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Faculty Demand Greater Say as Confidence in Harvard’s Governance Plummets

A group of Harvard faculty is calling to form a University-wide faculty senate.
A group of Harvard faculty is calling to form a University-wide faculty senate. By Angela Dela Cruz
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Updated April 17, 2024, at 12:27 p.m.

A group of prominent Harvard professors is seeking to establish a University-wide faculty senate, as skepticism of the University’s governing boards continues to grow among faculty amid a year of turmoil.

The professors behind the effort, an 18-member group spanning all nine Harvard faculties, outlined their plans in a nine-page memo obtained by The Crimson. The memo was shared with hundreds of Harvard faculty members, including top administrators.

Some of the group’s notable members include University Professor Danielle S. Allen, Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard Co-President Edward J. “Ned” Hall, and Harvard Law School professor Andrew M. Crespo ’05.

In the April 9 memo to colleagues, the group argued that Harvard’s existing governance fails to fully leverage faculty perspectives.

The document requested that Harvard’s faculties choose delegates for a faculty senate planning body — or determine a process for doing so — by May 15. The planning body would be tasked with drafting bylaws with an eye toward completing its work by Jan. 1, 2025.

The planning committee would allot a set number of delegates to each Harvard school based on size: the FAS would receive 12, Harvard Medical School would receive four, and each of the other Harvard schools would be awarded three representatives.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article.

In a one-page document titled “Why Harvard Needs a Faculty Senate,” the group wrote that turmoil at the University has placed faculty members “in regular and intense conversation with one another across schools for the first time in generations.”

“This represents an opportunity for faculty to support university leaders in important strategic decision-making about our shared future,” the document continued.

In the main memo, the group added that without University-wide faculty governance, “efforts to communicate with the faculty, including in times of crisis, depend on makeshift and second-best tools, such as group letters or ad hoc and informal consultations with individual faculty members.”

The proposal is being circulated just weeks before the FAS is set to host a town hall with interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 and members of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

Allen wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that she hopes to have a discussion about the proposal — but not a vote — at the FAS’ next meeting on May 7.

The meeting agenda will not be posted until May 3, though any voting member of the FAS is permitted to submit new business for consideration during the meeting.

Crespo said in an interview that he shared the memo and accompanying context over HLS’ faculty mailing list and that he was coordinating next steps with interim HLS Dean John C.P. Goldberg.

HLS spokesperson Jeff Neal declined to comment on the faculty senate proposal.

While the circulated documents did not detail how the proposed faculty senate would interact with the University’s central administration, Crespo said that delineating this relationship would be a key goal of the planning process.

Several of Harvard’s peer institutions already have mechanisms for faculty governance, such as Columbia University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago. The memo points to these schools in particular as possible examples for Harvard to follow.

Calls for a faculty senate at Harvard are not new, but the April 9 memo indicates the strongest push for expanded faculty governance in decades.

In 2012, a faculty group met to discuss the creation of a faculty senate, ultimately dissolving over the summer. And, in 2015, Harvard Law School professors Charles Fried and Robert H. Mnookin ’64 urged Harvard, through an op-ed, to move away from increased centralization and implement a faculty senate.

Then-University President Drew G. Faust responded to Fried and Mnookin’s op-ed, saying in an interview with The Crimson that she doesn’t “personally think that it’s particularly well-suited for Harvard because so many decisions are made at the school level and our structures have always organized themselves around that.”

Although Harvard has not had University-wide faculty governance in living memory, the memo invoked the University’s statutes — among Harvard’s core governing documents — to argue that instating a faculty senate falls within the scope of the faculty’s existing authority.

The University’s fourth statute provides for a University Council that consists of Harvard’s entire professoriate, tasked with considering “questions which concern more than one Faculty, and questions of University Policy.” The memo describes the Council as “dormant for well over a century,” and The Crimson’s digitized records do not mention any meetings of the Council since 1902.

“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 faculty group wrote in the memo.

“A faculty senate, elected by and answering to the various Faculties of the University, would solve this problem,” they added.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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