Harvard faculty members push for university-wide senate

May 15, 2024
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Last year, Florida’s Republican legislature passed a law saying university leaders aren’t “bound by the recommendations or opinions of faculty or other individuals” in hiring decisions. In West Virginia, Bluefield State University leaders eliminated their institution’s Faculty Senate.

This year, the Republican-controlled Arizona House passed a bill that would downgrade faculty members’ role in shared governance (it has yet to pass the Senate), while the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees has moved toward eliminating the over-100-year-old University Senate there and reclaiming its power for itself.

Shared governance is under attack in multiple states. But at Harvard University, some faculty members—facing, albeit with much more publicity, many of the same issues bedeviling scholars elsewhere—are expressing confidence in the importance of that tradition. They’re even trying to expand it, by creating a university-wide faculty senate, which America’s oldest higher education institution lacks.

“Harvard currently faces historically unprecedented challenges, including ongoing campus controversies and the recent resignation of President Claudine Gay,” an FAQ from the initiative’s supporters says. It goes on to say that a senate would allow “the faculty to exercise institutional and moral leadership on matters core to the mission of higher education, including academic freedom and independence.”

There was no unified representative body of the Harvard faculty to speak its mind, or throw its weight around, amid national criticism of Gay’s comments during a December Congressional hearing on campus antisemitism. Nor did one exist to comment on the quickly amassing plagiarism allegations against her, or on the university’s investigation of those accusations, or on the building national controversy over that.

The university has been denounced by alumni, donors, members of Congress, some of its own faculty members and others for how it has handled accusations of campus antisemitism. In the fall, groups of faculty members sent dueling letters accusing university leaders of not being supportive enough of Palestinian, Arab or Muslim students or not sufficiently condemning students’ statements about Israelis.

For her part, Danielle Allen, part of the informal working group pushing for the faculty senate, didn’t enumerate the controversies in an email to Inside Higher Ed. Instead, she reiterated three areas the proponents say a faculty senate could enhance: “shared understanding,” “effective communication” and “cooperative governance.”

“We currently see challenges and opportunities on all three fronts,” wrote Allen, the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation. “We think a university-wide faculty senate may well be the best solution.”

William C. Kirby, a former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences—which includes the university’s undergraduate program and all its Ph.D. programs—backed creating a faculty senate in an op-ed in The Harvard Crimson student newspaper. Part of his argument was that the Harvard Corporation, one of Harvard’s two governing boards, wasn’t doing a great job leading the storied institution.

“Harvard is unusual among universities in its governing structures,” Kirby wrote. “It has two governing boards, not one board of trustees. Its boards, unlike those of public universities, are not accountable to government bodies. Nor are the boards accountable to faculty or students—or, in the case of the Corporation, even alumni.”&

Alumni elect members of the second governing entity, the Board of Overseers, but the Corporation selects its own membership with the Board of Overseers’ consent, according to Harvard’s website.

While Gay lasted only about six months in the presidency, she wasn’t the first recent president, in the context of Harvard’s nearly 400 years of existence, to leave amid controversy. In 2006, Larry Summers resigned amid criticism from faculty members—and after suggesting that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” may be one reason there were relatively few women in top science positions.

“In less than two decades, the Corporation has overseen two presidencies cut short and, in 2009, monumental financial mismanagement that left the world’s richest university bereft of cash and shorn of reserves. Few corporate boards would survive such performance,” Kirby, who remains a Harvard Distinguished Service Professor, wrote in The Crimson. He criticized the Corporation’s lack of transparency; regarding its handling of the Gay incident, he wrote that “at present, the only way Harvard’s faculty, students and alumni will learn what really happened in the Corporation’s deliberations is by Congressional subpoena. That’s not good enough.”

Kirby told Inside Higher Ed Tuesday that Harvard is “radically decentralized with each school kind of an independent kingdom.” He said every president since the 1990s has tried to make it more of a university “and less of a collection of schools, with a model of ‘there should be one Harvard.’ But it’s difficult to imagine that there could be one Harvard … without a university-wide faculty voice in governance.”

