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Turning Up The Volume

After a year of top-down administrative decisions, Harvard’s largest faculty is questioning the efficacy of its governance—and the relevance of its voice

With their trust in the administration compromised by seemingly top-down decisions all year, faculty members say it is time to reevaluate their own governance.
With their trust in the administration compromised by seemingly top-down decisions all year, faculty members say it is time to reevaluate their own governance.
By Nicholas P. Fandos and Sabrina A. Mohamed, Crimson Staff Writers

The fall 2012 semester was well underway on a crisp afternoon in mid-November when the elected members of the Faculty Council decided they needed to set their priorities for the year. Their regular meeting for the day had been canceled, but the group wanted to meet anyway. Leaving behind the portrait-lined chambers of University Hall and the formal structure of their bi-monthly meetings, most of the Council members convened in a modern conference room on the 15th floor of William James Hall.

They set no agenda for their informal gathering and they did not invite Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith, who usually presides over the Council. The Council—FAS’s only elected professorial body—needed time alone, members say, to “know its own mind” and gauge how it might better channel faculty interests to the dean.

Beyond the walls of the conference room, the largest cheating case at Harvard in “living memory” was still unfolding and edX, the University’s nascent online educational platform, was growing faster than professors could reflect on it. Unbeknownst to the faculty, top administrators had just authorized secret searches of resident deans’ email accounts that would not be disclosed until the following March. And in February, administrators would abruptly announce the relocation of much of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to Allston.

The choice not to communicate many of these decisions has struck some faculty as poor decision-making, but more importantly, they see the events of the past year as evidence of a flawed communication system.

In early May, the Council’s de facto leader, history professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, stood up at the final faculty meeting of the year to lead a vocal reconsideration of the way Harvard’s flagship faculty relates to its administrators.

Addressing colleagues disillusioned by an administration racing ahead without consulting the traditional bearers of its academic mission, Jasanoff expanded the conversation the Council had first broached in November.

“The common question that we all have is this,” she told her colleagues at the start of the nearly hour-long airing of concerns. “How effectively do the forums that we have available to us achieve the consultation and communication that we need?”

In a year when the balance of power has tipped decidedly toward administrators, there is broad faculty consensus on the answer: the forums available for faculty voice are not working as they should.

“This year has been the loudest wake-up call since Larry Summers that something is not quite right in the state of Denmark,” says psychology professor Howard E. Gardner ’65. “Now the question is what to do.”

A BROKEN TRUST

Even under normal circumstances, the responsibility for decision-making is not perfectly balanced between administrators and the faculty members they oversee, and to a great extent, faculty say they prefer it this way. Running a body as large and complex as FAS requires expertise and hours that full-time academics would rather devote to their scholarship and teaching.

Still, faculty expect a powerful hand in crafting the University’s broader vision. Many of the most important decisions on campus—from curriculum approval to personnel changes—require a faculty vote.

And for those that do not, faculty say they hope they can trust the administration to seriously solicit faculty input and heed faculty feedback.

“Around key policy issues, there needs to be a process of joint decision-making, or rather, joint problem-solving,” says sociology professor Christopher Winship, a member of Faculty Council. “It’s critical that faculty feel some ownership of the University and are willing to be committed University citizens.”

The problem, Winship and others say, arises when administrative execution falls out of step with the faculty-influenced vision. And as Harvard’s administration has swelled and initiatives like edX and expansion in Allston are reaching beyond FAS and even the University, a breakdown in communication between the faculty and administration is more likely, says government professor Michael E. Rosen.

But it was not until early March, when news broke that Smith and Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds had authorized the secret searches of resident deans’ email accounts to find the source of a leak of information pertaining to the Government 1310 cheating case, that faculty members realized the full extent of the gulf between administrative action and faculty interests.

“I think that we’re prepared to accept a lot of things that we’re told when we trust the people telling us, and that was a moment when suddenly we couldn’t trust what we were being told anymore,” Jasanoff says of the email searches, the second of which violated faculty email privacy policy. “So I think that is why people went and really started to take a step back and feel concerned about the bigger picture.”

Upon taking that step back, faculty say they feel that the email searches are just one in a chain of top-down decisions—the closing of the Financial Planning Group announced last April, the move of SEAS to Allston, the continuing “taxation” of FAS center funds—taken without considering faculty input.

“I don’t think that people believe that there’s a lot of respectful drawing of faculty opinions into decisions about anything,” says government and sociology professor and former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Theda R. Skocpol.

In addition to the absence of consultation, Winship says the administration has not been sufficiently transparent.

“Certainly the email issue has damaged trust,” says Winship. “But on a more fundamental level is a sense among the faculty that the administration doesn’t communicate very fully with them, and as a result they don’t know what the administration is doing.”

