FAS Advances Vote on Harvard Faculty Senate Planning Body After Spirited Debate


Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences took its first step toward a University-wide faculty senate on Tuesday by voting to hold a special meeting on whether the FAS will send delegates to a “planning body.”

The vote, which passed despite loud disapproval from several members, means the FAS will convene for the second time in two weeks on May 14 for a final vote on the faculty senate planning body resolution.

The motion to send delegates survived two consecutive efforts against it: one to table indefinitely and then one to postpone consideration to October.

The FAS will be the first of Harvard’s nine faculties to vote on such a resolution.


University Professor Danielle S. Allen, a major force behind the faculty senate initiative, said two other schools — the Graduate School of Design and Harvard Divinity School — are expected to hold similar votes on May 20.

During the FAS meeting, two clear groups emerged during a spirited debate over the motion, with professors offering a mix of prepared remarks and impassioned responses. The meeting drew an unusually large crowd, nearly filling the Harvard Art Museums lecture hall where it was held.

Faculty members introduced a series of successive motions: an amendment, an effort to table, and a proposal to delay till the fall, and motions to end discussion and vote on each measure. The sequence of actions led to several moments of confusion as many attendees — including FAS Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra, at times — struggled to keep up with a rapidly shifting docket.

Former FAS Dean William C. Kirby joined Allen as the leading voices in favor of a faculty senate, while Social Science Dean Lawrence D. Bobo and former Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Theda Skocpol came out strongly against the proposal.

A preview of the debate played out in the editorial pages of The Crimson in the days ahead of the FAS meeting.

Kirby backed proposals to form a faculty senate in an April 30 op-ed, while Bobo urged his colleagues to “reject a faculty senate” in an op-ed published Tuesday — the morning of the meeting.

The motion’s proponents kicked off Tuesday’s discussion by presenting a faculty senate as a way to draw constituents from across Harvard’s nine faculties into important decisions on University-wide policy.

“The idea of a faculty senate is not a radical idea,” Kirby told the approximately 250 attendees. “We are, perhaps, the radical exception in not having one.”

Many of Harvard’s peer institutions — including Stanford University and Columbia University — have had similar senates for decades.

Allen said the lack of faculty input in University-wide governance was a “weakness,” arguing that faculty were sidelined as Harvard’s leaders decided how to confront the crises of the past few months.

“This past fall we witnessed this weakness harm the University,” she said. A faculty senate, she added, would create a clearer channel of communication between faculty and the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body.

Psychology professor Mina Cikara said a faculty senate could help Harvard mount a stronger defense of itself against outside threats to academic freedom.

“Come what may, let history show that we, in our collective wisdom and commitment to our students and one another, did not turn her over willingly,” Cikara said.

Even as faculty members bitterly disagreed over the need for a faculty senate, they managed to find common ground in their criticisms of the Corporation. In The Crimson’s annual FAS survey, more than 60 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the actions of Harvard’s governing boards, and almost 80 percent indicated they wanted more transparency from the Corporation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Bobo described the Corporation as “self-appointed and unaccountable,” drawing a quiet “hear, hear” from the audience.

But both Bobo and Skocpol said they did not think a faculty senate would solve the deep-seated issues they identified.

Bobo cited his past experience working at three other universities with faculty senates as cause for his stance.

“I do not know them to be bodies that solve the problems that universities face,” he said, adding that he did not think a faculty senate would necessarily enhance transparency or create structural accountability for the Corporation.

Skocpol, likewise, expressed skepticism that a faculty senate would act as a check on the power of Harvard’s president and governing boards. She said she did not trust that institutions created in times of crisis would live up to their aims.

“Hopes are placed in them, and those hopes are always, always frustrated,” she said.

Skocpol said she was concerned the formation of a planning body would commit Harvard’s faculty to forming a faculty senate instead of considering alternatives. Allen pushed back, arguing that creating a planning body would allow faculty to begin that conversation.

After Bobo’s motion to table the resolution indefinitely failed, Germanic Languages and Literatures professor Peter J. Burgard motioned to postpone discussion of the resolution until the fall, saying the proposal had been pushed through with undue haste.

Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor Mansi Srivastava pushed back, saying that holding earlier elections for the planning body would give the group more time to research and debate proposals for a faculty senate.

This is not the first time a faculty senate has been considered at Harvard. But previous discussions — dating back to at least 1972 — never bore fruit.

“It’s been tabled forever once before,” Kirby said in response to Bobo’s motion to postpone. “Let’s not do it again.”

The room applauded.

—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.