On Quorum, No Quorum

After failing to draw the numbers necessary to conduct official votes at almost a third of its meetings in the past four years, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) considered lowering its standards for attendance yesterday.

Too bad old habits die hard.

Not enough professors turned out to yesterday’s meeting to take a binding vote on the new measure, which would have lowered the quorum—the number of attendees required for an official Faculty vote—from one sixth of the professoriate’s approximately 700 members to one eighth.

The development was perhaps a first in the nearly two-century history of the Faculty: a failure to achieve quorum in a vote on quorum.

Chair of the Economics Department James H. Stock presented yesterday’s legislation, which, in addition to lowering the quorum threshold, would have provided new regulations for clarifying whether a quorum has been reached before business is considered. Currently, members of the Faculty have to call for a quorum count.

“Right now you may guess that we have a quorum, but you won’t know,” Stock said. “Secretary [of the Faculty Noel] Bisson knows, but she won’t tell you unless you ask her.”

Before beginning the discussion of the proposal, Professor of German Peter J. Burgard elected to take the initiative.

“The obvious question is, do we have a quorum?” Burgard asked, setting in motion a brief flurry of activity at the front of the Faculty Room, where Bisson, smiling, rose to tear a sheet of paper off of her small yellow notebook pad. Examining the sheet, University President Drew G. Faust conferred briefly with the meeting’s acting parliamentarian, Chinese History Professor Peter K. Bol, before making her pronouncement into the microphone: “no.”

“I would like to say that I don’t think that that’s an argument for voting in favor of this motion,” Burgard said.

“It seems manifestly clear to me that these meetings will become decidedly less precious opportunities if there are fewer people involved in them,” he continued. “One sixth already strikes me as a small quorum for some of the issues that we discuss. One eighth seems exceedingly small.”

According to data cited by Stock at yesterday’s meeting, the Faculty had failed to make quorum at 11 of its 37 meetings in the past four years. As contrast, Stock pointed to the years 1971 through 1979, during which the faculty missed quorum at only 2 of 55 meetings.

Stock suggested that the recent rash of missed quorums may be a result of the Faculty’s growth over the last decade. The professoriate has expanded from 589 to 712 in the last ten years, increasing the number of attendees necessary for quorum.

FAS Dean Michael D. Smith spoke briefly in favor of yesterday’s measure, casting it as part of a larger effort by the Faculty Council aimed at “streamlining faculty procedures and making them more useful.”

Confronted with Burgard’s suggestion that more be done to understand the reasons for the decreased consistency in attendance, Smith expressed worry about the Faculty’s efficiency in the interim.

“I absolutely want to get to the bottom of whatever it is too,” Smith said. “But I think we have to be very careful to not allow the business of the FAS...to be ground to a halt because of whatever it is that makes people not come.”

Because yesterday’s meeting did not reach the necessary threshold for attendance, the proposal will come to an official vote at the Faculty’s next meeting.

But only if they reach quorum.

—Staff writer Maxwell L. Child can be reached at mchild@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at cflow@fas.harvard.edu.