Student leaders hoping to have a say in the University’s presidential search may have a thing or two to learn from Harvard Law School’s Class of 1981.
Come July 1, Derek C. Bok, the man who then held the helm of the University, will return to lead Harvard as interim president.
But although administrators and professors alike have lauded Bok for his consultative approach to decision-making after he was again appointed to the president’s post this semester, students in the Class of 1981 decried their limited role in dean searches.
Then, like now, the campus had crucial leadership positions to fill.
At issue in the fall of 1980 was the appointment of a new dean of the Harvard Law School (HLS), a position Bok himself held from 1968 to 1971.
In September of 1980, Bok wrote to HLS faculty, students, and alumni asking for their views on the school’s needs and “for the names of any candidates they might have.”
Bok then narrowed down the list of candidates with the help of faculty members but rejected students’ requests to have a formal role in the actual selection process.
In protest, students at the Law School attempted to interview faculty candidates themselves.
Lorraine B. Pratte, then a third-year law student and member of the Law School Council, told The Crimson at the time that students should be involved in evaluating the final candidates once the selection pool had been narrowed down and that Bok’s inclusion of students in the search process amounted to little more than “a token effort.”
One student at the time described Bok as having “a very closed mind” about allowing students to screen candidates and said student input would be limited to writing letters.
Marjorie R. Corman, then-president of the Law School student council and now a professor at University of Cincinnati’s law school, met with Bok to make the case for a formalized role for students.
“We are not going to get the input we wanted,” Corman told The Crimson in the fall of 1980 after her meeting with Bok. “Basically, the decision will be left to Bok.”
Bok wrote in an e-mail that he did not remember what role law school students played in selecting a dean in 1981 and did not “recall that they were upset.”
“I selected many deans (including three Law School deans) and it is hard after 25 years to keep the circumstances of each search clearly in mind,” he wrote.
In an e-mail message last week, Corman, who now goes by her married name, Aaron, said she “vaguely remembers [the dean selection] issue, and vaguely remembers going to a meeting with then President Bok to ask for representation.”
But Aaron stressed the importance of student input in dean searches. During the University of Cincinnati’s own faculty dean search last year, Aaron wrote, students met the final candidates and were given the opportunity to give feedback to the formal members of the search committee.
It remains to be seen what role exactly students today will play in the search for a permanent Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean and a new University president. But unlike their peers 25 years ago, students may play a more active role in the selection processes.
Since his second appointment to the presidency in February, Bok has been credited by student leaders with being receptive to student input. The Undergraduate Council (UC) played an informal advisory role in this semester’s search for a new FAS dean, which Bok led.
A UC ad hoc committee made presentations to the 10-member faculty advisory committee that had also been advising Bok during the selection process and met with Bok before he made his final decision.
The search resulted in the appointment of Jeremy R. Knowles, who served as dean of Faculty from 1991 to 2002, as interim dean.
“Bok has certainly showed an interest in sitting down with students," said UC President John S. Haddock ’07 last week.
The council is now trying to make sure that a similar student consultation process takes place during the presidential search that will kick into gear during the fall.
Thirteen professors and 14 students were appointed to two advisory groups in May that will advise the committee searching for Harvard’s 28th president.
Haddock said that "the creation of a student committee has been a positive sign" that Bok is willing to consult with students.
But "it remains to be seen whether students will get the institutionalized role that they need," he added.
Bok wrote that he did not "yet know exactly what role students will turn out to have in choosing the next Harvard president."
"My personal view is that students can play a valuable role in articulating needs and priorities of students that a new president ought to address," Bok wrote. "I believe that students have less to contribute in deciding which candidate to select."
—Staff writer Alexander D. Blankfein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.