to irrelevance and failure. At the same time, they publicly praised the report with meaningless rhetoric and touted their appointment of an assistant dean to a now essentially meaningless role.
The Administration seems to have forgotten that this structure is more than a bureaucratic inconvenience to some faculty members. We are talking about injustices being committed towards members of particular groups. The University as an institution has an obligation to eliminate these injustices, no matter whom it inconveniences. Reforms of this nature inevitably cause a lot of fear and apprehension. If they don't, they are probably not very effective.
Dean Spence told students that the members of the Faculty Council thought the recommendations simply would not work. He said it would create conflict between the representatives and the chairs. But this "conflict" is exactly what is necessary to get results. It seems that the Faculty Council is afraid not only of the conflict arising from having the structures in place, but of the possible conflict of even considering the recommendations. Facing this issue, even if it is controversial, can only be a healthy and needed experience for the Faculty.
The Faculty as a whole must consider the first two recommendations of the Verba report and vote on them, as they would consider and vote on important changes related to the Core Curriculum. The Faculty Council must not evade this responsibility.
Reforms have to be made, and they have to be made now. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences must study the issue and come to a decision. If it votes yes, it will be a first step towards correcting the injustices in the system. If it votes no, then at least everyone will know what the priorities of Harvard's Faculty are.
Wendell C. Ocasio '90 is president of La O. Last year he was the spokesperson for the MSA committee on minority faculty.