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The Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—announced on Monday an overhaul to its governance structure that would nearly double its membership and impose term limits.
The reforms—the first major structural change since the Corporation was founded in 1650—include boosting the number of members from seven to 13 and creating several new committees to address issues including finance, governance, and capital planning and facilities.
The change brings the Corporation’s structure closer in line with the governing bodies of other major universities, which tend to have larger memberships and more numerous committees.
Laid out in a Corporation report released Monday, the reforms come on the heels of heavy criticism levied against the Corporation by some faculty and alumni, who say that the body lacks transparency, accountability, and community engagement. The reforms partly address these criticisms, said Corporation member Robert D. Reischauer ’63, who serves as its senior fellow.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said engineering professor Frederick H. Abernathy, who co-wrote a Boston Globe op-ed critical of the Corporation last year. “The optimistic part is they’ve actually undertaken potentially some reform—it’s all potential and now the proof will be who they appoint. Let’s say if they appoint six Wall Street people, I would say it’s not an improvement at all.”
By increasing the number of members on the Corporation, the body will be better able to meet with members of the Harvard community and increase information exchange between itself and the University it governs, Reischauer said.
The reforms also include instituting term limits for members of the Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Fellows will now be limited to six years in office with the possibility of a six-year extension, though the Governance Review Committee’s report stated that “some adjustments will likely be necessary to assure appropriately staggered periods of service” as the body grows to its larger size.
The larger membership will allow for individuals on the Corporation to focus on issues related to their area of expertise, potentially increasing the breadth and depth of the body’s work, he added.
“There’s sort of a ‘Goldilocks solution’—the addition of a very few people would not have solved the issue of capacity and diversity of expertise,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard P. Chait, an expert on higher education governance who advised the Corporation on its reforms. “Too many would have changed the character of the group from the intimate group.”
Even with its expanded membership, Harv ard’s Corporation will remain the smallest among its peers, according to Chait.The body will continue to select its own members and intends to choose the new six over the next two to three years.
University President Drew G. Faust said in an interview that the ongoing selection process for the new members of the Corporation will incorporate feedback from the Harvard community, potentially addressing concerns that the body has grown too insular.
“When we search for members of the Corporation we do a lot of outreach, we talk to people about: ‘What does the Corporation need? What issues should we be considering?’” Faust said. “I think that looking for new Corporation members on a regular basis is going to be one of the avenues of constant communication.”
With only seven members, the Corporation has previously included its entire membership in the organization’s work, and the creation of committees to focus on particular issues is a major departure from its past structure.
However, Anne D. Neal ’77, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, criticized the Corporation for expressly declining to add an academic affairs committee to its structure.
“The Corporation has too often ignored academic oversight in the past and the proposed structure does not improve on that situation,” she said.
Reischauer said the review’s launch in the fall of 2009 was part of and motivated by a broader University effort to re-examine its policies in the aftermath of the financial crisis—a moment of self-reflection for the broader University community.
“The fact is that all parts of the University have been asked to look themselves in the mirror, reassess how they might do their job to the optimal degree, and it’s only natural that we should do the same thing,” Reischauer said.
But—just as many parts of the University continue to make changes after the economic downturn—it may take years to assess whether the Corporation’s pledge to be more open will actually be realized.
“They have made their vows, but so do men and women make vows in marriage. In seven years, half of them have broken their vows,” Abernathy said. “So we’ll have to wait and see.”
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