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Letters

What Counts

May-June 2020

Two sets of figures: 179-20 and 130-90. The first was the February 4 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) vote to adopt a faculty-initiated motion calling on the Corporation to alter investment policy for the endowment (to divest investments in fossil-fuel production and “decarbonize” assets overall). The second was the November 7, 2017, tally by which the FAS rejected another faculty-crafted motion, intended to block a presidential and decanal initiative to sanction student membership in unrecognized single-gender social slubs (USGSOs: the final clubs, fraternities, and sororities).

By conventional scorekeeping, the administration lost one and won one: the president and Corporation have opposed divestment, whereas the Corporation voted to put the USGSO sanctions in place and so advised the faculty at its December 2017 meeting, and the College proceeded to implement them.

But there are more important ways of taking stock.

In a longer perspective, the outcomes of those votes remain uncertain. As President Lawrence S. Bacow told the faculty on February 4, he will report back to the Corporation, and share the outcome of its deliberations with FAS. On the social front, the number of USGSOs has shrunk; the College’s policy is being challenged in court; and undergraduate social life (whether tainted or enriched by single-gender organizations) continues to, well, evolve.

And there is perhaps a meta-perspective, even more consequential for Harvard, to keep in mind. So, a few more data: 870 and 882. Those were the numbers of FAS faculty members eligible to vote, respectively, this February 4 and at the November 2017 meeting. On the USGSOs—fiercely debated during several faculty meetings, and framed either as a matter of faculty prerogative being eroded or of gross social inequities being rectified—25 percent of those eligible showed up to vote. On divestment—one possible element of the University’s response to climate change, which all sides agree is an existential threat—23 percent cast ballots. (This year’s outcome was never in doubt, so showing up didn’t much matter.)

Bacow closed the February meeting by thanking the assembled professors for participating in this “important process of faculty governance.” Yet, measured by turnout (many attendees—department chairs, House faculty deans, and so on—are required to attend), FAS’s pulse is feeble. Exiting University Hall after a faculty meeting some years ago, a high administrator noted with pleasure that it had gone off without a hitch: no untoward questions from the floor, nothing debated beyond the docketed agenda items—and those exchanges all routine and formulaic. He seemed startled when an observer said that perhaps the placidity meant the faculty had disengaged from its own presumed business.

Part of the problem is that the meetings are largely routine and formulaic. The registrar, say, presents the courses on offer, and the faculty approves them. Committees report. New degrees are presented for consideration, with impressive paperwork, or programs or departments seek a new name, defended with comparable documentation—and those present assent.

But the larger concern is substantive. Faculty meetings remain the formal way for the FAS to say what it is about, and the principal forum for doing so as a whole. To borrow the economists’ term, there are opportunity costs associated with what transpires there—and what does not. During the past half-decade, a disproportionate share of meeting time has been consumed by the USGSO and divestment debates. There have also been repeated briefings on course scheduling to accommodate classes in Allston and better use of instructional space overall, and on shopping week and registration: all necessary and to the good. But little has been heard about the content of the new undergraduate Gen Ed curriculum (surely important, after nearly 15 years of tinkering); or rising enrollment in applied fields and collapsing arts and humanities concentrations; or changes in pedagogy.

Much of the faculty’s real work is done elsewhere, of course. But out of sight and hearing is also out of mind. Absent full-FAS discourse, younger professors fail to hear their elders’ perspectives—and vice versa. In a place that honors discovery and the creation of knowledge, but anchors their pursuit in traditional values and institutional norms, that is a nontrivial loss.

Not long ago, FAS deans wrote extensive annual reports detailing academic priorities and updating colleagues on the progress and challenges of each of its units and operations. A resources committee of professors explained how much things cost, how they were being paid for, the sum and perceived value (or lack thereof) of University assessments, and fundraising plans. Governance may have been messier, but the inefficiencies were offset by gains in faculty ownership of their academic work together at Harvard.

Nowadays, the dean’s report is radically pared down and its presentation relatively perfunctory—limiting any chance to convey, or receive, a coherent picture of the enterprise. That’s unfortunate, given the inherent complexity of FAS, driven by the multiplicity of disciplines its members embrace. It may be understandable, from the University Hall perspective, given the sheer demands inherent in trying to lead and manage the place, with all its departments, units, budget lines—and the wonderful, exasperating individuality of the scholars themselves. Or it may be that the erosion of common vision and faculty-wide pursuits arises from the professors themselves—busy with their research, teaching, committee service, and hellish commutes.

Must FAS’s affairs tend this way? Do faculty members—fierce advocates of their intellectual prerogatives—wish to see their common business as divorced from the academic work of the place as it has been lately, and to cede agency over their institutional affairs to whoever else chooses to attend the monthly meetings?

These appear to be matters of choice, not the result of inexorable, external forces. Perhaps unexamined habits formed in the first decades of this new millennium—during a short-lived, combative Harvard presidency, and then under the truly frightening weight of the 2008-2009 financial crisis—have become ingrained, explaining why no one has articulated a University agenda for research and teaching on climate change, for instance, or why Harvard’s neuroscience ambitions exist mostly on paper.

Perhaps the next capital campaign will prompt faculty members, with their leadership, to define not only areas for investment in personnel, intellectual pursuits, and academic infrastructure, but also a long-term vision of the place and its future—and to expose their ideas to colleagues’ critique. But thus far in the 2000s, the hallowed principle of faculty governance has been hollowed out. Time for FAS members to ask themselves whether they’re comfortable with forgoing more unidentified opportunities, whatever the cost.

John S. Rosenberg, Editor

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