• August 31, 2015

Harvard U. Overhauls Governing Board in Recession's Wake, a First After 360 Years

Harvard University has made the first substantial changes in its primary governing board since 1650, when the university was chartered. In a report released on Monday, Harvard said it would nearly double the size of the seven-member Harvard Corporation, and would also create committees and set term limits for board members.

The corporation's self-imposed modifications follow a bumpy financial ride for the nation's wealthiest university, which saw its endowment value plummet by more than $10-billion during the recession. (The endowment was valued at $27.6-billion in June.) And the university acknowledged that the fiscal crisis was a motivator for the board review.

"The past decade has been a time of unusual challenge, growing complexity, and consequential change both for Harvard and for higher education at large," the report's authors wrote. "It has seemed to us not merely appropriate but necessary to ask what such change implies for a governing body."

The Harvard Corporation is a bit of an anomaly in higher education, which isn't surprising, considering that it was created when Rembrandt was in his prime. It includes Harvard's president, currently Drew Gilpin Faust, and six members who are elected by the corporation itself. Joining the corporation in governance is the 30-member Board of Overseers, which, while providing "strategic direction and counsel," does not share the corporation's fiduciary responsibilities.

Boards of private colleges, on average, have 29 members and eight separate committees, according to a recent survey by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Recognizing that the modern university was perhaps too complex for such a small board, the corporation created a committee last year to study its structure. That group, which included Ms. Faust, was mindful of the need for the corporation to focus on the "big picture" and be attentive to risk in a volatile economic environment.

The committee recommended adding six new members, for a total of 13, and creating term limits of six years, with the possibility that a member could sign up for a second six-year term.

In the past, corporation members did not specialize, so the full group handled all business that came before it, in what was called a "committee of the whole." The new corporation will have three separate committees, focusing on finance, on governance, and on facilities and capital planning, as well as a joint committee on alumni affairs with the overseers' board.

The new corporation will also now choose its senior fellow, or top member not including the president, through an election rather than through longevity, and he or she will now be expected to be a "lead player."

Ms. Faust played an active role in the corporation's overhaul, a significant achievement for the president, who took the helm in 2007.

In a published interview, she said the corporation would be more open. "One of the things we heard often during the review was a desire to hear more about the corporation and its work. So we're committed to communicating more regularly."


1. isambard - December 06, 2010 at 05:38 pm

Running a business with an endowment of $30 billion by giving absolute and unaccountable power to a tiny, self-appointed, and secretive oligarchy has for many years been a very astonishing way of carrying on. It's true that no structure can guarantee good behaviour, but some can guarantee a high degree of arbitrary and capricious behaviour.

2. sullivab - December 06, 2010 at 05:50 pm

But isambard, do you not understand that we are the brightest of the brighest, the best of the best? If we do not know what is good for Harvard and the rest of the world, then who does? We have your best interests at heart; trust us.

3. dryfly5 - December 06, 2010 at 11:46 pm

My understanding of the history of the Harvard Corporation is rather more interesting. I took an interest more than 60 years ago. Harvard College was founded by local clergy to provide a source of educated clergy. The intent was to create a European style, faculty managed, college. Pending recruitment of qualified faculty the founders provided a Board of Overseers from local clergy who were qualified to be faculty. I knew members of the descendant Board. Recruitment proved much more difficult than anticipated. Galileo refused an offer. The Corporation was initially the Finance Committee of the Overseers. He who pays the piper plays the tune. The Corporation became the de facto governing board. Emulating Harvard, other colleges later founded in the United States, created citizen, usually self perpetuating, governing boards. Our Boards of Trustees or Regents system derives from the Harvard model which derived from difficulty in recruiting qualified faculty.

4. richardtaborgreene - December 07, 2010 at 12:14 am

as usual Harvard recognizes and responds only to money---ho hum same old story, greed in greed out, they ruined the elite of the USA as much as or more than any other institution---10billion loss is less than they deserve

5. richardtaborgreene - December 07, 2010 at 12:15 am

$13 trillion is what they cost the rest of us (not YET paid by the way).

6. richardtaborgreene - December 07, 2010 at 12:16 am

$13 trillion is what they cost the rest of us (not YET paid by the way).

7. richardtaborgreene - December 07, 2010 at 12:17 am

$13 trillion is what they cost the rest of us (not YET paid, please note)

8. quidditas - December 07, 2010 at 07:38 am

"$13 trillion is what they cost the rest of us (not YET paid by the way)."

