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A Seat at the Table

After two Mass. Hall decisions prompt controversy, some Harvard professors are calling for a centralization of faculty governance

By Tianxing Ma
By Meg P. Bernhard and Andrew M. Duehren, Crimson Staff Writers

In September, as Harvard implemented a new approach to handling cases of sexual harassment, a group of professors at Harvard Law School wanted a change.

Upset with what they viewed as a flawed policy and their lack of a role in informing it, the professors set up a meeting with University General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 to offer an ultimatum: Alter the University’s new policy and procedures, or they would publicly condemn Harvard’s approach. After conveying that message, and after realizing that change was not forthcoming, a group of professors followed through. The product was an open letter in the Boston Globe that publicly blasted Harvard’s policy as stacked against the accused.

Just about a month later, History professor Mary D. Lewis made a motion at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ monthly meeting calling for a repeal of Harvard’s new health benefits plan for non-union employees, which she and other professors charged placed unfair burdens on vulnerable members of the Harvard community. At that meeting, which saw unusually high attendance, the Faculty unanimously voted in favor of Lewis’s motion. The vote was purely symbolic, but it garnered the attention of University President Drew G. Faust and outside observers.

At both junctures, professors at the Law School and FAS sought to publicly decry administrative decisions with which they disagreed, but their options for response were limited. To criticize the health benefits changes, FAS professors turned to their central discussion forum—their monthly meeting, over which Faust presides and reporters from The Crimson and Harvard Magazine regularly attend—while the Law School, lacking such a public forum, went to a media outlet. But there was no central forum for them to convene and discuss the issues together.

The faculty outcry over two major University policy decisions made this year—the formation of the new Title IX framework and the roll out of the new health benefits plan—reflect a tension in Harvard’s governance structure: Even as administrators call for the unification of the University as “One Harvard” and more decisions are made in Massachusetts Hall, individual faculties remain largely divorced from one another, and when they have grief with a central decision, they lack a built-in forum to raise those concerns together.

The resulting tension has left some professors questioning the wisdom of central administrative decisions and whether a change is needed to ensure that they are guaranteed an opportunity to respond. A contingent of faculty critics, convinced that the current governance system at Harvard is in need of restructuring, have called for a unified body of faculty representatives from each school, dubbed a “faculty senate,” to weigh in on policy decisions. Such a move toward a more centralized faculty governance structure to match recent administrative trends would stand to change the way faculty interact with administrators and each other, but history suggests that change is far from guaranteed.


Historically, when central administrators have made decisions that have prompted widespread faculty pushback, professors’ outcry over individual policies has often been accompanied by general discussions about their role in informing University decisions.

In 2006, amidst widespread criticism—and a vote of no confidence—from professors in FAS, then-University President Lawrence H. Summers, who maintained popularity among some other faculties, resigned. In the aftermath of that dramatic administrative reshuffling, Summers’s supporters questioned whether the conflict would have had a different outcome had faculties from across schools had a University-wide forum to deliberate the issue with each other. “One thing that was extremely important at that time was, what mechanisms did the faculty have to come together,” Anthropology professor Arthur M. Kleinman recalled.

Again, in 2013, in the wake of revelations that administrators had secretly searched the email accounts of College resident deans, a group of professors from FAS called for a change in communications channels and questioned the school’s governance.

“I think that’s the context in which ideas about a faculty senate across all the schools have come up from time to time,” said Richard F. Thomas, a Classics professor. “When there’s either some sort of crisis or perceived crisis, or some issue that concerns groups of faculty who therefore by accident or by serendipity are in touch with each other.”

This year, faculty again have raised governance concerns in the wake of two controversial decisions that were handed down from Mass. Hall. After Harvard unveiled its new Title IX policy last summer, some faculty—particularly at Harvard Law School—responded in an uproar, charging in their Boston Globe letter that it was stacked against the accused. They, too, raised governance concerns: In establishing a central Title IX policy, rather than allowing individual schools their own jurisdiction of the issue, “Harvard undermined and effectively destroyed the individual schools’ traditional authority to decide discipline for their own students,” the 28 professors wrote.

