A Corporation Renewed

The appointment of William F. Lee '72 gives hope for a more open Corporation

Gold-tipped cane resting against the arm of his chair in Loeb House, Harvard Corporation’s Senior Fellow James R. Houghton ’58 is on his way out.

The former chairman of industrial giant Corning Incorporated, Houghton presiding over the Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—during a period of expansion and turbulence, a time when the endowment grew and crashed and a president rose and fell.

Houghton, an elegant industrial magnate in a bold pinstripe suit, says it’s now time “to pass the baton,” and he does so in a period of flux.

The Corporation is an aging body. Unchanged in structure since the University’s founding in the 17th century, the same seven-person board oversees what grew from a small New England seminary to become what may be the world’s most advanced and complex institution of higher education.

Interviews with current and former members of the Corporation, administrators, and professors indicate the future of the Corporation has reached a defining moment—the criticism of the recent past has reached its members, and the call for reform has been taken to heart.


At a spry 59, William F. Lee ’72, who still runs daily and plays soccer on the weekends, promises to inject a measure of youth into the antiquated body—its members’ average age is 68, meaning the average fellow was born in the midst of World War II and qualifies for Medicare.

Lee will join the governing body on July 1, as the Corporation’s internal review of its policies gathers full steam.

The review—which includes the Corporation, three Overseers, and Graduate School of Education professor and governance expert Richard P. Chait, who declined to comment for this story—expects to release its recommendations in early 2011, according to Robert D. Reischauer ’63, who will replace Houghton as Senior Fellow.

On a body as small as the Corporation, the identity of its members are crucial to its direction. Lee’s entrance marks a moment of transition not only for the Corporation’s internal dynamic, but also for its relationship to the broader University.

The reforms emerging from the formal review process are unlikely to lead to sweeping change in the University’s governance structure. Rather, University leaders appear more committed to improving the Corporation’s visibility to the community than to making structural reform.


When the Corporation convenes in Loeb House, its brick walls and the long-standing rule that its participants not divulge any of their discussions have erected a literal barrier between itself and the community.

As a result, the Corporation has been faulted for its secrecy.

Faculty of Arts and Sciences professors Harry R. Lewis ’68 and Frederick H. Abernathy levied scathing criticism against the Corporation in the editorial pages of The Boston Globe last December, calling the body “a dangerous anachronism” that “failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities” and going so far as to demand resignations.

In a January article for The Huffington Post, Lewis attacked the Corporation as “stunningly secretive,” noting that Corporation members’ contact information are not listed on Harvard websites, that they live in disparate areas throughout the United States and convene in Boston only occasionally, and that their meeting discussions are frequently undisclosed.


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