Parliamentary Roots of Confidence Vote Highlight Motion’s Strategic Uses

By adding a no-confidence motion to the Feb. 28 Faculty meeting’s agenda, Judith Ryan, the Weary professor of German and comparative literature, is using a tactic from parliamentary systems and applying it to Harvard governance.

But if Harvard were to follow parliamentary confidence-vote procedures to their full extent, then Ryan’s motion could cause the dissolution of the Faculty itself.

In the United Kingdom and other parliamentary democracies, prime ministers who lose no-confidence votes have two options.

“A government cannot operate effectively unless it can command a majority within the House of Commons,” according to a 2003 report of the U.K. House of Commons Information Office. “Should it fail to enjoy the confidence of the majority of the House, it has to hold a general election.”

In fact, in some parliamentary systems, prime ministers have purposely staged no-confidence votes with the intention of losing, on the assumption that their party will perform well in the subsequent election.

In 1993, for example, U.K. Prime Minister John Major used a confidence motion to his advantage when the House of Commons was considering the Maastricht Treaty, the agreement that eventually established the European Union.

After Major’s opponents defeated a motion to ratify the treaty, the prime minister called for a confidence vote in his government. If he lost the vote, he said, Parliament would be dissolved, and all its seats would all be put up for election.

Fearing that prospect, the House of Commons acquiesced—and ratified the treaty on Major’s terms.

In Britain and similarly structured polities, a no-confidence vote can resolve the deadlock between the prime minister and Parliament. Either the prime minister wins a parliamentary majority in the subsequent election, or the popular vote leads to a new leader in office.

At Harvard, by contrast, the confidence motion comes from a body that is itself unelected. As a result, the no-confidence motion initiated by Ryan would not necessarily resolve the deadlock between president and Faculty. If anything, it could deepen the crisis.

DUMA ON THE CHARLES

Historically, some Harvard presidents have left office on less-than-voluntary terms, but Faculty no-confidence votes did not play any role.

Students deserted the campus in 1675, in part to protest the draconian discipline policies of President Leonard Hoar, Class of 1650, who permitted beatings of disobedient students.

Hoar resigned shortly afterward.

Harvard students also proved pivotal in ending the tenure of President Samuel Langdon, Class of 1740.

Students petitioned the Corporation in 1780 to remove Langdon from his post. They wrote, “as a President, we despise you.” Langdon was the first Harvard president to be forced out of office.

The no-confidence vote is a relic of systems in which the executive needs approval from the legislature in order to rule. But in the peculiar political structure of Harvard, it is the students—not the parliamentarians of the Faculty—who have proven capable of toppling the chief.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Daniel J. T. Schuker can be reached at dschuker@fas.harvard.edu.