Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Harvard’s Faculty Push for a Role in Governance


{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}n April 30, after months of watching the University endure crisis after crisis from the sidelines, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences packed into a lecture hall to finally hear the Harvard Corporation’s side of the story.

At that meeting, the first of its kind in living memory, the Corporation — Harvard’s top governing body — found a very different professoriate from the one it oversaw just a few months prior: one more engaged, more disillusioned with the University’s governance, and looking to assert a more powerful voice.

Former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust “doubled the number of the Corporation from 6 to 12,” one professor noted, according to an attendee’s transcript of the town hall. “This is the first time in 22 years that I’ve seen any of them.”

“Is there a feedback loop by which the Corporation could correct course as a result of criticism?” another asked. “At the moment, the Corporation has no oversight.”


The frustration that faculty have no direct line to top leadership isn’t limited to Harvard’s secretive governing boards.

At a May 7 FAS meeting, when interim Harvard Provost John F. Manning ’82 said interim Harvard President Alan M. Garber ’76 was unaware of meeting requests by students and faculty members to discuss campus issues related to the war in Gaza, faculty members in the audience laughed and groaned.

“That’s a sign of how out of touch this administration is with the faculty, how little consultation and dialogue there’s been with the faculty,” Government professor Steven R. Levitsky said in an interview. “That’s why we’re so engaged.”

University spokespeople did not comment for this article.

After years of being seen as just another group in the campus dynamic, many faculty are pushing to be seen as something else entirely: partners. That growing discontent has already caused a reckoning, forcing both Garber and the Corporation to reevaluate how they work with faculty.


At the FAS town hall, Corporation Senior Fellow Penny S. Pritzker ’81 acknowledged criticisms that faculty were kept out of the loop. Pritzker wrote in a May 18 emailed statement that the University is “exploring ways for the Corporation to hear more directly from the faculty.”

And, Garber has been more responsive to faculty members after Manning’s poor reception at the FAS meeting, per one senior faculty member.

But many faculty members say these “ad hoc” communication channels in times of crisis aren’t enough. Faculty, they argue, deserve their own seat at the table where decisions are made — instead of finding out what happened after the fact.

“During the semester, not a week goes by without hearing one or two colleagues say ‘faculty governance’ — and they never say there is too much,” Classics professor Emily Greenwood said at a May 14 FAS meeting.

Now, they’re pushing for reform.

A group of prominent faculty has introduced proposals to consider a University-wide faculty senate — an elected decision-making body — and even those who oppose the senate proposals agree governance change is needed.

As faculty look to use both their individual and collective voices, Harvard has a big question to answer: what role should faculty play in running the institution?

Faculty Speak Up

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the faculty — the University’s “sleeping giant” — have risen from their slumber. Several professors called this year the most involved the faculty have been in their 20 or more years here, a time that includes the FAS’ 2005 battle with then-President Lawrence H. Summers, which culminated in a no-confidence vote.

“I’ve always kept my head down when it came to campus politics,” said Levitsky, who was recently elected to the FAS Faculty Council, an advisory group for the FAS and its dean.

“This year has been new for me,” he added.

Bioengineering professor Kevin “Kit” Parker wrote in an email that he became involved in the faculty senate working group because he had long been upset with Harvard’s culture. These frustrations, for Parker, came to a head with the University’s recent crises.

“​​I want to build heart valves for kids, not screw around with University politics,” Parker wrote, echoing a sentiment shared by a number of his colleagues. “But by virtue of my position as a tenured faculty member, I have institutional responsibilities that require I put bandwidth into solving its problems and charting its course.”

While many faculty credit Harvard’s leadership crisis with spurring them to action, some of the groundwork was laid in advance.

In March 2023, a group of faculty members across the University — around 70 at the time — formed the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, a faculty group that aims to uphold ideals of free expression and promote discourse on contested issues.

While the group, now with more than 170 members, has made headlines for its statements and leaders’ actions, its main function for members has been an email list over which they discuss and debate campus issues, from Harvard’s selections for presidential task forces to faculty governance.


CAFH co-president Edward J. “Ned” Hall, a Philosophy professor, said CAFH was “the first time” he’s had “sustained dialogue with people from other schools.”

Despite this uptick in involvement, several faculty members feel Harvard lacks institutional foundations for faculty governance. Its existing structures are often criticized as too weak, and there is no central University-wide body at Harvard, unlike many of its peers.

Hall said he found his time on the Faculty Council, under former FAS Dean Claudine Gay, to be quite productive, though he noted that the body’s efficacy was very tied to how the dean sought to use it. It could easily be a “rubber stamp,” he said, as it lacked power as a standalone body.

The Council has suffered from low election participation and a lack of interest in running for its positions, per several faculty members.

An FAS spokesperson wrote in a statement that FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra “is committed to amplifying faculty voices within our School governance structure.”

“Early in her tenure, she established a faculty committee to enhance meeting effectiveness and created new channels for faculty input to reach the President and Fellows,” they wrote. “Dean Hoekstra’s proactive leadership ensures the views of FAS faculty are heard and valued at the highest levels of the University.”

It’s not immediately clear if a new governance structure could avoid the engagement issues that plague the FAS or if the current increase in involvement is sustainable. Levitsky, for instance, said he expects to return his full focus to teaching after the moment of crisis subsides.

Proponents of a faculty senate say a well-designed model could avoid these issues, though the formal planning has yet to begin.