At the same time, faculty from across the University—particularly within FAS—rallied in protest against the health benefits changes. Although the body that recommended the changes included some faculty members, professors argued that it was not representative and decried both the plan itself and what they perceived to be a lack of communication between administrators and faculty leading up to its creation.

"When there's either some sort of crisis or perceived crisis, or some issue that concerns groups of faculty who therefore by accident or by serendipity are in touch with each other," said Classics professor Richard F. Thomas.

In both cases, Harvard’s faculty members publicly and strongly disagreed with the central administration’s vision for University policy, and that disagreement sparked still more discussion about their role in the policymaking and feedback processes.

“Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing frustration,” said Susan R. Suleiman, a Comparative Literature professor who has been on leave this year. “This year there was a great dissatisfaction with health benefits, including the way it seemed to have been imposed. People feel they’re only consulted afterwards, if at all.”


While Harvard has in recent years centralized its administration and issued more policies that govern schools University-wide, faculty governance structures remain school-specific, based in faculty meetings and councils at individual schools. Today, Kleinman said, Harvard operates a “fine balance between decentralization and centralization,” as administration and policies are increasingly centralized but individual schools retain their autonomy.

The debates surrounding pushback against two of Harvard’s most recent central policymaking decisions have brought to light a more entrenched issue—the lack of a unified faculty body with representation from across Harvard’s schools. Some professors are concerned that the University’s faculties lack a forum to collectively discuss matters that involve them, and still others charge that Harvard’s central administration sometimes fails to properly communicate and engage.

According to Charles Fried, a Law School professor, there were communication issues in the new Title IX policy’s execution: Some Law professors said they did not learn about it until a school-specific implementation committee presented it to them at the beginning of the year, he said.

“That, in fact, was one of the defects of the process that the central administration had engaged in,” Fried said.

Administrators, including Faust, defend Harvard’s governance structure and maintain that in crafting these new University policies, they sought input from faculty. Administrators cite the Council of Deans, which meets with Faust and Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 on a monthly basis, as a venue in which school deans can represent the interests and concerns of their faculties. University Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides, for example, said her office consulted various groups—the Council of Deans, FAS’s Faculty Council, and other groups of deans and faculty members—while creating Harvard’s new sexual harassment policy.

Faculty, however, contest the argument that the Council of Deans is an adequate substitute for an open forum among faculties of the different schools. “It’s unrealistic to think that all problems can be solved by regular meetings between the deans and the president and provost,” Graduate School of Education professor Howard E. Gardner ’65 said.

“Faculty don’t only want to have input; they also want to have feedback,” said Christopher Winship, a Sociology professor. “As yet we don’t have a mechanism for broad feedback from faculty and non-union employees when Mass. Hall is considering major policy changes.”

Some faculty note the growth of administration at Harvard—and thus the decisions made centrally—and suggest that faculty communication channels have yet to catch up to reflect that change.

"All of a sudden, we wake up in a world, in fact because of government regulations, because of the vast amount of expansion, and voluntary terms, and government concern, etc., because of the very large number of administrative systems that's been hired by Dean [Michael D.] Smith and others, in fact, we are being run in a rather bureaucratic fashion,” said History professor Charles S. Maier ’60, a former Crimson editorial chair. “And people listen to us, and if there's pushback they may modify things, but somehow faculty control and input has slipped."

Former FAS Dean William C. Kirby, referring to a faculty governance body, argued that Harvard is behind its peers: “We are one of the few universities I know of that has no university-wide, faculty-led, governance body whatsoever,” he said.


In March, two Law School professors published an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education calling for changes to Harvard’s governance structures. The professors, Fried and Robert H. Mnookin, called for the creation of “a representative faculty senate that would include ladder-rank from all schools in the university” to “provide the administration with an opportunity to have university wide efforts discussed and assessed by a broadly representative group.”

