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University Hall Rock

By Matthew L. Sundquist, None

I have always loved School House Rock, and since I was a bit of a wonk even in my youth, the “I’m Just a Bill” song describing a bill’s journey from draft to federal law has always been my favorite. Harvard has a very different process for passing a bill, and by a bill I mean a change in policy. Unfortunately the administration has not yet come up with a helpful song to explain it, but this somewhat convoluted process can facilitate important discussion as long as everyone involved with it is candid about his or her views from the outset. In addition, Dean of the College, Evelyn Hammonds has both the perspective of a faculty member and a background in administration at the Provost’s office. I believe she can and will provide strong leadership to ensure that meaningful proposals will successfully make their way through the system.

A Harvard bill begins its journey when an administrative sponsor spends up to a year advocating for a specific change, such as a proposal regarding faculty diversity. The advocacy period is so long because a sponsor must first familiarize herself with the unique tenure process of each of the College’s 44 departments and those departments affiliated with our 13 other schools. Since Harvard faculty and administrators are very protective of their own domains, the sponsor must make sure that the proposal takes existing resources into account, such as those available through Human Resources or the Association of Black Faculty, Administrators, and Fellows.

Next, a sponsor needs to solicit advice from numerous associate, provisional, and otherwise-affiliated deans. Such consultations serve the dual purpose of providing feedback and potentially garnering support for a proposal. In particular, the deans of the College and the Faculty of Arts and Science (FAS) ought to be consulted, along with some of the active members of the faculty. In my opinion, there seem to be between 50-70 such individuals. Former deans and faculty heavyweights often maintain expertise and influence after leaving their posts, and if an issue was previously discussed during the tenure of a given dean, then a current dean will likely consult her on that issue.

The directors of various offices and centers focused on tenure, research, and faculty recruitment also need to be consulted if the office would be impacted or have its domain diminished by even the smallest change in policy proposed by the bill. Few things halt change as effectively as a senior member of the University or faculty protesting after not having been consulted in a preliminary discussion.

Next, the bill enters the official discussion mechanism of the University: the committee. In almost all cases, there is significant overlap of the purview’s of the standing committees of the Board of Overseers, the University, various deans, concentrations, causes, and the FAS and College. For example, a discussion on diversity may be considered by the Committees on Women, Benefits, Continuing Education, Faculty Development and Diversity, and Pedagogical Improvement, as well as by a visiting committee of the overseers or a working group or task force examining the composition of the faculty.

Beyond these more official committees, informal groups like the House Masters’ Council or Caucus of Chairs usually weigh in, and a bill often merits the creation of a committee with subcommittees to conduct consultations and meet with still more committees and working groups. These subcommittees convene and then write a report, which is then redistributed to other committees for discussion.

Since these committees are advisory and cannot make binding decisions, a bill may or may not reach the next stage: the Docket Committee. The Faculty rules stipulate that this group determines what the 18-person elected Faculty Council will discuss. If an issue passes though these committees, it is placed on the agenda for a full faculty meeting, though the time between the Docket Committee and the faculty meeting is likely to exceed three months, if it is not tabled altogether. This process is often stalled due to uncertainty about whether the faculty should vote on the issue or simply be made aware of it. An investigation of the legal precedents and relevant rules can take several months due to the high level of turnover in FAS positions over the past three years. If the measure does pass, implementation is generally delegated to an implementation committee or a newly created office.

With proper leadership, this Kafkaesque (think multiple castle-walls) system can be surprisingly effective. In fact, in her role at the Provost’s office, Dean Hammonds successfully navigated this system with numerous proposals and initiatives related to faculty development and diversity. In order for the process to be effective though, everyone needs to be honest about his or her intentions. If the Dean does not favor a bill, she should honestly state that opinion, though it may be more politically prudent to use bureaucratic intrigue and encourage someone else to undertake the vetting process while she personally offers minimal support. Many precious hours of time can be wasted on such maneuvers, trying the patience of even the most persevering agents of change for the good of students.

I believe that the newly appointed dean of the College is the kind of leader who can weather this process, and I sincerely hope that her leadership will effect meaningful change. It is imperative for her to offer a serious opinion to every bill sponsor and to provide top-down leadership after ample discussion of an issue has occurred. She has been through this process before, and is now in a position to see that it functions effectively. If she fails to do so, we will see no significant progress in the near future.

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

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