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Bandits at Harvard

By J. hale Russell

One of the great amusements of Faculty meeting is University President Lawrence H. Summers’ thumb-twiddling. He makes fascinating patterns of ever-increasing complexity with his fingers on the table. He speaks for two reasons. The first is to contradict (and, recently, to express contrition), usually beginning with “Let me just say that…” and often devolving into an economics metaphor. The second is as chair, where he employs a unique insensitivity to parliamentary procedure. Summers’ poor grasp of the rules has caused such confusion that votes on simple matters with unanimous consensus—like adjournment—have turned out wrong and required a revote.

It could be funny (it does prompt laughter) were it not disturbing and tragic. The procedures are not so complicated that an eighth grade Model U.N. participant wouldn’t know them. The meetings are not so often—only once a month, and lasting for 90 minutes, though in contrast to years previous Summers generally starts late—that one need struggle to look attentive through them. Sadly, it is hard to see Summers’ disregard for the customs of Faculty meeting as anything but symptomatic of the disrespect this administration has shown the professoriat. And the attempt to shut the Faculty out of University governance comes at a time when their input is most needed for the curricular review and Allston planning.

This lack of trust—evidenced not just at Faculty meeting, but in countless decisions made suddenly behind closed doors, with committees serving a merely perfunctory role—led to the crisis of the last six months. Allowed to attend because of my seat on the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), I had been warned not to expect much from faculty meetings: a few people nibbling on cookies beforehand, then the “memorial minutes” honoring deceased professors, and finally a few pro forma comments and shows of hands. But this spring, meetings became instead intense, intelligent discussions of how to fix poor management at the University. Seeing the administration “behind the scenes” this spring has reaffirmed my faith in the genuine concern of professors for the education Harvard provides—and increased my grave alarm about the current top leadership of Mass. Hall and University Hall.

At CUE, and at the curricular review committee I served on, I witnessed administrators, whether well-intentioned or not, subverting intelligent discussion by the most ridiculous of tricks. One of my two committees was told we couldn’t discuss a particular topic because another committee had already done so; unfortunately for the dean who said this, I was on the other committee and knew that it most certainly had not been discussed. At another meeting, a high-level University Hall administrator—who holds no teaching appointment—complained that she was alarmed at how “unnecessarily negative” we committee members were acting in questioning why nobody had informed us of administrative decisions relevant to our work. In one of the most shocking incidents, that same dean asked whether our committee would endorse several failed efforts by the administration, including one to restore preregistration, that we had never discussed, had no relevance to the issues at hand, and certainly did not reflect the committee’s opinion. And nobody could tell my curricular review committee when or where, if ever, our non-controversial report would be made public. (Unsurprisingly, since University Hall seems no longer to believe in the utility of widespread discussion of the curriculum, it has not.)

No attempt was ever made to coordinate the efforts of the various committees, much less to publicize them—a sin whether by omission or intention. The increasing proliferation of administrators and committees (which take away valuable energy from teaching and research) is perhaps a case of too many cooks. But worse still is that each cook was given a different utensil and put incommunicado in a separate room. Few faculty I have spoken with object to serving on committees when their tasks are meaningful; but when it becomes obvious that the administration hopes only for committee members to rubber-stamp their decisions, the experience becomes frustrating and deeply insulting.

The crisis of governance is far from the abstract problem of an abstract bureaucracy. It will tangibly affect our education. It is difficult as a student to watch an administration refusing to trust the tenured faculty. And it is hard to learn when you do not know what, why, or how you are meant to be learning—but the closed-door curricular review has thus far come up with no guiding principles for what “education” means.

A parable has it that an old man was attacked by a group of bandits. He burst into tears, and they mocked him as a childish cry-baby. But the man cut them off. “I am crying,” he said, “not from fear. I’m crying because I pity what you and the world are losing from your behavior.” The bandits, as the story goes, were so struck by his words that they immediately reformed their ways.

Harvard has bandits. They’re bundled between the pages of cryptic, bland reports about the curricular review; they lurk behind the provost’s wresting away faculty control of grants; they laugh as departments defend themselves after falling out of favor with Mass. Hall. The secretive, non-participatory, top-down processes brought to Harvard by the current administration threaten a key principle of university governance: those who lead the University’s intellectual life, the tenured women and men of Harvard, are best suited to make decisions affecting that intellectual life.

Like the wise man, the professors who voted on March 15 that they lacked confidence in Summers grieve not for themselves, but for Harvard. This has not stopped critics from calling them whiny, overpaid complainers. For six months, professors—those who love and give this place the most—have attempted simultaneously to teach classes and to solve the crisis of governance, as with the group of chairs that has met weekly to generate ideas and solutions. Professors will spend their entire lives here, rather than the few years customary of administrators, and care deeply about this place and about its students. They are chosen, and trusted with tenure, for their unique knowledge of their discipline and how to share it; it is hard to understand how they could teach a curriculum they are not involved in designing. Their combination of wisdom and passion makes the Faculty—rather than an administration that shuts it out—ideal, and necessary, governors of Harvard’s intellectual life.

Students and administrators would do well to complete the parable, by making these professors their role models. It is often said that Harvard as an institution fails to educate a student’s soul. (Indeed, it scarcely attempts: the general education committee of the curricular review this year recommended the discontinuation of a requirement in moral reasoning.) In an environment where preprofessionalism is rampant and success is measured by your GPA—or, failing that, by a job offer at a consulting or i-banking firm—individual character is rarely mentioned. Watching faculty stand up for themselves at their meetings this year provided the best lesson in values I have received in the past four years.

Friends of mine lambast our peers for endless petty complaining and cynicism. But the last six months of a faculty up in arms should instead demonstrate that if we pick our battles, Harvard-style skepticism might pay off when it matters. When complaint is backed up by sound reasoning and productive action, from those who care and know the most, it is hardly unwarranted.

Jacob Hale Russell ’05 is an English concentrator in Adams House. He was arts chair of The Crimson in 2003.

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