The Power Behind the Throne

Corporation says 17th-century structure

Crimson FILE Photo

Members of the Board of Overseers exit Loeb House after several days of secret meetings in the midst of the search for Harvard’s 27th president last year.

Behind the closed doors of Loeb House, on 14 Monday mornings per year, seven individuals chart the course of the University.

While one—University President Lawrence H. Summers—regularly stands in the spotlight as the chief decision maker at Harvard, the other members of the University’s highest governing board rarely share the stage.

But the Harvard Corporation’s low profile, this year disrupted by the controversy surrounding the Enron ties of Corporation member Herbert S. “Pug” Winokur ’64-’65, does not diminish its power, which extends from approving the selection of deans to giving the nod for capital campaigns to begin.

Though its composition shifts over time, this system of government has served the University for more than 350 years.

“They don’t really run the place, but they are the closest advisors the president has, handling issues that may be very controversial in parts of the University,” says Fred L. Glimp ’50, former dean of the College and former vice president for development.

With only six members, in addition to the president of the University, the Corporation is smaller than most major universities’ governing boards.

Despite some calls for a more modern and open system and even internal consideration of modifications, its members say the governance structure is here to stay. And while all admit that some features of the structure are not ideal, they say any change is nearly impossible.

And as the University embarks on the development of its more than 100-acre land plot in Allston—the largest strategic venture in modern Harvard history—the members of the Corporation will likely play an increasingly crucial role.

The Bicameral Model

The history of the Harvard Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, began with the creation of the Charter of 1650. It is the oldest incorporated board in the Western Hemisphere.

Harvard’s first governing board emerged in 1642 with the creation of the Board of Overseers.

The Overseers, today a body of 30 elected for six-year terms in a vote open to all Harvard alums, technically have power over the Corporation through their mandate to consent to the selection of new Corporation members and presidents.

The bicameral form of university oversight is rare in American institutions of higher education, to the point of being confusing to even experts in university governance.

Tom Longin, vice president of the Association of Governing Boards, says he is even confused about the operational details and effectiveness of Harvard’s bicameral system.

“The one thing that fascinates me is this hard question of who really governs,” he says.

Disagreement between the two governing boards is rare—the last time the Overseers tried to block the Corporation’s selection of a new president was the 1869 selection of Charles William Eliot, Class of 1853.