With Monday Vote, Corporation Abruptly Ends Governance Debate

Loeb House
The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House.
The College spent 19 months trying to decide the fate of its social group penalties: It formed and consulted two separate committees, held a vote of the full Faculty on the subject, and produced three reports on the sanctions together totaling more than 90 pages.

But it took the Harvard Corporation just a few hours Monday to put an end to the saga. Thirteen Corporation members—prominent lawyers, business magnates, and academics among them—jetted into Cambridge, stepped into sleek black cars, and were chauffeured to Loeb House to vote to maintain Harvard’s penalties.

With the vote, not only did the Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—reshape the future of Harvard’s social clubs, but it also plunged into an ongoing debate about who gets to mold undergraduate life at the College.

Since University President Drew G. Faust announced the College’s social group policy—which, starting with the current freshman class, bars members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations from campus leadership positions, varsity athletic team captaincies, and prestigious fellowships—in May 2016, it has sparked widespread debate among students, professors, and outside critics. At stake was not only the policy itself, but the governance of the University.

In particular, some professors charged that administrators should have involved them in the policy-making process, inspiring vigorous debates across months of Faculty meetings. The discussions have focused as much on the principle of shared governance as on the clubs themselves. That debate ended Monday.

At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, English professor James T. Engell ’73—who claimed last fall that the policy “threatens a constitutional fabric”—asked why the policy decision was made by the Corporation when student discipline, according to the University statutes, falls under the purview of the Faculty.

“If we’re going to have shared governance, it needs to be shared governance,” he said.

Engell’s comment was only the latest flare-up in more than a year of faculty pushback.

The most vocal anti-sanctions advocate, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, introduced two motions designed to counter the College’s policy over the past year and a half. He withdrew the first after Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith convened a committee composed of faculty, students, and staff with the power to “revise or replace” the sanctions.

The second motion was voted down, 130-90, at the November 2017 Faculty meeting.

In a letter sent to Harvard affiliates announcing the results of the vote, Faust and Corporation senior fellow William F. Lee ’72 wrote that the Corporation was grateful for faculty feedback throughout the formulation of the penalties.

“We wish to close by expressing our deep appreciation for the work of the… Faculty as a whole,” Faust and Lee wrote. “We have developed a deeper understanding of the complexity of the issues presented by the USGSOs.”

After the motion failed, and after the Corporation’s decision Monday, Peter L. Malkin ’55, a prominent donor, said he thinks the Faculty have now effectively ceded power to the administration.

“I think the real shift is that the Corporation and the Faculty have agreed to give this authority to the administration, whereas I think historically it would have been the role of the Faculty,” he said. “But I think the Faculty passed on an opportunity to enforce its authority. And to the extent that the Faculty suffers a diminution of its authority in general, it’s the Faculty’s own doing.”

Not only does the Corporation’s vote close a debate about University governance, it also marks intervention into an area usually left untouched by the body: undergraduate social life.

University governing boards do not often wade into undergraduate social affairs. Charles A. Shorter, a member of the board of trustees for the City University of New York, said it is atypical for university trustees in the CUNY system to weigh in on student life.

“Very seldom have we as trustees gotten involved in student life decisions unless it is requested and unless it becomes an issue that quite frankly is system-wide,” he said.

Former Corporation member Nannerl O. Keohane said the move is not wholly unprecedented at Harvard, though.

“The Corporation has periodically dealt with student issues throughout my time there,” she said in an interview in April. “We don’t tend to get into the details of student life routinely, but we have several times, and we are responsible overall for the health and welfare of the University in the broadest fiduciary sense.”

When this has happened, the president or FAS Dean has typically brought the matter to the Corporation’s attention, according to Keohane.

In their letter, Faust and Lee took pains to detail a rationale for the body’s involvement. Faust and Lee wrote the sanctions “implicate a range of fundamental institutional interests” under the Corporation’s purview, including possible legal challenges and alumni concern over the final clubs.

“Perhaps most importantly, the decision speaks to the responsibility of the University to meet the non-academic needs of its student body and to define the fundamental character of the College itself,” Faust and Lee wrote.

Faust previously said she thinks the Corporation has ultimate power to determine the fate of student social life.

On Monday, it did.

–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at mia.karr@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at hannah.natanson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.

—Leah S. Yared contributed reporting.

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