Exactly--except I think the total damage is higher. (I read $23 trillion some time ago). Consequently, the only really interesting question is whether the Board voted to expel Robert Rubin and yanked Larry Summers' tenure, sending both of them packing, preferably to a fedgov trial. (I won't hold my breath, but that's where they should be headed).

Any news on that front?

9. copesan - December 07, 2010 at 08:58 am

Hey! Paul Fain! Thats _Dr._ Faust to you. Long before she became president of Harvard she was something more important - an eminent scholar of the Civil War.

10. paulfain - December 07, 2010 at 09:25 am

Copesan - Hello. Per The Chronicle's style guide, we reserve the use of "Dr." for medical doctors.

11. 11111924 - December 07, 2010 at 09:48 am

I have no connection with Harvard at all, but I am sorry to hear of this change. The present structure of the Harvard Corporation has worked admirably to make Harvard the world's leading university, through tumults ranging from the Great Depression to the American Revolution and the creation of the Internet. If I say that I think changes to long-established structures are rarely an improvement, is that a comment on Harvard or just evidence that I am getting old?

12. tappat - December 07, 2010 at 10:43 am

I have to agree with 11111924. It sounds like the new structure is just the Trojan horse people have been looking for, to pull Harvard down. So, the question now becomes, where will the modern day John Harvard go and flourish?

13. 11240163 - December 07, 2010 at 11:44 am

@3: Are you sure that Harvard tried to hire Galileo? It seems very doubtful to me; I can't imagine that Puritan ministers would try to hire an Italian Catholic, over 70 years old. They were seriously anti-Papist!

14. copesan - December 07, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Paul Fain - I apologize. I didn't know "Dr." was reserved for medical doctors in the Chronicle style guide. Hence, calling Dr. Faust "Ms." sounded condescending to me, since one still runs into the practice in some news sources of referring to men by their title, and women by their first name or by a lesser title than they have.

15. johnny6 - December 07, 2010 at 04:18 pm

President Faust is always an alternative. I prefer "Professor [last name] myself."

16. quidditas - December 07, 2010 at 05:47 pm

"President Faust is always an alternative. I prefer "Professor [last name] myself.""

Well, in this case, maybe it is "Ms. Faust." After all, if Drew were to say anything Presidential to Bob and Larry, these inveterate hostage takers could always threaten to take down the rest of the US economy, not to mention the Harvard endowment for which she is directly responsible and the global economy for which she arguably is not.

17. dryfly5 - December 11, 2010 at 05:17 am

To11240163: I was skeptical about Galileo and Harvard. My source did have some credibility and the argument that the founders wanted to start with (and failed) to get) a faculty of distinction would not have made age relevant. As for anti-papal sentiments, Galileo changed the world by denying papal authority over science. The New England Puritans were very well educated and maintained an extensive correspondence with intellectuals throughout Europe. A number of historians such as Merton hold that the New England Puritans were the source of modernism in science.

18. cwoodso1 - December 12, 2010 at 12:07 am

An added bonus would be to have a student member of the board, which has full voting rights. I am not sure if they have that already. That would really connect them with the student population and open up the lines.

19. cwoodso1 - December 12, 2010 at 12:15 am

What exactly did Harvard do that it cost us 13 trillion dollars?

20. cwoodso1 - December 12, 2010 at 12:17 am

What exactly did Harvard do that it cost us 13 trillion dollars?

21. jthelin - December 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

Response to comment no 3 "Dryfly" -- My interpretation is diffrent than is yours. I always thought such fund raising broadsides as "Newe Englandes' First Fruits" were a bit embellished, tugs at the heartstrings and purse strings of potential donors in England for the college in (New) England. In fact, even though a large percentage of Harvard College alumni did become (Congregationalist? PUritan?) ministers, that never was the major aim of Harvard College. Ordination as a minister took place quite apart from and after bachelor of arts studies. My impression is that the aim of Harvard College was the education of what might be termed "Christian Gentlemen" -- responsible, pious, learned -- but not necessarily members of the clergy. Besides, contrary to many stereotypic depictions, Massachusetts Bay Colony had some strict separation of church and state, did it not? Thanks

John Thelin

22. jthelin - December 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

My recollection is that back in the 1960s the Harvard Board agreed to confer an honorary degree on the Shah of Iran -- but at about thes same time, voted NOT to award an honorary degree to Martin Luther King.

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