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Opening Up the Forbidden City

The Dean of the Faculty should take steps to seem more accessible and accountable

By Anthony S.A. Freinberg

On Monday night, University President Lawrence H. Summers held his latest highly visible meet and greet session with undergraduate students, this time in Adams House. Approximately 60 students, lured by the promise of pizza and face time with Harvard’s president, headed to Adams. In spite of his high profile, however, Summers is not the administrator with the most influence on Harvard undergraduates’ lives. That man is Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby.

It is Kirby who will ultimately preside over the Faculty’s vote on whether or not to accept the changes proposed by the curricular review. It is Kirby who will have to sign off on which portions of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) eventually move across the river to Allston. It is Kirby who will decide when—if ever—he will open FAS’ purse strings enough to make the Malkin Athletic Center a gym worthy of a half-decent American university. While Summers understandably garners most of the attention, both inside and outside the University, it is Kirby who has the most day-to-day importance in shaping the nature of Harvard College. (Of course, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 also has a sizeable role to play—but, as last year’s firing of Harry R. Lewis ’68 showed, Gross’ position is ultimately meaningless without the support, both financial and ideological, of the Dean of the Faculty.)

Kirby, though, is a far more remote presence than either Summers or Gross. Indeed, perceived changes in the structure of University Hall since Kirby took over led to a stinging Op Ed in The Crimson last month, written by the previous year’s two most senior news editors. They concluded damningly, “[Top administrators] seem incapable or unwilling to acknowledge that new procedures and attitudes represent a blow to transparency, and that this is a problem.” Of course, the complaints of two undergraduates, in spite of their rhetorical potency, should probably not trouble Kirby excessively. More worryingly for Kirby, though, over the past week 11 Faculty members, from a broad range of disciplines, voiced similar concerns to me, arguing that their dean was aloof and unengaged with their priorities.

A major cause of irritation was the cancellation of yesterday’s Faculty meeting. Although it was called off because the Committee on Calendar Reform had not produced its report in time for this month’s meeting, many wished to use the time to discuss instead the major issues facing FAS over the coming years—the curricular review and the move to Allston. As one tenured professor put it, “[It was] clear the Faculty wanted to keep talking at the end of the December meeting. And Kirby asked a bunch of questions in his annual letter on which the Faculty might have commented [if a March meeting had been held].” Several, though, suggested that Faculty meetings were irrelevant, anyway, in Harvard’s current authoritarian climate. “He just doesn’t stand up for our interests like [former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles] did,” one professor lamented.

In reality, the situation is not quite so cut and dry Calling off Faculty meetings is relatively customary, and there has been no increase in the number of cancellations per year since Kirby took over from Knowles. Moreover, the meeting was called off because, as laid down in the procedures governing Faculty meetings, no one put any topics for discussion on the docket with the required amount of notice. That said, Kirby himself could have put discussion of Allston and the curricular review on if he had thought it sufficiently important to get continuing feedback from Faculty members.

It is also true that Kirby can point to his open-door policy for all Faculty members and his Monday office hours for students as evidence that he is not a remote figure, unwilling to listen to others. The danger of his being perceived as aloof is real, however. Kirby, a famous scholar of Imperial China, should be all too cognizant of the dangers of having University Hall seem like Harvard’s equivalent of Beijing’s Forbidden City: a walled compound, ostensibly in the middle of things, but really isolated and insulated from the real world all around it—a sheltered haven for a tiny elite, penetrable only to their chosen advisors.

If Kirby is serious about correcting this image problem, he should do four things immediately. First, he should remind all Faculty members of his open-door policy, and stress to them the importance of his getting continual feedback from them in one-on-one settings. Second, Kirby should advertise his weekly office hours for students, who are almost certainly unaware of their existence. Third, he should shed his extraordinary reticence to speak with Crimson reporters. Meeting with reporters far more regularly—he currently schedules only one hour per month, on average—and being more willing to speak on the record during those meetings, will help Kirby to answer critics who charge that he is unwilling to be held accountable for his decisions. Finally, he should ensure that going forward fewer Faculty Meetings are cancelled to allow professors the maximum number of opportunities to debate the tremendous changes facing FAS in the coming years.

Harvard is, of course, certainly not governed as a true democracy, and there are good arguments for why such an institution needs strong central leadership. For that system to work, however, the chosen leaders must be accessible and accountable both to the Faculty and to the student body. The very perception that Kirby is not entirely willing to be so, regardless of the reality of the situation, is damaging—both to Kirby and to the University.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alernate Wednesdays.

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