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Governing U: Steps for Improving Governance

By Matthew L. Sundquist

You don’t have to be on the Undergraduate Council or The Crimson to know that many Harvard students believe that the student voice is all but neglected in the governance of the University. Yet, it takes a more nuanced examination to recognize that we students are in a unique position to voice our concerns and advocate for change.

Consider the perspective of non-tenured faculty or salaried administrators: As employees of the University, it seems unlikely that they would advocate for radical change, and even less plausible that they would publish editorials about their employer’s shortcomings. For tenured faculty, time is a scarce commodity, and many would rather do research in their respective fields than advocate for policies or institutional change that may never come. Too many members of our university community are not empowered to push for change or illuminate Harvard’s flaws because they serve only in a nominal or advisory capacity. While there is much that Harvard does well, most students, faculty, and administrators can agree that University governance is in dire need of revision. A relationship based on trust is difficult to formalize, but an improved University structure would bring about expanded communication, collaboration, and mutual honesty.

Under the current structure, students have a very limited voice. Most noticeably, no student serves on the Administrative Board at Harvard. No student is involved with decisions regarding what the administration calls “community standards”—the clause the Ad Board relies on to enforce its decisions. When the Handbook for Students was changed last year as a result of the findings of the Committee on Social Clubs, no student was involved in the process. No student is involved in setting budgetary priorities of the University or the Allston expansion. Students can voice concerns through student-faculty committees, such as the Committees on House Life and Undergraduate Education–composed of administrators, faculty, and students—but the recommendations made by these joint committees are purely advisory.

For example, last year, the Committee on College Life recommended a change in e-mail policies for students. Members of the Faculty have email addresses of the structure John_Harvard@harvard.edu, and we recommended a similar policy for students at the suggestion of those who currently have numbers in their e-mail addresses. But this proposal was quickly sidelined when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Computer Services informed us that its priorities for the year–expanding e-mail inboxes for Faculty members—would demand all of its resources. Changes to the University could be enacted if student-faculty committees existing as advisory bodies existed instead as an extension of the dean’s office and had decision-making power.

Unfortunately, the higher structures of the University are not significantly different. Even the dean of the College is not as powerful as the office’s title sounds. Just as students have not met with the Corporation since 1992, neither did Professor of Mathematics Benedict H. Gross ’71, nor did his predecessor Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68. Furthermore, the dean of the College has no final say in College policies.

While he or she may set financial priorities, the Dean lacks the ability to dedicate funds to new or improved curricular and extracurricular programs. Unfortunately, the dean, like so many others throughout the University, is often forced into an advisory role and made to impose the decisions of playmakers above him. Though wording may be confusing, the College dean reports not the President, but to the Faculty dean, who then reports to the president on behalf of the dean of the College.

It would undoubtedly be beneficial for the College to alter this antiquated reporting structure. The primary job of the Dean of the Faculty is to manage the Faculty, not to micro-manage the College. Rarely does a Faculty dean become involved in undergraduate issues—and why should he? The Dean of the Faculty is already overburdened—it is said that chemistry professor Jeremy R. Knowles used to work 18 hours a day while in office. This is why student issues are often forgotten.

At every other Ivy League school besides the University of Pennsylvania, the College dean reports directly to the president or the provost, and issues are resolved without the filtering process that hinders the Harvard bureaucracy. It would make much more sense for the new dean of the College to deal directly with President Drew G. Faust to administer organizational policies, budget priorities, and undergraduate issues.

As several student groups recently argued, the dean of the College is not chosen by members of the College, but by the dean of the Faculty. Twenty-six students will be consulted for two hours. That means that if every student spoke equally and without breaks, each student could speak for almost five minutes about the College—hardly enough time to say anything meaningful, much less yield an opinion on possible candidates. An advisory committee of Faculty members also exists, but in no official way will students, associate deans of the College, House masters, or members of the Faculty have direct influence over who the dean of the Faculty picks to serve as the next dean of the College. The structure is therefore not only complicated, but also conducive to centralized decisions.

Similar to this ironic selection process, the dean of the Faculty is not chosen by faculty members. The Faculty’s standing committees are consulted, but, just like the student-faculty committees at the College level, they are mainly advisory. In 2005, the Faculty recognized their inability to instigate or create policies, and classics professor Jan M. Ziolkowski, acting chair of the folklore and mythology program, initiated discussions between various department chairs. Although these discussions were initially focused around the departure of then-President Summers, French professor Christie McDonald continued to organize this unofficial Caucus of Chairs, even after Summers stepped down. Their talks expanded into discussions of the curricular review and faculty growth. It would seem fitting for such discussions to occur within the faculty, but many of the chairs are dissatisfied with the University structure.

A dynamic improvement to the University’s structure would to be empower student-faculty committees and Faculty standing committees to serve as more than advisory bodies, both in selecting new deans and in addressing broader community issues. In this way, students, administrators, and faculty members would be empowered to not just yield advice but to make actual decisions about the issues we face. If these committees were taken more seriously, everyone would have a true and equal voice in the governance of our College, and not be relegated to providing advice that is often forgotten amid other administrative priorities. A distinct problem is that whenever a student, faculty member, or administrator advocates for using the predetermined processes and structures of the University, they are subject to criticism from the administration for preventing progress. An underlying sentiment exists that anyone trying to make a change is doing so at the loss of others, and this belief stifles debate and gives everyone an incentive not to speak and be labeled an obstructionist. If the processes of the University were clearly established and adhered to, perhaps Faculty members, administrators, and students would be more open to resolving conflicts within the confines of the Faculty model instead of outsourcing their discussions to the Caucus of Chairs, making decisions behind closed doors, or resorting to protests of University policies.

Akin to the selection processes for the dean of the College and the dean of the Faculty, the University president, who sits atop the entire structure, is not chosen by members of the University. Rather, the president is chosen by six members of the Corporation with the advice of three members of the Board of Overseers. During last year’s presidential search, students and members of the Faculty were consulted, but none of them were able to interview candidates. The search committee met with 350 individuals, sent letters to 245,000 persons, and received 2,300 correspondences on the topic. But at the end of the day, all of this was advisory.

On average, the members of the Corporation graduated from college in 1963, 22 years before the drinking age was changed in 1985 and over a decade before the 1978 curricular review. None of them serve on visiting committees, have children at Harvard, or live in or near Boston. I am not implying that members of the Corporation are not knowledgeable about the issues facing Harvard, but it is hard to deny that acting on behalf of the University without having any direct connection to the issues or people in the community is a problematic task.

While a degree of secrecy is necessary for certain upper-level appointments, allowing more community members a meaningful say would greatly enhance discussion on the issues when selecting a new House master, dean, University librarian, or University president. Searches should be made either formally through a more public process, or participants in a community looking for a new leader should be more informally involved. This could entail students interviewing candidates for the dean of the College position or actually creating a formal committee to make a recommendation.

A major issue at stake, however, is under the current structure, trust and transparency is lacking. While structural changes can do much to improve this, they must be accompanied by a good faith effort from students to trust that the administration and Faculty are doing what is in everyone’s best interest. At the same time, this means that administrators must trust students to be reasonable and work with them on relevant issues.

The basic solution is honesty, mutual understanding, and respect for one another. In this way, we can resolve the issues we all face and hope to amend. This type of relationship should go beyond any formal process, and must come as a commitment from every involved party. During my time here, I would hope to be part of such commitment.

Matthew L. Sundquist ’09 is a philosophy concentrator in Mather House. He is the vice president of the Undergraduate Council.

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