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Is Shared Governance Possible at Harvard?

The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House.
The Harvard Corporation meets in Loeb House. By Megan M. Ross
By Manja Klemenčič, Contributing Opinion Writer
Manja Klemenčič is an Associate Senior Lecturer on Sociology and in General Education and a researcher at the Centre for Educational Policy Studies, Faculty of Education at the University of Ljubljana. She is a member of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.

Harvard is in the minority of universities that have no form of shared governance at the university level.

There exists no body representing faculty and students as key internal stakeholders or constituencies to which the Corporation — the primary decision maker of Harvard’s two governing boards — would be held accountable or at least have formalized mechanisms for dialogue.

Unlike this highly unusual paradigm, most universities employ two common models of university governance.

In a unitary-governance model, the authority over decisions concerning the university lies in the hands of one body. This body is either a governing board — a board of trustees — with members external to the university, or it is an academic senate or council with faculty and sometimes student representatives.

In a dual or shared governance model, authority over university matters is shared between these two bodies, in a functionally complementary or asymmetrical way. Typically, the governing board makes strategic and financial decisions, while the academic council decides academic matters. When the governance structure is asymmetric, while this functional division still holds, the board has the ultimate say or veto on all issues.

Across both types of governing models, the appointment or election of the key university officer — the president or the rector — varies, and the primary allegiance to internal constituencies or external stakeholders varies accordingly.

A rector elected by academics and students owes its allegiance to these internal constituencies. Alternatively, the allegiance of a president appointed by a governing board is to that governing board, and by extension to donors or governments.

Student representation in university governance is another interesting point of contention across schools. While some form of representative student bodies exists almost everywhere, the actual power of students in university governance varies greatly.

One notable example is the Czech Republic where students have at least 30 percent of votes within the academic senates of higher education institutions.

Conversely, at universities with authority vested in the hands of a board, students — if represented — may be consulted, but rarely have voting rights.

In the United States, the legal authority over universities originates in their governing boards, and so these boards hold decision authority over all university matters. The governing boards generally delegate decision powers to appointed university officials — such as the president — and these officials then appoint other lower-ranking officials — such as deans.

Sometimes members of these governing boards appoint faculty and students on search committees, but they never relinquish their ultimate decision authority.

In a similar vein, most university governing boards in the United States have conferred some decision authority to faculty by creating a university faculty senate or council in their shared governance arrangements.

But not Harvard.

At present, members of the Corporation sometimes call on faculty for a private conversation — which is commendable — but far from a regular dialogue between the Corporation and faculty that could inform or vet the Corporation’s decisions.

The present crisis at Harvard and the University’s damaged reputation calls for reform. Faculty and students should have a say in university governance.

The Corporation itself would have to bring about this type of reform, changing Harvard’s laws and statutes to stipulate the establishment of a University faculty council and confer authority onto it.

At the same time, faculty would need to play a role too, deciding on self-governance of a University faculty council. The establishment of such a body might draw on lessons from the recent establishment of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard — a faculty organization with members from across Harvard schools joined to promote free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse at Harvard.

Reforms reimagining existing faculty councils — such as the FAS Faculty Council — may also be needed to deal with appointment procedures, sabbatical leaves for those serving, and questions of authority in school affairs.

Students would also require representation through the University faculty council itself or via their own Harvard student council, with representatives from the College and graduate unions setting up their own self-governance arrangements.

These reforms could promote direct dialogue with the Corporation and faculty and students, instead of resorting to occasional letters and informal meetings, or hand-picking faculty and students to serve on their presidential searches.

This would bring more transparency, help create accountability of the Corporation towards faculty and students, and hopefully improve the Corporation’s decision-making.

Just as we expect diverse opinions and constructive disagreement in the classroom to yield deeper learning, we can hope that diverse opinions and constructive disagreement on University matters will yield better decisions.

Manja Klemenčič is an Associate Senior Lecturer on Sociology and in General Education and a researcher at the Centre for Educational Policy Studies, Faculty of Education at the University of Ljubljana. She is a member of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard.

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