‘THE DEAN’S CABINET’

FAS has three formal mechanisms through which communication between faculty and administration is supposed to occur. The first and most direct is the monthly faculty meeting, to which all voting members of the faculty are invited to raise concerns and questions directly to Smith, Hammonds, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and University President Drew G. Faust. The second is a number of standing committees that analyze and offer feedback on various topics and the third is the elected Faculty Council, which meets twice a month.

Smith chairs the group of 18 elected members—four tenured and two non-tenured representatives each from the arts and humanities, social science, and natural and applied science divisions. A handful of administrative deans usually attend as guests. Ideally the Faculty Council serves as a sounding board for concerns passed up from the faculty and policies passed down from the FAS Dean.

“If professors understand that they can speak to a Faculty Council representative [who] will report back to their constituency, so to speak, then there is a flow of information between the administration and the faculty,” says English professor Louis Menand.

However, professors who have served on Faculty Council, including Menand, say that it has become an ineffective channel of communication in recent years. The FAS Dean oversees the meeting agendas and, until recently, Smith has set aside little time for informal discussion. He declined to comment for this story.

“Faculty Council has always been thought of as the Dean’s cabinet,” says German professor Peter J. Burgard, a former member of the Council. Many professors say that this perception discourages participation. Fewer than one-third of eligible faculty voted in this year’s Council election, and professors complain of a chronically low number of candidates willing to run for the three-year term.

“I think we have a sense that everything we say they will say, ‘Yes, we understand,’ but not much more,” says history professor Charles S. Maier ’60, adding that even a little more effort by administrators to listen to faculty concerns would go a long way towards repairing the lines of communication.

Faculty members also complain that the Council’s deliberations are too secretive—meeting agendas and discussions are confidential—and that the group’s elected membership is too small to represent the various, and at times conflicting, needs of the faculty.

FINDING THE FORUM

Although the need to reform the governance structure is clear, how to do so is not. Faculty acknowledge that appeals to the administration will be more successful if they can present a cohesive set of concerns. But with a diverse range of interests specific to discipline and post, this can be difficult. Furthermore, these differences are hard to reconcile within the formal framework of the faculty meeting, which represents the only opportunity for dialogue across the entire faculty body.

After administrators announced last April the unexpected and controversial closure of the popular Financial Planning Group, which provided professors with financial advising and retirement planning services, a group led by Burgard began to consider a potential faculty senate in which faculty members could articulate a collective stance on key administrative decisions, without administrative oversight.

That idea quickly faded with the academic year’s end, but the desire for some kind of faculty-only institution remains, with professors still wary of the administration’s commitment to faculty interests. Winship, who helped organize the Faculty Council’s self-evaluation in November, says that an additional deliberative forum could raise the volume of faculty input.

But other members of Faculty Council are less willing to give up on the structures already in place. Jasanoff, who has led the charge for faculty to discuss communication, says that faculty members need to fully engage the Council and monthly faculty meetings before they look outward to alternatives.

To that end, Jasanoff and other members say the Council has taken a number of key steps towards internal reform during the last year. After their November meeting, more unstructured time was incorporated into Council meetings—a development that months later permitted the Council to push for a faculty-wide conversation about governance. A committee will convene next fall to officially review the function and structure of the Council.

Faculty have also proposed a number of alternative feedback mechanisms. Concerned over proposed changes to the University policy on reporting outside activity conducted online, English professor James T. Engell ’73 advocated for the creation of a faculty Wiki to aggregate written feedback. And following the December faculty meeting, during which faculty members had their first lengthy debate on edX, a town-hall style meeting was organized to continue the conversation in an informal setting.

“I think that one of our challenges is, we need to make it easier for faculty to express themselves and for us to hear them, and that’s one reason why I applaud efforts like creating a forum or a blog or a Wiki,” Garber says.

VOLUME CONTROL

The FAS governance structure is largely reactionary in nature—a product of the early 1970s, when faculty were looking to regain control after the tumultuous years of student protests and University restructuring that marked the late 1960s. At that time, FAS decided to introduce a permanent Council to advise the FAS Dean and set the agenda for the faculty as a whole. In the decades since, the efficacy of the Council has waxed and waned with the interests of the faculty.

In 2005, 218 faculty members—a clear majority of those who voted—rallied together to issue a vote of no confidence against former University President Lawrence H. Summers when they decided he was obstructing their priorities.

Gathered at a similar faculty meeting eight years later, faculty members worried earlier this month that their existing mechanisms of governance have become stale and overly formalized.

“Individual faculty members face a decision about...whether they accept the system that’s in place or whether it is they move on,” Rosen says.

Gardner, who is in his sixth decade as a member of the University, says that it is up to the faculty to take the initiative to make things work—to be willing to take back the University owner’s manual.

“Even though the place gets bigger and more complicated, that is no excuse for losing the faculty governance and communication aspect, and so those have to be reinvented for a more complex situation,” he says. “If we don’t reinvent the good stuff it’s all going to disappear.”

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at nicholasfandos@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @npfandos.

—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at smohamed@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @sab_mohamed.

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