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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

An Evolving Partnership

A History of Harvard's Government

By Mark M. Colodny

Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith is indebted to the Harvard Band for more than its music.

When the liberal economist's tenure appointment came up before the 30-man Board of Overseers in the spring of 1948, it was met with severe hostility and nearly was rejected. In a dramatic eleventh-hour maneuver, the late U.S. District Judge Charles E. Wyzanski '27 was able to push a resolution through the Board delaying the nomination while many of the anti-Galbraith faction were distracted by the Band which was playing outside University Hall. With the extra time the Galbraith forces regrouped and President James B. Conant '14 scolded the overseers--putting his presidency on the line, some said--and the tenure was approved.

While by no means indicative of the activities of the Board today, the Galbraith incident provides a useful milestone in the history of government at Harvard. A Board comprised of staunch clergymen when it was created in 1642 has over the intervening three and a half centuries acquired a much more diverse complexion--now sporting a wide membership that includes Blacks, women, businessmen, and academics.

Despite a change in composition the overseers still remain the junior governing body to the seven-man Harvard Corporation. Both groups have in recent years turned over their more hands-on involvement in Harvard affairs and taken a long-range policymaking role.

The Corporation used to consider almost all aspects of daily life at the University, including the distribution of parking spaces, but now spends its time mainly dealing with budgetary concerns. Similarly, the overseers, who are elected by alumni, have taken a much less active role in the day-to-day affairs at Harvard. A group which in its early days brought down Harvard presidents became within 20 years after the Galbraith incident a virtually impotent body, which at one time considered its own dissolution. During the term of President Bok the Board has regained a more active role in the University, keeping tabs on academic departments through its visiting committees.

Taken together, the overseers and the Corporation form a bicameral structure that has been complementary, longlasting, and the perhaps the only one of its kind among American universities.

As pro-divestment candidates make their second annual bid for seats on the Board of Overseers, the role of that governing body is coming under increasing scrutiny. Some critics say that, the 30-member board should regain its historical prominence in the government of Harvard.

The overseers, they say, should more intensely pursue their role in governing Harvard as they are the only democratic check on the self-perpetuating Corporation.

Harvard officials, including Bok, are loathe to significantly modify a balance that they say could stand little improvement. In addition observers point out that return to previous administrative responsibilities may be impossible given the major overhaul of Harvard's administration that has moved authority away from the governing boards.

The governing system of Harvard is the outgrowth of a Massachusetts Bay Colony act of September, 1642 that empowered a group of overseers, financed by the bequest of a tuburcular John Harvard, to ensure the "piety, morality and learning" of the students of the College. The act presaged what was to be a significant theme for the first two centuries of the University's history: the strong hold that the state legislature was to carry over Harvard's governing boards, particularly the overseers.

It wasn't until 1865 when legislative interference grew overbearing that alumni were given the vote for the overseers. Even now, some Massachusetts legislation is still binding on the boards, and any structural changes must receive the consent of the legislature.

Fresh from the 1642 founding, the early overseers were left to cope with a university that was experiencing growing pains. One sordid college master, Nathaniel Eaton, beat his students with a cudgel while his wife laced the college pudding with goal dung. A momentary crisis ensued when Eaton fled and the college closed.

Harvard reopened its doors a year later under the watchful eye of the 33-year-old Henry Dunster. Dunster proved to be a critical figure in the brief history of the governing boards. In 1650, the youthful president won a royal Charter from King Charles II that formally instituted a Corporation, comprised of a president, treasurer or bursar, and five fellows of the University whose orders were subject to "allowance" by the overseers. The seven remain the technical owners of Harvard. Hence the enigmatic "Copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College" that appears on virtually everything from course catalogs to a recent VES documentary called "Scruffy the Cat."

The body that Dunster shaped has lasted, virtually unchanged, until the present day.

None of which is to say that the overseers and the Corporation coexisted in a state of marital bliss. On the contrary, the two battled persistently over such diverse issues as the rectitude of itinerant evangelist George Whitefield to the quality of the University food.

Their infighting was to peak over the selection of Charles Eliot (1853) as the Corporation's choice for Harvard's next president. The Overseers, appalled by Eliot's new views on education, opposed the nomination but they were unsuccessful.

In the 1860's the Board was freed of direct legislative intervention and control of the body was transferred to some Harvard alumni.

Yet even this change was not enough to mollify some critics who charged that the Board remained too insular. "In the days when Eliot was the president of Harvard, you had a very homogenous group," says Boston Federal District Court Judge William G. Young '62, a longtime overseer observer currently chairing a committee on the composition of the Board. "Most of the people were from around Boston, as the College didn't really draw from areas other than New England."

The prevalence of Brahmins on the overseers grew into a matter of great concern in the 1880's. The Harvard Club of New York led a long and successful campaign to place a member on the ballot--the first to come from outside metropolitan Boston. Such nominations, few as they were, were hampered by the manner of election: at the time voters had to be present at Commencement ceremonies to participate in the overseer selection process. This rule was soon changed to allow alumni to vote by mail--an innovation that greatly expanded the geographical variety of the overseers.

The final critical change came in 1916 when the University allowed holders of all Harvard degrees to vote in overseers elections. Previously, only graduates of the College and a few of the professional schools were granted the franchise.

Historically one of the greatest sources of friction between overseers and Corporation members has been the issue of honorary degrees which are conferred at Commencement. Within the last decade, several honorary degree nominations from the Corporation have been attacked by the overseers and abandoned.

