In Ancient Athens, mortals could only gaze up in wonder to the clouds atop Mount Olympus, where the whims of the gods determined their lives. For Soviet Russians, the same mystery surrounded the Politburo, where secret meetings shaped their lives. Harvard
University offers its own version: the corporation.
There are a lot of cooks in Harvard s kitchen: the University has a Board of Overseers, a president and provost, vice presidents and a slew of deansasome with dominion over such glamorous academic concerns as >=physical space.<= But above all of these sits the Harvard Corporation.
Seven peopleathe University s president and six fellowsaofficially >=own<= Harvard. They meet nearly twice a month, hashing out decisions that chart the University s course for years to come. They are a powerful group. Their name appears on every Harvard publication. They are ultimately responsible for every action the University undertakes.
At Commencement, they can be seen parading in the academic robes of the University, but for the most part, those who rule Harvard have little to do with either education or scholarship. Some are lawyers, others are business moguls. It is remarkable that such men and womenamany of whom charge clients triple digits by the houraare willing to spend their time running Harvard, and free of charge at that.
Other than former University of Chicago President Hanna H. Grayalike President Neil L. Rudenstine, a long-time administratorathere is no academic presence on the board. They are corporate.
And they are secret. Top secret. Despite the small size of the group and its critical importance to the University, most undergraduates would be hard-pressed to name a single member, but this is hardly unexpected. Their meetings are closed, their minutes are guarded and the building where they gather is fortified. What are they hiding? Only those on the inside can really know. Maybe they just like a good surprise, keeping the University in the dark about its future until the time is right. Or maybe they don t want Harvard to find out about the options they reject, options that might improve the lives of students and faculty. They might be hiding problems they find in the way Harvard is run, andaever conscious of the University s sparkling Crimson imageathey could be trying to fix them before anyone finds out about flaws they discover.
Or maybe they are just hiding themselves. The corporation doesn t quite look like Harvard. Its members are not scholars. They are not, in fact, a lot of things. They are not black or Asian. Until recently, they were not women. Once, their membership included a Jew, but he has since moved on. They tend to be old and they tend to be wealthy, and for some, the group is too elite, even for Harvard standards.
The corporationacharged with planning for the Harvard of the 21st centuryagoes back to the 17th. Its members today were picked by their predecessors, who were in turn picked by the corporation members before them. The board can trace its lineage back to men with names like Mather and Dunster. It has lasted a long time. And as far as Harvard s powers are concerned, the Corporation will endure for centuries to come.
Apparently, they talk. When the corporation meets in Loeb House, the former home of the president before it was decided he would be safer in a house far off-campus, they sit around a table and listen to presentations. And then they talk about them. They discuss, they argue, they ruminate, and they debate. They grill the deans and vice presidents who come before them. Some reach, undoubtedly, for glasses of water, while the president indulges in his trademark cup of apple juice. And then they talk some more. You would never know it, however, if you tried to talk to them yourself.
FM made phone calls. FM made lots of phone calls. We phoned their offices. We phoned their secretaries. We phoned their homes. We phoned their friends. We phoned Harvard.
But, as Shakespeare put it, >=The rest is silence.<=
>=They never talk about themselves,<= one Harvard spokesperson tried to explain to FM.
FM explained that the article was innocuous-enough; we wouldn t pry into specific policies. We just thought Harvard students would want to know about their trustees. We thought the trustees might be interested in talking to their students. It was not to be.
An assistant to corporation Member Richard A. Smith explained that her boss does not grant interviews of any kind. All other phone calls went unreturned.
So, on a rainy Monday, FM decided to stake out corporation headquarters on Quincy Street, lodged in the hub of undergraduate life, between Lamont Library and Emerson Hall. We knew the time was nigh: a black limousine perched like a vulture in front of the iron gates to Loeb House, bearing a sign with the name of >=Judith Richards Hope,<= the first female corporation member. FM fell into optimistic word-association. Who could blame us for anticipating the arrival of a Great White Ms. Hope? Chauffer-driven, perhaps even elegantly coiffed, she, at last, would be the one >=fellow<= willing to show good cheer. FM would get a few smart quotes and some camaraderie as well.
We stood on the front step and suddenly FM felt like it was being watched. More than usual. To our right, mounted on a corner of the building, a glass-encased camera monitored our every move. We were unfazed. >=Let them stare,<= we said. We weren t doing anything wrong.
Presently, a tall gentleman in a trench coat and blended hair emerged. He wasawe believeaRobert G. Stone Jr., chair of the Kirby Corporation of New York. We re not quite sure because he walked away as we tried to introduce ourselves. Our notebooks must have given us away, we thought.
As FM resumed its post at the front door, a short, gray-haired lady stepped out, a rain hat in hand. The door began to shut behind her, and as she tied the straps of her cap to her chin, we reached for the door. Appalled at the notion that we might walk inside to speak to the receptionist, the aged woman threw herself against the door, slamming it shut before we could grasp the handle.
