The FAS Undermined the Ad Board. Now, the Harvard Corporation Must Take a Side.


Updated May 22, 2024, at 10:35 a.m.

The notion that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is Harvard’s most powerful faculty is something of a cliché. But the FAS put any lingering doubts to rest on Monday.

During the FAS’ annual degree meeting, a historically sedate and sparsely attended formality to approve the list of degrees for conferral at Commencement, a group of faculty members motioned to add the names of 13 graduating seniors who participated in the pro-Palestine Harvard Yard encampment back to the list.

The faculty vote undermined the Harvard College Administrative Board’s decision on Friday to discipline students for participating in the encampment, and forced the Harvard Corporation — which must sign off on the list of diplomas — to make an impossible choice between discrediting the school’s disciplinary processes or directly overriding the will of the University’s largest faculty.


The Corporation — Harvard’s highest governing body — generally stays out of the University’s day-to-day affairs, but the FAS vote has forced their hand. If the Corporation rejects the FAS’ list of recommended degrees, it would be a shocking break from precedent.

History professor Kirsten A. Weld, who advised protesters in their Ad Board processes, said that a rejection of the FAS’ recommendations “would set an enormously grave and troubling precedent for the future of faculty governance and the relationships of trust that bind the various levels of the University.”

But if the Corporation approves the faculty’s amended list, it will defang the Ad Board’s sanctions against seniors and hand Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana a humiliating defeat.

“Extremely concerning,” former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier wrote in a post on X. “Unless the Corporation steps in, this will incentivize even worse trampling on rules required to maintain University values and standards in the future.”

Khurana, who chairs the Ad Board’s disciplinary committee, was defensive and visibly upset, according to two attendees, after Government professor Ryan D. Enos successfully passed a motion — with overwhelming support from the 115 faculty in attendance — to reinstate the 13 seniors.

Enos said in an interview that “the Ad Board serves at the will of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.”

On Monday, Enos said, the faculty decided to “take that authority back.”

The Ad Board’s decision on Friday to suspend five students and place more than 20 others on probation for participating in the encampment immediately sparked intense backlash from student groups and faculty members. A petition, an open letter, and a series of statements criticized the charges as arbitrary, uncharacteristically harsh, and out of sync with more lenient decisions from the disciplinary bodies of other Harvard schools.

The standoff comes at a particularly precarious moment in the relationship between the Corporation and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The relationship between the Corporation and the FAS has been especially strained of late, with fewer than 10 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s annual FAS survey saying they were satisfied with the actions of the Corporation and the Board of Overseers, Harvard’s second-highest governing body. Faculty have taken issue with the secrecy of Harvard’s governing boards and a lack of formal communication channels.

Monday’s vote is just one example of the FAS increasingly attempting to flex its muscles in University governance. Several FAS professors — along with a group of their colleagues in other schools — are spearheading an effort to establish a University-wide faculty senate.

Increasingly, faculty members in the FAS and other schools have gone straight to the University Statutes — Harvard’s governing documents — to assert their constitutional authority over matters of governance.


The Corporation is acutely aware of its uneasy relationship with the FAS. Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 and several other Corporation members sat down for a town hall meeting with the FAS in April, a historic forum that provided faculty with an opportunity to directly question members of the governing board.

Government professor Steven Levitsky warned that a rejection of the FAS’ recommendations could escalate the crisis of confidence facing the Corporation.

“I would expect a faculty rebellion, possibly a faculty rebellion against the entire governance structure, because there’s already a fair amount of mistrust toward the Corporation to begin with,” Levitsky said.

Levitsky, who supported Enos’ motion to reinstate the 13 seniors, had previously described the Ad Board charges against students as a violation of the spirit of Interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76’s agreement with pro-Palestine protesters to peacefully end the encampment.

In an email to organizers, Garber — who does not have direct authority over disciplinary decisions — promised to ask the Ad Board to expedite proceedings so seniors could receive their decisions before Commencement, but he did not guarantee leniency.

Paulette G. Curtis ’92, who served on the Ad Board during her years as Dunster House resident dean between 2002 and 2006, said she thought the involvement of the FAS and the Corporation could set up a “slippery slope” for the Ad Board if the body entrusted with disciplinary decisions was “no longer able to function independently.”

Curtis acknowledged that the Corporation was stuck between a rock and a hard place, but she said the best way for the board to handle its looming decision would be to lay out its reasoning and “articulate why and how this does or does not reflect precedent.”

“It could be valuable if they see their role as mediators between these two bodies that are probably at different points with how to address this very serious issue,” Curtis said.

—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.