The Silencing of Harvard’s Professors

Today Harvard faces a serious governance problem that requires institutional change. When we first came here, the university was organized on the constitutional principle: “Each tub on its own bottom.” This meant first of all that each of the component schools (arts and sciences, medical school, law school, and so on) had not only a high degree of budgetary independence but also that its faculty and dean had a large measure of autonomy. And at the level of the schools such administrators as there were worked under the direction of the dean and in close cooperation with faculty committees. Correspondingly, the central administration was very small: There were four vice presidents to oversee administration, alumni affairs and development, finance, and government relations, and a general counsel.

In 1991, when Derek Bok left office after 20 years, there was no provost. The president managed his academic duties alone, with a small ministerial staff. He chaired the ad hoc committees that considered permanent appointments, read the supporting materials, heard the witnesses, and submitted his conclusion to the governing boards. The president’s establishment was small, so of necessity much of the business of the university — academic and administrative — was conducted at the level of the individual faculties. There, individual faculty members took on many of these administrative tasks, though not always to their delight.

Today’s official mantra is One Harvard. In the last 20 years there has been a vast expansion of the central administration and an increasing degree of centralization. This is hardly a trend specific to our campus. Colleges and universities across the country both public and private are grappling with this same issue. Today at Harvard, not only is there a provost, who is the university’s “chief academic officer,” there are also a deputy provost, a senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, three vice provosts (for research, for advances in learning, and for international affairs), a senior associate provost who is the chief technology officer, and four associate provosts for institutional research, for science, for social sciences and the professions, and for arts and culture, as well as assistant provosts — all with staffs of essay writing services. In addition there is a cadre of high-level administrators such as an executive vice president and senior nonacademic officials with central administrative responsibilities.

The One Harvard mantra to some extent represents progress. And in any event greater centralization is inevitable because of the greater size and complexity of the university and greater degree of governmental regulation. At the all-important intellectual and academic level there has been an enormous growth of interdisciplinary learning and teaching. Our intellectual lives and our academic programs and offerings not only correspond to but lead the change and growth in the organization of knowledge. The old mode of organization was wasteful and often an impediment to the kinds of collaboration that make the most of the vast intellectual resources of the university. Not so long ago there were over 70 libraries more or less loosely affiliated in the university system. Today there is one coordinated library system for the whole university, which both avoids expensive duplication and can make resources readily available everywhere in the university. Also recently, the calendars of several of the schools were coordinated so that students and teachers, dissertation writers could readily learn and teach across faculties. And this more integrated structure has allowed the university to explore the ways in which the Internet can be used to extend our reach both geographically and demographically and to offer expert material assistance to faculty undertaking such efforts.

But such necessary and important advances have come at a cost. Where learning, teaching, and administration used to be in the hands of the schools and therefore in the hands of their faculties, today with One Harvard the administration and leadership of the university has migrated substantially to the central administration and its bureaucracy. And the results have not always been good.

Take two examples from just this academic year. On everybody’s return from summer vacation we were met with a ukase imposing a single set of sexual-harassment policies and procedures, and a new central bureaucracy combining under one head compliance, enforcement, investigating, and adjudicating functions for the whole university. These policies and procedures were arrived at by a working group of administrators (some of whom were drawn from the administrative staffs of the schools) and then adopted by the president and fellows. There were no law faculty members involved. When our law faculty had a good look at these procedures at a meeting with the general counsel we made it plain that we considered the procedures inconsistent with due process and if radical changes were not made it was probable that a large majority of Harvard’s law faculty would publicly denounce them. In response the university authorized the law dean to appoint a faculty redrafting committee and now there are for the law school alone disciplinary procedures worthier of a leading law faculty. Those alternative procedures were overwhelmingly approved by vote of the law faculty.

New health plans are a second example. Prior to the start of the open enrollment period for 2015-16 the university announced a new array of health plans to the faculty. These plans included several innovations, the chief of which was for the first time a co-insurance feature that in effect could cost families up to $4,500 in additional out-of-pocket expenses a year. These changes were devised in consultation with a committee that included some faculty. No representative faculty group was consulted nor did those involved report to their faculties. On the merits, the new plan may well represent good policy. However, that it was dropped on the faculty as a fait accompli caused considerable dismay. At the next meeting of the arts and sciences faculty the reaction was so hostile and so pointed that the president felt obliged to promise to review the whole thing for the next year and to compensate at least less-well-paid faculty for their increased costs this year. The attack was fueled by resentment at the accompanying explanatory materials, which several speakers stated were inaccurate, misleading, and unforthcoming.

Finally, there are the well-known events leading to the resignation of President Lawrence Summers in 2006. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his resignation was precipitated in part by a highly publicized vote of no confidence taken at a meeting of the faculty of arts and sciences. That meeting is regularly chaired by the president and open only to members of that faculty — or so many as choose to attend. The majority purported to speak for the Harvard faculty as a whole – and the press reported it as such. One cannot know, however, whether a majority of the faculty in the other schools would have voted the same way.

These examples suggest that a new institutional mechanism is required to allow legitimate faculty input and participation in decisions now being made by the central administration. The time has come for Harvard to institute, as other universities have done, a representative faculty senate that would include ladder-rank faculty from all schools in the university. A faculty senate would provide the administration with an opportunity to have universitywide efforts discussed and assessed by a broadly representative group, not appointed by the central administration or particular deans. And it would provide legitimacy lacking today and a source of independent judgment coming from a variety of perspectives.

Charles Fried and Robert H. Mnookin are both professors at Harvard Law School.

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