Her eyes bulged. >=You can t go in there,<= she harrumphed. >=This is not a public building.<= She scowled at us as if we were degenerates. She was like a grandmother, instructing the young in the manners of old, only her own conduct was unspeakably rude. FM stood with dropped jaw, watching as she tied her bright yellow cap to her headaas though FM, in addition to its ambitions of trespassing, might also be contemplating grand theft rain gearaand scuttled off down the street.
Back at the stake-out position, FM awaited its next encounter. Fortunately, there was no more action outside corporation mission control. Is it possible the door-slammer was carrying a cell phone and warned her cohorts not to exit by the main door? Some things we may never know.
But FM knows what they did in their meeting. They talked about the law school. They talked about raising money after the Capital Campaign ends and that there is no excuse to press Harvard s alumni to the wall. They talked with their new vice president for public relations about his plans. We didn t want to ask about that; we just wanted to know what their meetings were like. Instead we had to go top-secret, to find out what amount to uneventful details.
>=It s like they work out of a smoke-filled room, making all the big decisions,<= says Steve Hrones, a Harvard Law School graduate who is trying to be elected to Harvard s other trustee body, the Board of Overseers. >=It s basically an oligarchy that rules the University.<=
The corporation s clandestine nature has become legendary. One prominent Boston lawyer says he s spent years trying to figure out who really runs the University and how. According to Harvey A. Silverglate of Silverglate & Good, >=The fact that the ultimate body is so secret is part of the reason Harvard is so hard to influence. When you have a complaint to bring against the University, you don t know where to poke your stick.<=
These days, there seems to be little interest in stick-poking, but it was not always so. In the 1980s, students demanded access to the corporation and its meetings to make their voices heard on Harvard s investments in South Africa. True to form, the corporation never issued any kind of response whatsoever to the activists.
Secrets, however, get out. FM has learned that this spring, the corporation has been heavily involved in setting up >=interfaculty initiatives,<= developing new ways for Harvard s central administration to keep its books, dealing with Internet courses, dealing with the endless Radcliffe issue, andamost importantlyadealing with Harvard s money.
The University, as everyone knows, has a lot of it. Billions and billions of dollars are not merely assets to Harvard s managementathey are a responsibility. This is the corporation s number one activity. Deans and vice presidents develop plans for their schools and departments. They also work out budgets to pay for their aspirations.
But before any budget can go into effect, the president and fellows must approve it. >=Power ultimately rests in those kinds of decisions,<= says John P. Reardon, Jr., who served as secretary to the corporation over the summer. This is how the corporation controls the University. And Rudenstine plans to expand that power in his ongoing quest to centralize Harvard. This May, he will bring the deans of all of Harvard s schools together for only their second-known simultaneous meeting with the corporation. They will deal with >=very long-range issues.<= The corporation will listen. And, after the deans have left, it will make decisionsadecisions that will shape Harvard for not only decades but centuries. They will look into capital campaignsaopportunities to lift Harvard onto the next level of financial dominance. And they will examine >=physical planning,<= the construction of buildings, which, they hope, will out-live generations of Harvard graduates.
D. Ronald Danielaone of McKinsey & Company s ubermachersanot only sits on the corporation as University treasurer but also chairs the board of the Harvard Management Company, which manages the University s gigantic endowment. For this job, too, he is unpaid. And the corporation convenes a sub-committee that oversees >=shareholder responsibility,<= the ethicsaor lack thereofaof Harvard s investments. Money dominates the Corporation s dealings.
The meetings themselves happen on Mondays. They start at 8 or 9 a.m. and continue on through lunch. Sometimes members squeeze in extra meetings over breakfast. By late afternoon, it is time to go home, to get back to their lives and jobs and to plan for the next meeting, only a few weeks away. According to Reardon, they meet >=a lot.<= Three times as often, for example, as the board of overseers and far more often than the trustees of most other schools. The president chairs the meetings, and uses the group as both a sounding board and an advice column for his own decisions for the University. The members meet in Loeb House s Cabot room, seated around a table with the President at its head, the treasurer to his right and the most senior fellow to his left. Corporation members also make a few public appearancesaat Commencement, for exampleaand carry out various ceremonial roles including speaking engagements. For the most part, however, their hours in Loeb House comprise the whole of their interaction with Harvard.
What is unique about its arrangement, aside from the time commitment, is its twin body, the board of overseers. The overseers resemble traditional trustee bodies much more closely than the corporation. There are more than 30 members, all of whom are elected by Harvard s alumni body. The board breaks up into some 54 different visiting committees that review the workings of the Universityaits academic departments, its museums, its athletics. But the overseers do not make decisions. They write reports. They collaborate. They advise. Only the corporation can actually make changes and set policy.
>=I think it works quite well because it separates governance from oversight,<= says Board President Charlotte P. Armstrong.
