The Harvard Corporation Will Take Questions From the FAS. The Faculty Want Answers.


Updated Tuesday, April 30, at 10:44 a.m.

The Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, will grant a rare audience to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on Tuesday morning.

The unprecedented meeting, which was described as a town hall in an invitation emailed to FAS members, will include interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 and be held at the Graduate School of Education. The names of Corporation members who will be in attendance were not disclosed.

For many faculty, Tuesday morning will be the first time they’ve interacted with a Corporation member in their time at Harvard. The relationship between the average faculty member and the Corporation is “essentially nil,” said Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68, a former dean of Harvard College.


“I don’t remember myself as dean of the College being at a Corporation meeting,” Lewis added, saying only deans of the broader faculties met with them in an official capacity. “I may have, but I don’t remember it.”

Tuesday’s meeting, with its open invitation to all voting FAS members, is highly unusual for the governing board, which likes to operate in secret. It will be the first such meeting in decades, according to several long-serving professors.

The town hall will give the Corporation members a chance to “share some reflections,” according to the email invitation.

The invitation did not specify what the Corporation intended to reflect on, but it also didn’t need to.

Harvard was rocked by a fall semester of almost nonstop controversy over its initial response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which snowballed into the University’s worst leadership crisis in recent history when former Harvard President Claudine Gay suddenly resigned on Jan. 2.

Some FAS faculty were left to wonder for the rest of the winter how the Corporation’s pick to lead Harvard for the next decade barely lasted one semester in the role and left office under a cloud of plagiarism allegations. Others questioned whether the Corporation sufficiently supported Gay following her controversial congressional testimony.

Regardless, the events of last fall sent the Corporation’s approval rating among faculty members into the ground.

In The Crimson’s annual FAS survey, a decisive majority of respondents said they were dissatisfied by the actions of the University’s two governing boards, the Corporation and the Harvard Board of Overseers.

Those numbers suggest the town hall could be a crucial opportunity for the Corporation to earn back the approval of a skeptical FAS. The event could open up lines of communication many faculty say are missing — but if faculty are unsatisfied with the answers they get, it could also just widen the rift between the FAS and the University’s leaders.

A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

But in an earlier statement on Monday responding to the survey results, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton suggested that the Corporation is cognizant of its opportunity to build trust with the faculty.

“Members of the Corporation have been pursuing opportunities to connect with members of the community in recent months,” Newton wrote, referencing the town hall and a meeting with the FAS Faculty Council. “Those engagement efforts will continue and increase in the time ahead.”

The Corporation’s answers at the town hall could also be a bellwether for how Harvard’s leadership plans to respond to an increasingly assertive faculty.

Earlier this month, a group of faculty from across nine Harvard schools circulated a proposal to launch a University-wide faculty senate to hundreds of faculty. If established, a faculty senate would provide faculty from across the University — not just the FAS — a powerful voice in University decisions, and the opportunity to act as a counterweight to the Corporation and Massachusetts Hall.

So far, Garber and other Corporation members have yet to say whether they would entertain such a proposal. If the topic is broached at the town hall, their response could set the tone for future negotiations and indicate whether the Corporation is prepared to share some power with the faculty.

The town hall also comes as University leaders face a very visible confrontation: the students occupying Harvard Yard to demand disclosure of and divestment from investments tied to Israel and the war in Gaza.

The town hall was originally set to convene in the Faculty Room of University Hall — with protesters gathered just steps away from the front doors. Tuesday morning, less than two hours before the meeting, the University moved the meeting to a new location at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Harvard has taken a restrained approach to student protesters, threatening academic sanctions while declining to use police force against an encampment that has remained peaceful. That approach has been largely accepted by faculty so far.

But at the town hall, some faculty may ask Harvard’s leaders to change their tune: to take a harder line against protesters, to spare them from sanctions, or to endorse their divestment demands — which the University has repeatedly rejected.

Even as the FAS is divided on a variety of issues — including what exactly the Corporation should do about campus protesters — the faculty appear united on at least one front: a belief that Harvard’s highest governing board is not transparent enough.

“We’re governed by an unelected body that we don’t have a lot of communication with,” Government professor Ryan D. Enos said. “That’s just not a sustainable way to have a university governed.”

Former FAS Dean William C. Kirby — the University’s most powerful dean from 2002 to 2006 — offered a similar perspective, saying the Corporation is too private and distant in its proceedings.

“The Corporation today is an extremely talented group of individuals, but hindered by a history and culture of secrecy and opacity that makes it difficult for them to gain the kind of legitimacy that the governing board of this university ought to have,” Kirby said.

In The Crimson’s annual FAS survey, 79.8 percent of respondents said they agreed the Corporation should be more transparent.

Though Corporation members have not met with the full FAS in recent memory, they have spoken several times with the Faculty Council — a smaller elected body that issues recommendations for school-wide policy and sets the agenda for FAS meetings.

Since Garber assumed office in January, the Faculty Council has met with him twice. The second time, he was joined by two members of the Harvard Corporation, including Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81.

Notices posted in the Harvard Gazette, stretching back to September 2010, make no other mention of meetings between the Council and the Corporation.

But in 2005 — almost two decades ago — the docket committee of the Faculty Council met twice with two Corporation members, Nannerl O. Keohane and Robert D. Reischauer ’63. Then, as now, Harvard was grappling with a leadership crisis: the tumultuous presidency of Lawrence H. Summers, whose interventionist approach to governance sowed discontent among faculty.

Classics professor Richard F. Thomas served on the Council in the 2005-2006 academic year and also met with Corporation members as part of the Caucus of Chairs, an informal faculty group convened in response to Summers’ controversial tenure. He recalled a tense relationship between the FAS and the Corporation, then only a six-member group.

“They were quite hostile,” Thomas wrote in an email, adding that then-Corporation member Hanna Holborn Gray “thought the faculty were spoiled.”

Gray did not respond to a request for comment.

Thomas described a Corporation that was ill-informed about sentiments among faculty, only belatedly realizing how unpopular Summers had become.

“They only ever heard from Summers about how things were going in Cambridge, where none of them lived, so they had no idea,” Thomas wrote.

Over the decades, faculty have repeatedly criticized the Corporation as out of touch, but they have historically rejected the Corporation’s attempts to become more directly involved in running the University’s day-to-day affairs.

After the Corporation intervened in 2017 to uphold a controversial regime of penalties against single-gender social organizations, a plurality of respondents to The Crimson’s annual FAS survey indicated support for the move. But several professors described the Corporation’s intervention as an unwelcome shift toward governance by administrative edicts, rather than faculty decision-making.

“Many of the faculty no longer feel they are involved in, or even consulted about, College or University governance — rather that the governance is now in the hands of the administration,” Molecular and Cellular Biology professor John E. Dowling said in 2018.

—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.