Their call is reminiscent of an already established body embedded within Harvard’s University statutes, a University Council, created to address topics “which concern more than one Faculty, and questions of University Policy.” That body, though it remains in the University-governance document, has not met for several decades, and in the wake of this academic year’s policy debates, some professors are arguing that the University Council, or something like it, should once again exist.

For Fried and Mnookin, a representative faculty body with professors from across Harvard could have helped not only shape better policy at the University level, but also better respect a faculty-centric vision for the University.

This year, in light of growing concerns about central administrators’ decisions, a group of faculty critics are arguing that Harvard needs a new structure to incorporate the voices of professors at each of the University’s schools. Some, like Fried and Mnookin, propose the creation of a central faculty governance body—often called a faculty senate—as a solution. According to Thomas, who helped pen an op-ed denouncing the health benefits changes last fall, discontent over the new plan also spurred conversation among professors about establishing a University-wide faculty body to cull their various interests.

To advocates of a faculty senate, such a body could serve as a forum for discussion and feedback on major University policies and decisions. Fried argued that the existence of a faculty senate could have helped avoid the controversy surrounding last year’s Title IX policy changes, for example.

“In the course of the discussion, the very great defects in the drafts that came out of the Title IX office would have been laid bare, and having been laid bare, it's very hard for me to believe that it would have survived in that form,” Fried said.

"I think a University senate would help create a more representative voice of the faculty," Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz said.

Professors outside FAS argue that a faculty senate could also bring them a voice that they currently lack. FAS’s monthly meetings are covered by the news media, and top University administrators, including Faust, attend them, giving the body visibility. Other faculty meetings, however, are more private, leaving some professors to charge that FAS has disproportionate influence on University decisions that they do not.

Law School professor emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz, for example, said FAS currently “has far too much influence on the University” that he argues is not representative of faculty as a whole, especially in the realm of policies and programs that affect all schools, such as Title IX and the online learning platform edX.

“I think a University senate would help create a more representative voice of the faculty,” Dershowitz said.

Gardner, for his part, said he would not like to see power taken away from FAS—a faculty that he called central to Harvard—but suggested that FAS must adapt to a “new reality” in which administrative decisions increasingly affect the entire University. Like other professors, Gardner said a unified faculty body could help achieve this.


But despite faculty calls in support of creating a central governance body, in practice, supporters face an uphill battle. If Harvard’s history is any indication of where the proposal for a faculty senate, or any major reconsideration of governance at Harvard, will head, the prospects do not look good. Seemingly each time faculty members have organized support for such a body, it has yielded little, if any, change.

Implementing a faculty senate proposal itself would be a challenge. To many faculty, how a university so decentralized could bring together its disparate faculties into one representative group is unclear.

While generally in favor of creating a faculty senate, History professor Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 said it would be difficult to create in practice because of the cultural differences between each of Harvard’s schools. “There are really significant differences between what FAS faculty do and the Medical School faculty do, just as the Medical School and Law School are doing fundamentally different things,” Jasanoff said.

"Anyone whose life is significantly affected by a decision should have a forum in which they can weigh in on or react to that decision," said History professor Maya Jasanoff ’96.
"Anyone whose life is significantly affected by a decision should have a forum in which they can weigh in on or react to that decision," said History professor Maya Jasanoff ’96. By Sidni M. Frederick

Kennedy School of Government Dean David T. Ellwood ’75 suggested that there is a tendency to propose change in times of discontent, but following through is another issue. "Unless there's a really operational proposal, when there are problems people tend to want to create things, but it's far from clear that the cure isn't worse than the disease,” he said.

Fried, who wrote the op-ed publicly calling for the creation of a faculty senate, acknowledged that it is not an easy nor immediate project.

“This is a busy time. It’s in people’s heads, and maybe, on an appropriate occasion, somebody will pick it up; I can't tell,” Fried said. “I don't intend to make a career of it.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @meg_bernhard.

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Central AdministrationFASHarvard Law SchoolFAS AdministrationDrew FaustFacultyLarry SummersFaculty NewsTitle IXHealth BenefitsCommencement 2015

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