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Harvard Corporation Launches Review

University’s highest governing body has begun effort to review its operations

By Elias J. Groll, Crimson Staff Writer

The Harvard Corporation—the University’s top governing body, which has long faced intense criticism for its lack of transparency—has begun an internal review of its governance policies and increased its interaction with the Board of Overseers.

The increased interaction with the Board is largely unprecedented in the history of the two bodies, said one Overseer. The Board of Overseers, composed of elected Harvard alumni who serve in an advisory capacity, is the University’s second highest governing body.

The Corporation’s internal review, which may result in increased transparency, centers around the Corporation’s relationship with the Board of Overseers. The Corporation is known for its high level of secrecy and does not release agendas nor minutes for its meetings.

University President Drew G. Faust said in an interview earlier this month that the review will also examine how the Corporation sets its agenda, how it interacts to the community, and how it determines the scope of its responsibilities. But it is unclear whether the review will result in further changes in the Corporation’s functions.

The Corporation—which has traditionally interacted only nominally with the Overseers—has improved communication with the Board in recent years, according to three Overseers who all asked to remain anonymous in order to preserve their relationship with the Corporation. Most Overseers declined to be interviewed for this article or did not return requests for comment.

As part of a package of reforms introduced several years ago under Corporation senior fellow James R. Houghton ’58 that have intensified recently, Corporation members have begun attending Overseers’ plenary meetings and have solicited input from Overseers on issues they would like to include on the Corporation’s meeting agenda, according to two Overseers.

Corporation members have also been making individual phone calls to Overseers in order to consult with them on the ongoing search for a new member of the Corporation after Houghton retired late last year.

The seven-member Corporation has largely retained the same structure since 1640. Members still serve for life and wield great influence over the University’s direction. Most importantly, the Corporation has sole hiring and firing power over University presidents, an important role in an era when Harvard’s presidents have served as public figures.

The internal governance review comes in the face of mounting criticism against the organization for its structure.

In a scathing Boston Globe op-ed, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and engineering Professor Frederick H. Abernathy labeled the Corporation “a dangerous anachronism” and argued that it is “too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be.”

Abernathy and Lewis said that much of the Corporation’s problems are “structural” and, until the organization undergoes reform, the Corporation will only share power voluntarily with the “powerless” Overseers.

In recent months, the Corporation appears to have taken steps in that direction, though it remains unclear, one Overseer says, what effect the Corporation’s interactions with the Overseers have on its decision making.

It is also unclear whether recent changes in the Corporation’s operating structure, which Faust contends began several years ago during Houghton’s tenure, are part of the Corporation’s governance review.

According to Faust, the Corporation has expanded its interactions with the Overseers during the past several years, noting that Overseers served on the presidential search committee that selected her.

She also said that regularly scheduled meetings take place between the Overseers’ executive committee and the Corporation.

But now, Faust said, is an excellent time to re-examine that effort.

“This is a time when everyone in the University is scrutinizing everything,” Faust said. “It seemed like a good time for the Corporation to ask these questions.”

When asked if she thought there existed a need for increased transparency on the Corporation, Faust declined to take a clear stand.

“I think there’s an opportunity for communication that we want to take advantage of,” Faust said, clarifying that the opportunity lay between the governing boards and the community.

—William N. White contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

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Central AdministrationDrew Faust