Harvard spokespeople didn’t respond to requests Tuesday for the corporation’s stance or other university leaders’ positions on creating a faculty senate.

A Decentralized University

Harvard has nine faculties, such as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, each with its own faculty governance structures, but no unified faculty body aside from a University Council that’s been dormant for “well over a century,” proponents wrote in a memo to fellow faculty members. They said that the Council is made up of the president and every professor, associate professor and assistant professor, so “calling a meeting of the full University Council today would be impractical, as it now comprises thousands of members and lacks any mechanism for convening or managing such a body.”

The 1966 “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities”—crafted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB)—says “an agency should exist for the presentation of the views of the whole faculty.” Mark Criley, a senior program officer in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, told Inside Higher Ed that “institution-wide challenges should be addressed by an institution-wide faculty voice.”

Criley said the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be a “watershed” moment, where faculty members were sidelined by universities in decisions about campus reopening and in decisions to declare financial exigency and cut jobs, among other areas. He said that, nationally, the AAUP has seen more university governing board and political interference in shared governance. “One of the essential means of making sure that the faculty can contest that and make sure that their voices are heard,” he said, is to ensure they can participate in university governance “as a group.”

A unified faculty voice can take various forms, he said, but it’s a key idea in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. “At each level where there are special challenges or problems, there ought to be a corresponding faculty voice, an agency by which the faculty can participate in confronting those challenges,” Criley said. “And that’s true at the level of the institution as a whole.”

The proponents’ FAQ says “faculty senates are commonplace and Harvard is an outlier in not having one.” It says that, among major U.S. research universities with professional schools, only Harvard and Yale University don’t have university-wide senates. Criley said he didn’t know how many institutions nationwide lack one.

R. Barbara Gitenstein, president emerita of the College of New Jersey and a senior fellow and senior consultant for AGB, said shared governance is “absolutely” under attack, “and it’s been under attack for a long time and it’s under attack by people who really don’t understand what higher education is all about and why this is such an important feature of American higher education.” Gitenstein said, “better decisions are made if more people are genuinely involved in the conversation.”

However, she said attaining a unified faculty voice could be difficult. In her experience, Gitenstein said, “very often, the Faculty Senate, even when it’s supposed to speak for all of the faculty, is not unified, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.” She said faculty members are highly intelligent, individualistic and value autonomy.

Among the objectors to creating a faculty senate is Lawrence D. Bobo, Harvard’s dean of social science and the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences. Bobo wrote in The Crimson that the university’s governance must change, but a faculty senate is the wrong approach.

“The Faculty of Arts and Sciences enjoys a privileged position in university life, with the College as the acknowledged heart of the institution,” he wrote. “I could not possibly imagine this status being preserved under a university-wide senate structure.” Bobo instead suggested, among other things, adding faculty members to the corporation board.

The proponents’ FAQ says Harvard’s nine separate faculties are currently being asked to consider resolutions supporting creating a University Senate Planning Body, which will research possible designs for a senate and propose its bylaws. Creating a senate wouldn’t require amending the university’s statutes, the proponents say.

Among the questions the planning body would have to answer is whether non–tenure-track faculty members will be able to participate equally with tenured and tenure-track members in voting for, and serving as, senators. The representation question will be important in unifying the faculty.

Harvard has roughly 1,480 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, according to a university report. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences contains nearly half of them. But Harvard Medical School, while it has only 190 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, has an additional 11,000 “senior” or “junior” faculty members in its “affiliates and clinical departments.”

A unified faculty voice, Gitenstein said, is “easier said than done because of these different disciplinary perspectives and their whole attitude toward their professional lives.” But, while faculties at different schools in a university may have differing views of what shared governance should be, none value it less, she said. “Coming to consensus can sometimes be difficult,” she said. “By the way, that’s not a reason not to do it.”



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