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Why Harvard Faculty Should Reject a Faculty Senate

By Aiyana G. White
By Lawrence D. Bobo
Lawrence D. Bobo is Dean of Social Science and the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

For many of us faculty members, these past few months have culminated in a series of superlative highs, wrought with a flurry of seemingly endless lows.

We’ve endured the whipsaw experience of the great hopes for Claudine Gay’s presidency, fierce controversy on how to address antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus, the dispiriting political morass of congressional hearings, Gay’s ultimate resignation, and a series of targeted plagiarism charges against high-profile faculty and senior staff, particularly Black women. Even today, we continue to grapple with ongoing student protests against Israel’s conduct in its war on Hamas.

In light of these matters, two constant threads characterize my discussions with faculty in the social sciences and humanities. First, there is an acute sense that Harvard has not put forward an effective narrative about the real tenor and nature of scholarly activity, teaching, or the vibrant character of day-to-day life on campus. And, second, many are profoundly concerned that too many important University decisions emerge without faculty understanding or input.

Faculty have made their message clear: Governance at Harvard must change. I wholeheartedly agree. But I reject the notion that such change should include the formation of a faculty senate.

I say this as someone who has held tenured faculty appointments at three other institutions with longstanding faculty senate structures, and who has served on two of them.

Let’s be frank on three points: First, no one joins the Harvard faculty to spend their time serving on a slate of faculty senate committees. Second, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences enjoys a privileged position in University life, with the College as the acknowledged heart of the institution. I could not possibly imagine this status being preserved under a University-wide senate structure. Finally, Harvard’s selectivity has historically been a critical element in its incredible vitality and preeminence. In my experience, structures such as a faculty senate are consensus-seeking and prioritize an eventual regression to the mean, rather than a fidelity to seeking true excellence.

In our current moment of apparent crisis, FAS faculty understandably want and deserve three things: greater voice in key policy decision-making; increased transparency in the processes and rationale behind major policy decisions; and elevated accountability of top leadership, especially the Corporation, Harvard’s highest governing board.

It is not clear that these goals would be well served by a faculty senate. There are more effective means of accomplishing these ends without requiring the creation of a vast bureaucratic structure that would demand an enormous amount of already sorely taxed faculty time.

Many alternative changes to current rules and practices are worth considering. For one, now that the dean of FAS — not the president — chairs FAS meetings, faculty can more effectively articulate their concerns within these gatherings. We should seize this opportunity to have our voices heard.

Instead of a faculty senate, the Corporation should formalize avenues of communication with the faculty by adding several ex officio positions for them on the Corporation, with FAS always assured at least one such seat. The academic leadership council — a body of Harvard’s academic deans and other University leaders — should also be empowered to call for the removal of one or more members of the Corporation in a three-fourths vote.

We should not let the traumas of recent months lead us down an unnecessary, ineffective, and potentially counterproductive path. The basic structure of governance at this University has served its stakeholders — faculty, students, staff, alumni, the surrounding community, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and indeed the nation and our richly diverse world — very well over a remarkably long stretch of time.

We should tamper with that time-tested structure reluctantly and only after the most careful deliberation. Wide internal consultation, carefully-paced reflection, and caution are crucially important here. As we embark upon such a process, we should insist on a laser-sharp focus on the outcomes we wish to achieve.

Unlike several of my fellow faculty members whom I deeply respect, I do not believe a faculty senate, however designed, is the surest path to achieve the outcomes that matter most in light of recent unsettling events. A variety of intermediate steps might better promote transparency, leadership accountability, and faculty voice in decision-making that we want and deserve.

Let us not be seduced by a slogan or model for which there is at best weak evidence of general efficacy — much less any evidence of clear suitability for an institution of Harvard’s well-earned and time-tested preeminence.

Lawrence D. Bobo is Dean of Social Science and the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.

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