Galbraith's Footnote

"The Case for Constitutional Reform at Harvard," by John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard Alumni Bulletin, December 23, 1968

IN THE WAKE of Columbia, every expert on students or academic structures has been encouraged by eager publishers to put to paper his thoughts on the crisis in the universities, and a number of Harvard luminaries have joined the parade. This fall in the Atlantic former dean of the Faculty McGeorge Bundy proposed a juiced-up version of the Harvard system with an ultra-strong, faculty-oriented President as a model for University government. Last month Dean Ford analyzed student unrest for Harvard Today, separating dissatisfied students into four groups and recommending a different strategy for dealing with each. Now John Kenneth Galbraith comes forward with "A Case for Constitutional Reform at Harvard."

The three-page article looks to have been composed rather hastily. It is not free from personal cliches ("the conventional wisdom") or syntactical obfuscations (at one point he talks about "unseemly and indiscriminate resort to ... athletics"). The article has an irritating air of knowing more than its telling, but Galbraith's occasional judiciousness doesn't prevent his taking implicit slaps at President Pusey and the Student-Faculty Advisory Council.

After four paragraphs of historical introduction, Galbraith swings into an attack on the University's principal governing board, the Corporation, arguing that it is incompetent to make even small decisions on University affairs and incapable of acting with any authority in a crisis. At least two of Galbraith's specific criticism touch on major problems that could arise in the next two or three years:

* About the only crucial power the Corporation still exercises is appointing a President of the University. President Pusey is close to the retirement age of 65, so the Corporation will soon be starting to search for a successor. As Galbraith says, "given the age of its members and the comparative absence of scientific and scholarly qualification, there is no reason to believe that in the future it will make a choice that is approved by, even acceptable to, the Faculty." Grayson Kirk's downfall showed the folly of turning into a University President a man who is the darling of the corporate managers but enjoys no sympathy with the mass of the Faculty. It could happen here.

* "The growth of the University and related budgeting," Galbraith says, "are not subject to any over-all design." The process of long-range decision making at Harvard is indeed mysterious. If the war ever ends student radicals will probably turn to questioning University investment policy and the decisions like the one to build Mather House. The Faculty too seems to be growing dissatisfied with corporate management or non-management of Harvard's growth. The Wilson Committee may recommended that a new group including Faculty organize increased University involvement with problems of Cambridge and Boston. The Dunlop Report last spring recommended that the dean of the Faculty set up new planning machinery and take a stronger hand in determining which departments grow fastest. The Faculty will probably consider this proposal in the spring but a more comprehensive scheme like the constitutional reform Galbraith proposes may be in order.

THERE IS some chaff, though, mixed in here with the reasoned argument. Galbraith complains that he and other Faculty members trying to stop the Vietnam war have not had "much help or even encouragement from the University government." It would have been not just out of character but also inappropriate for the Corporation to have taken a stand against the war. As President Pusey said with some justice last year, nobody, under the present system, can legitimately speak for Harvard University on a political question. Galbraith suggests it should be otherwise, but doesn't begin to explain what the composition of the body that represents the University should be or on what sort of issues it must take stands.

In the meantime, the Faculty has had ample opportunity to register its collective opposition to the war, and has passed up the chance every time. The Faculty could have voted not to discipline the Dow demonstrators last winter or could have recommended last spring that military recruiters be barred from campus for the duration of the war. In practice it did neither, and probably will pass up a third chance by voting down the Putnam resolution to ban ROTC.

Galbraith goes on to accuse the Corporation of being ill-suited to deal with "student reaction to the Vietnam war, recruitment for the armed services or weapons manufacture, the draft, or political action and protest." True enough, but it has been the Faculty not the Corporation that has made the relevant decisions--not to take a stand on the draft, to put those who sat-in at Mallinckrodt on probation, and to deny students seats on the CEP and Committee on Houses. Unless the Faculty has been turning down student-initiated proposals to protect students from the trauma of seeing them vetoed by the Corporation, it is glib of Galbraith to imply that the Corporation presently carries much of the responsibility for dealing with students.

IN A FOOTNOTE near the end of his article Galbraith writes:

There can be few Harvard professors who have more diligently avoided or evaded administrative responsibility in the University over a longer period of time than have I. Accordingly it will be thought I am a poor person to plead for new Faculty responsibilities. This I readily concede.

The self-deprecation is engaging, but the problem it covers over is by no means trivial. At least as many of Harvard's disorders are caused by failure of the Faculty to use powers informally delegated to them as by any inadequacies of the Corporation. It is perhaps inevitable that almost never as many as half the eligible voters show up for a Faculty meeting, and that most of the work is done by the far smaller group that serves on ad hoc and standing committees. Still, students can legitimately be dismayed at events like the December Faculty meeting at which it was clear, according to several observers, that most of those present had thought very little and read next to nothing on the ROTC issue.

Galbraith is unquestionably right that Harvard's governing structure is an anachronism, and probably just as right when he says that a study of ways to modernize it should be undertaken immediately. But like the pleas of students for more power, his case for increased Faculty participation in University government would seem more compelling to the custodians of power who believe "normal channels" are adequate, were those channels now being used by the Faculty with more imagination and diligence.