There s gotta be a catch, it seems. Who in their right mind would, on top of a successful career in some other field, want to tack on a nearly half-time job that pays nothing? They do it, says Armstrong, out of >=a love of Harvard.<= Reardon calls it >=pretty amazing.<=
There are also less altruistic reasons to serve than simply that old Harvard spirit. Armstrong says Harvard s fellows are drawn to the excitement of running the University and what she calls >=the prestige aspect.<= Running Harvard must feel pretty impressive, though we can only guess since corporation members wouldn t dream of talking about it.
That prestige, however, is limited to a certain set. The corporation is all white. They are, according to Hrones, >=fat cats and millionaires.<=
>=These guys know nothing about education,<= Hrones says. >=They re all basically big capitalists.<=
Richard Smith, a member since 1991, recently announced his plans to step down from the corporation, and the corporation has moved toward finding a successor. Broadening the backgrounds of the corporation s membership, Harvard says, is a priority in their search for new candidates.
For example, Armstrong concedes that >=sometimes there s the thought that other academics are needed,<= and Reardon says >=they work hard at that<=athe that being the d-word: diversity. But Harvard will make no promises. As Reardon is quick to add, >=at the end of the day, they re going to appoint the candidate who is the best,<= suggesting that the most apt candidate is probably most likely to be found in the typical ranks of the corporation s homogeneity. Academics may have to content themselves with the lower levels of Harvard s administrationadeanships at bestaand minorities may simply have to wait.
For critics like Hrones, the problem originates in the search process. >=They just pick their buddies,<= as he puts it. The overseers have to approve any new corporation member and participate in the search, but by and large, the corporation chooses its new members itself, seeking out talented alumni and friends of the University to approach with the awesome possibility of fellowship. They are self-perpetuating, insulated from outside pressure not only from the students and the public at large, but even from any groundswell in the alumni body, in contrast with the overseers, who are elected by the alumni at large. In short, if they are going to change, they are going to have to want to change themselves.
The corporation is slow to change for an obvious reason. Its members are chosen for life. There are informal rulesathat a member doesn t stay past the age of 70, that each member is reviewed after five yearsathat encourage turnover. But there is no set term for Corporation members. They serve until they feel like moving on. They dont seem likely to go in for a facelift anytime soonhrough the good hand of God....it is therefore ordered and enacted by this court...that the said College, in Cambridge in Middlesex, in New England shall be a Corporation, consisting of seven persons, to wit a President, five fellows and a Treasurer...<= This is the origin of the corporationaa 1650 charter from the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. The corporation has been around for a long time.
But the overseers came first. Although the Corporation is nearing its 350th birthday, the board of overseers passed that milestone seven years ago. The Charter of 1650 legally incorporated Harvard by setting up the president and fellows with a salary of 500 pounds a year, but even then, the overseers still remained superior.
The Harvard Historian Samuel Eliot Morision writes that >=composed as it was of magistrates and ministers, the Board of Overseers remained the dominant governing board until 1686, when it was temporarily suspended by a change in government.<= The corporation became a political matter in Puritan politics, swelling to 15 members, and then being scaled back by President John Leverett, anxious to pack the board with his supporters, and eventually leading to the corporation s surpassing the overseers. Once the corporation took control of the University, it never looked back.
In the years following the American Revolution, the corporation took another step toward its modern incarnationait went public. Until the 1780s, it had been made up of teaching fellows, imitating the British colleges across the Atlantic. It became, Morrison writes, a >=board of external trustees, connected with the living organism of the University only through the President.<= And so it has remained.
There was insurgency along the way. In the 1820s, Harvard s faculty tried to claim it had a right to sit on the corporation in a push for reform. It was not to be. The overseers decided the matter, siding with the corporation and affirming its right >=to co-opt whomsoever it chose.<= Though Harvard s powers squabbled amongst each other, the Corporation remained unchanged.
And while Armstrong says relations between the corporation and the overseers are >=collegial<= todayain part because the overseers get to play with their pals on the corporation, serving on committees togetherait was not always so. As Harvard s legendary President Charles Eliot, Class of 1853, remarked in his inaugural remarks of 1869, >=The overseers should always hold toward the corporation an attitude of suspicious vigilance.<= Eliot s remarks were all the more ironic since a bitter fight had broken out over his own appointment. The corporation had picked him to be president, and therefore one of its members. But Eliot s nomination was sent back by the overseers >=as good as rejected.<= The opposition between the two governing boards finally broke when the corporation proved to have the stronger will, standing by its nominee. The overseers relented. No one remained to stand up to the corporation.
This century certainly saw uprisingsaask Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III about the spring of 1969. And in recent decades, investments in South Africa led to a push for a more open corporation. Students protested and demanded more access to the board that controls the University. But nothing ever came of it. Some things cannot be changed. The Corporation remains as unavailable as ever.