The State of Play

Over the last few weeks, the idea of a faculty senate has picked up steam across the University’s nine faculties.

Since April 9, a group of professors — led by University Professor Danielle S. Allen — has worked to advance resolutions to form a faculty senate planning body through each school’s governing mechanism.

While the group’s memo called on the faculties to either elect delegates to the planning body or come up with a process for doing so by May 15, all nine faculties have yet to do so. Most will not reach a final decision before the fall semester.


The resolution to form a senate planning body has drawn vehement debate among the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who will vote on the motion through an email ballot starting this week.

Though the proposal enjoys support from many prominent professors like Allen and former FAS Dean William C. Kirby, its opponents have called it too reactive to the University’s recent controversies, the wrong vehicle for governance reform, and a threat to the FAS’ position as Harvard’s central faculty.

Dean of Social Sciences Lawrence D. Bobo, one of the proposal’s loudest critics, has argued that faculty members do not have the power to convene a senate with real decision-making power. He has instead argued that governance reform should happen within the existing system, saying instead that faculty need representation on the Harvard Corporation.

Meanwhile, German professor Peter J. Burgard — who explored the idea of an FAS-only faculty senate in 2012 — has said he will oppose any University-wide faculty senate motion. The body, he wrote in an email, would dilute the FAS’ influence and “weaken the core of the university.”

Bobo, Burgard, and University Professor Ann M. Blair ’84 have all made unsuccessful motions during FAS meetings aimed at killing the planning body resolution or delaying it until the fall. Still, the issue seems to be galvanizing the faculty. The FAS meetings where the faculty senate planning body has been discussed were among the best-attended of the semester.

The University’s other eight faculties are moving forward on the proposal as well. The proposal has come up for a vote at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Harvard Divinity School, while a potential September vote is expected at the Harvard School of Public Health.


At the other schools, where formal processes have moved more slowly, proponents have formed subcommittees to lobby colleagues and host town halls to answer their questions.

“I’ve heard so far, there’s interest and support for the idea and the broad goals, but that they would need to understand the design,” Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Julie A. Reuben, who introduced the planning body resolution at HGSE, said.

New Life for an Old Idea

The idea of a faculty senate, though, predates the University’s current climate — by half a century.

In 1972, a committee chaired by then-FAS Dean John T. Dunlop proposed a “University-wide Senate” composed of professors and students from across Harvard’s nine faculties.

The Dunlop committee’s report described Harvard as “more a confederation of independent faculties than a unitary institution,” with each school responsible for its own funding — a decentralized model that largely continues to this day.

But, the report concluded, when University-wide or cross-faculty issues did arise, they were typically decided by central administrators. In other cases, one faculty — particularly the FAS — would set the de facto precedent. That, the report argued, meant policy decisions were made “without opportunity for the affected Faculties to discuss or consider the question.”

The solution it prescribed? A faculty senate.

Like the authors of today’s proposal, the Dunlop committee vested the authority to constitute their proposed senate in Harvard’s University Statutes, which grant power to a “University Council” consisting of Harvard’s entire professoriate. The Council has not met since the early 1900s; the Dunlop reports described it as “moribund” and “dormant.”

Over fifty years later, however, the University Council still has not awakened, and the Dunlop proposal never came to fruition.

But Government professor Theda Skocpol said she did not think the present moment lived up to the past.

“I would not say that the social ties and the ongoing conversations and thinking about what to do are there, anywhere near the way it was during the 1960s crisis — which was happening just as I arrived as a graduate student — or in the periods around Larry Summers’ presidency,” she said.

Without consistent engagement and strong lateral ties across Harvard’s faculties, Skocpol said she thought a faculty senate “would create an easily ignorable set of new titles on paper.”

Awaiting a ‘Constitutional Convention’

Though the proposal has drawn impassioned debate, what a faculty senate would actually look like remains an open question. According to its proponents, that’s by design: The proposal’s authors say they want an elected planning body, not a self-selected working group, to sketch out possible constitutions.

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Richard Chait, who studies higher education governance, said faculty senates usually fill two primary functions: “as a voice for faculty and as a means of self-regulation for academic matters.”

But the specifics of the proposal, including the senate’s role, may have to wait.

“At the end of the day, if the faculty and the University choose to have a senate, it has to be born through a highly consensual, expansive, consultative process,” Chait said. “I imagine they’ll have some modern-day equivalent of a constitutional convention in Philadelphia.”


Although a senate might be a revolutionary institution at Harvard, faculty senates are the norm among many of Harvard’s peer schools.

Northwestern University’s senate oversees faculty tenure and promotion policies, while Stanford University’s sets curricular requirements and research policy. Both senates regularly meet with top administrators and lay out principles of academic freedom.

Chait said he thought the greatest structural challenge to faculty senates is they are often not held accountable for the effects of their own recommendations. If a senate’s suggestions are implemented, he said, their success is accepted without fanfare; their failure, on the other hand, rarely backfires on faculty senators.

That lack of a feedback mechanism means, in turn, administrators and trustees may be less likely to take faculty recommendations seriously, Chait said.

But Reuben, the HGSE professor, was hopeful. A senate, she said, could bridge the gap between the highest echelons of Harvard’s governance and the faculty who see themselves as stewards of its core purposes: research and education.

“The most fundamental principle of shared governance is that the parts of the university that hold the knowledge and expertise should be primarily responsible for those parts,” she 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.