Perhaps the most prescient battle over honorary degrees occurred when overseer John Quincy Adams (1787) refused to attend an honorary degree ceremony conferring the coveted parchment on his political enemy Andrew Jackson, who Adams called "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could hardly spell his own name."

Jackson was receiving a degree on the occasion of the University's 200th birthday. In later anniversaries, Presidents Grover Cleveland and Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 came and received honoraries. That tradition was broken last fall when President Reagan, who was denied a degree, declined to attend the 350th citing a busy schedule.

The presidential spell has never seemed to leave the governing boards. In the early 1960's, shortly before his assassination, Overseer and President John F. Kennedy '40 held a meeting of the overseers in the White House. He resigned shortly thereafter to attend to his Oval Office duties. This year, Democratic Presidential hopeful Albert Gore Jr. '69 (D-Tenn.) is among the University-nominated candidates for the Board.

Nor are the governing boards historically averse to politics, albeit on an informal level. During the London raids at the beginning of World War II, Conant presided over an acrimonious overseers meeting. A president often faulted for stormy relations with the governing boards, Conant attacked those overseers who cautioned neutrality in the emerging conflict.

The turning point in the recent history of the governing boards is widely seen to be the turmoil of 1969. The debates of that year set off an acrimonious examination about government at Harvard that continues to reverberate today as seen by alumni calls for broader representation on the overseers, student calls for participation, and calls by the governors themselves for an overhaul.

These internal rumblings for change lay behind a series of committees that looked at government in the early 1970's. The Dunlop Committee revamped Harvard's administrative system, adding an extensive internal structure of five vice presidents. This new corporate apparatus freed up the governing boards to handle long-range concerns.

Under the guidance of Corporation members Andrew Heiskell and Francis H. Burr '35, the University's top governing body moved away from detailed involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the University toward a more global perspective.

The move away from detail "came about at the same time as responsibility for the day-to-day functions has been given to the administrative people since they know more about it," says Heiskell, who is retiring from the Corporation this year.

Changes in the Corporation role also heralded changes in the overseers' responsibilities. A body that had largely atrophied during the Pusey years, when overseers were mainly known for their ability to contribute to the University's endowment, it has been given a new long range role as Bok has resuscitated the visiting committee system.

According to former overseer George B. Bingham Sr. '28, who served two terms on the Board, the most recent change of the governing body has been this reinvigoration of the visiting committee process. "Before, [their reports] were being filed and forgotten," Bingham says.

"Some overseers when I was there were rather exasperated that they were lectured to, and had little impact in decisions--that has changed," Burr says. The visiting committees allow overseers some input into the government of the University they dominated centuries earlier.

The fallout of 1969 also greatly expanded a transformation in the composition of the overseers that had been underway for the past century. The Board saw a dramatic growth in the traditional outsiders among its ranks--non-Bostonians, minorities, and the Board's first woman, Helen H. Gilbert '36, who joined the body in 1969.

The final episode of this reevaluation was the Gilbert Report of 1978 which recommended against the proposed dissolution of the Board--a residual suggestion from the late Pusey years that the Boards be merged into one.

The present government system continues with the age-old bicameral tradition with clearly defined spheres for each of the bodies.

The Corporation's present function is largely dedicated toward financial matters and to milling the grist submitted to them by the various faculties. Few innovations come from the Corporation's twice-monthly meetings.

"Even matters like tuition are pretty cut and dried when they come before the Corporation," notes former ex officio member George Putnam Jr. '49.

The Corporation in recent months has considered everything from the impact of the new tax plan on longterm giving to the budgetary needs of Harvard's Villa I Tatti in Italy, which has been buffetted by an inflated lire.

Overseers, by contrast, are primarily responsible for departmental visitation and participation in the selection of Corporation members and the President. The Board also acts in an "advice and consent" capacity with regard to the Corporation--a role stemming from its original charter that in practice is rarely one of veto power.

The oversight is in reality more subtle, say veterans of the process. "The Corporation's knowledge that this group of 30 people is watching over their shoulder will prevent them from doing anything silly," says former President Pusey.

An often unstated role is that of training ground for the Harvard Corporation. Heiskell and fellow overseer Colman M. Mockler Jr. '52 were each one-time Presidents of the Overseers.

Although the Board has gone well beyond its rubber stamp function of a decade ago, the Board's role clearly falls well short of that of a century or even of forty years ago. And while some tenure appointments have been assailed by the Board, overseers say, real challenges are very infrequent. Most tenure cases are decided in a joint Overseers-Corporation committee, whose staff flags problematic cases.

Some now seek a return to more overseer input into governing the University. This push comes largely as an outgrowth of the recent challenge to the Board by pro-divestment candidates who want the body to address larger issues of social responsibility. As the democratic arm of the governance system, they say, the overseers have a responsibility to take a larger role.

But in a recent interview Bok said he did not envision any future expansion. "I don't see them taking a larger role. I don't see anything on the horizon that is a direction the overseers want to move in."

Moreover, while some say overseers power has declined, they add that it need not be enlarged. "Their role is not really a role of power, but it's a role of providing information and advice," says former Overseer T. Jefferson Coolidge '54, a local financier. "In terms of the original intent of the overseers, they don't have enough power to do the original job, but they probably have all the power they can handle given the limited time they have."

In any case, the overseers are surely no longer the bored boardmembers of yore. Says Young: "It's not just wearing a tie and tails and waiting for someone to deliver the Marshall Plan."

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