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Who Governs Harvard? The Faculty Or The Bureaucrats?

Harvard Yard.

A battle between Harvard’s growing administration and its Arts and Sciences faculty is in full-swing, with a (likely temporary) truce declared last week. The contest, which might seem to some to be a form of “inside baseball” of interest only to Harvard-watchers, actually has potentially vast implications for students’ rights, faculty governance powers, and the reigning in of the increasingly bureaucratic academy throughout the nation.

Harvard administrators last year took up an old pattern of bureaucratic intrusion into students’ private lives. In May of 2016, University President Drew Faust and College Dean Rakesh Khurana unilaterally announced a policy that would bar undergraduate members of private single-gender social clubs from eligibility for campus leadership positions, team captaincies, and Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.

Khurana and Faust’s goal, in the name of “diversity and inclusion,” is to force the clubs to either become co-ed or disband. (An earlier stated rationale du jour of decreasing sexual assault lies largely abandoned as statistically dubious since most assaults occur in dormitories.) The Khurana-Faust edict constituted an attack on undergraduates’ right to freely associate and would be wrong however imposed.

But this incursion also usurped faculty governance powers contained in university statutes. The new policy, written by administrators behind closed doors, has effectively become a referendum not only on micro-management of students’ social lives, but also on who governs -- teachers or administrators.

Faculty critics of the Faust-Khurana policy, led by computer science professor and former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis, argue that the administration should not infringe the associational rights of students. They also cite the administration’s indefensible selectivity in recognizing certain officially favored affinity groups, among them the Organization of Asian American Sisters in Service and the Black Men’s Forum.

In response to the policy, Professor Lewis and 11 other professors proposed a simple motion to the Faculty: "Resolved: Harvard College shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join, nor political parties with which they affiliate, nor social, political or other affinity groups they join, as long as those organizations, parties or groups have not been judged to be illegal."

It is a declaration of student independence, with an underlying message of faculty supremacy over bureaucratic micro-management of undergraduate life. (It is of some consequence that more than 53 percent of undergraduates are against the new policy, according to The Harvard Crimson.)

A factor potentially aggravating the situation is the fact that Faust has not clearly said whether she would honor a faculty vote against her and Khurana’s initiative.

Tension between Harvard’s faculty and administration is nothing new. In an infamous incursion into students’ private associational rights, undergraduate deans in the 1920s held a secret inquisition that resulted in the expulsion of eight students who, the deans concluded, were involved in homosexual activity.

Contrary to standard Harvard practice, it was the deans, rather than the faculty governed Administrative Board, that heard the evidence in secret and then decided these students’ fate. Indeed, two of the convicted students had done nothing more than associate with their gay classmates.

During the 1950’s Red Scare, Harvard punished members of its faculty for holding Communist sympathies. It took Harvard’s administration years to live down these violations of faculty independence and academic freedom.

Yet four years ago, administrators secretly ordered – in violation of faculty rules – the search of emails of 16 resident tutors to find out if any had leaked embarrassing information about a cheating scandal.

Faculty members erupted in anger. The administrators responsible for the intrusion were not fired. It seems that Harvard’s current administrators are unable to see their recent actions in the context of Harvard’s long and troubling history of punishing students and faculty for their associations according to the moral panics of the day.

Further, they seem to lack a sense humility that might allow them to see that just as their predecessors were wrong to punish suspected homosexuals and communists, they too might be mistaken in targeting a group they deem to think in ways contrary to Harvard’s current values.

Tenured faculty, by contrast, are less prone to enacting such hasty and aggressive policies in response to the latest moral panic.

This hesitance to wade chin-deep into the personal lives of students is partially due their having other matters with which to concern themselves (namely, teaching and research), whereas the bureaucrats do not.

But it also seems that the faculty take long views, adopting an institution-wide sensibility that grants them a wisdom seemingly absent from the administrators. Time and again, the Harvard faculty have understood the utmost importance of allowing basic freedoms to reign at the university. Administrators, alas, have too frequently failed this test. 

Faust and Khurana were obviously sufficiently concerned about the incipient faculty rebellion that they have taken last-minute evasive action to derail the faculty’s oppositional motion. It's a bit of slight of hand, because the substance of the sanctions are preserved.

In a January 25th letter to the faculty, Khurana announced a vast “faculty-led committee” composed as well of students and administrators to “make recommendations” for how the “policy can be improved.” While “faculty engagement is both welcome and necessary,” Khurana wrote, the end-result will be that the essence of the policy will remain intact “to achieve this goal” of “a non-discriminatory Harvard experience.”

Professor Lewis and his faculty allies withdrew their motion, assuring a relatively peaceful February faculty meeting. But he warned the administration that the Faculty group was prepared to restart the campaign for student and faculty rights if this latest administrative twist turns out to be a chimera.

Harvard sets the standard in higher education – what happens there often spreads nationally. The gradual takeover of higher education by bureaucrats at the expense of faculty power is evident in myriad ways and is much to the detriment of our students’ educational experience.

Although studies show that the ideal operating ratio is about three tenure-track faculty members for every one administrator, by 2008, administrators actually outnumbered faculty two to one.

The Harvard faculty’s success in re-asserting its powers and student autonomy would reverberate throughout all of higher education — so too would its failure.

Harvey Silverglate is legal counsel for one of the “final clubs.” He is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press, 1998), and a board member of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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