Campus & Community

Harvard Corporation looks ahead

long read

Faust and Reischauer discuss governance review

It is a time of change for the Harvard Corporation. In recent months, the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, has welcomed a new member and a new senior fellow, even as it has undertaken a probing look at its own role and practices. President Drew Faust and Bob Reischauer ’63, the new senior fellow and the president of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., spoke with the Gazette about an eventful time for the Corporation.

Q: Let’s begin with what’s new with the Corporation, and one of those things is the new senior fellow. How did you become involved in the Corporation?

REISCHAUER: I served on the Board of Overseers from 1996 to 2002. Over the course of my six-year term, I really enjoyed reconnecting with Harvard and was unbelievably positively impressed by the dedication with which the leadership and the faculty performed their jobs. I was disappointed when my six years came to an end — but not disappointed for long. Late in 2002, I was asked if I’d be willing to fill a vacancy on the Corporation. I spent a good deal of time discussing the responsibilities and the nature of the board with members of the Corporation, and I realized that accepting the invitation would be a fascinating, if demanding, opportunity to serve an institution I care about a great deal. And it certainly has been.

FAUST: On both counts!

REISCHAUER: On both counts, that’s right. The only dissent occasionally comes from my wife — but being a Radcliffe graduate, she’s very understanding.

Q: Now that you’ve been involved with the Corporation for some time, do you find it very different from other boards or committees that you’re familiar with? Is it more tied to tradition? Is its decision-making a little more organic because it’s a relatively small group of people?

REISCHAUER: It is different. I’m on a number of boards, and none is quite like the Corporation. The discussion is quite open and frank because of the relationship that develops among the fellows and the president. I don’t think there are any holds barred, and we don’t hesitate to dive into issues and say what we think.

Q: Have you discussed how the Corporation might change how it goes about its business with a new senior fellow in place?

FAUST: Well, we’re in the midst of a governance review, and one of the things we’re discussing is the evolving role of the senior fellow. And I know we’ll talk about the review more in a moment. But I think there are a number of ways in which Bob’s own expertise in certain areas is already influencing how the Corporation operates. For instance, Bob’s the former head of the Congressional Budget Office. So he’s already helping us think more about how we can take a longer-term, more-strategic view of how we do our budgeting and planning, and what’s the right role for the Corporation in the process. And Bob’s broader experience — as the CEO of a major policy institute, as someone very savvy about Washington, as a Ph.D. who’s stayed close to the academic world but sees it from a bit of a distance — all of that is extremely valuable in all sorts of ways.

Q: You’ve also recently welcomed a new fellow, with Jamie Houghton having retired in June. What do you think Bill Lee brings to the Corporation?

REISCHAUER: Bill is someone who the rest of us on the Corporation have already come to know well. He was an Overseer until a couple of years ago, and greatly impressed everyone he dealt with. And he was a key member of the presidential search committee in 2006-07, which was a very intense experience. We got to know his judgment, his insight, his expertise with respect to many parts of the University, his terrific way with people. We’re extremely fortunate to have him.

FAUST: I second everything Bob said. And I’d add that Bill’s being in Boston, and the time he’s already spending to get around and talk with different people in many parts of the University, are going to have a positive impact. He’s been making it around to see deans and professors and others — including the women’s swimming coach, who coached his daughter. He taught the new problem-solving workshop at the Law School last January. And he was saying to me recently how the opportunity to be engaged with students just gives you an extraordinary faith in the future. He’ll be a very engaged member of the Corporation, across the community; in fact, he already is.

Q: Let’s come back to the governance review. The Corporation has been around since 1650. What was the impetus for this exercise in self-reflection?

REISCHAUER: Well, there wasn’t a blinding flash of realization that occurred. It was something that grew out of discussions that we’d been having among ourselves about how we can function most effectively, given changes in Harvard and changes in the world. We have a component of our annual retreats that lets us be a little more self-reflective, but that really wasn’t, I think, sufficient. And so last fall we discussed the possibility of doing something more formal and more intense. It’s good practice for a board. And at a time when we’re asking all different parts of the University to examine how they can function most efficiently and effectively, and how they can adapt to change and serve all of Harvard in the best possible way, it seemed timely and important to look into the mirror ourselves.

Q: What can you tell us about the review process, and where are you in that process now?

FAUST: We started with a series of conversations about how we thought about the Corporation and our work. And we also, through the auspices of [Secretary of the Governing Boards] Marc Goodheart and [General Counsel] Bob Iuliano, had interviews with a range of senior staff members, former Corporation members, some recent Overseers, and others. And the Corporation members themselves spoke individually with the various deans, to get a sense of how they felt the Corporation was operating and how it can be improved. That gave us a good foundation of information.

We realized that it would be very helpful to have someone who is expert in matters of university governance to be a facilitator of these conversations, so we engaged Dick Chait [of the Graduate School of Education] to work with us. Dick may well be the most knowledgeable and broadly experienced person around on the questions of governance in higher education. And we invited two current Overseers and a former Overseers president to be part of the deliberations — both because the Corporation is, of course, part of a two-board governance structure at Harvard, and because we thought it would be very valuable to have the perspectives of some wise, experienced people who haven’t themselves been on the Corporation but who understand the basic features of Harvard governance. How the Corporation thinks about its work is very closely related to the work of the Overseers.

REISCHAUER: The three non-Corporation members who joined the group have really brought some extraordinary insight to us: Fran Fergusson, who was president of the Overseers a few years ago and was a longtime president of Vassar College; Rob Shapiro, who’s on the Overseers now and is a past president of the Harvard Alumni Association; and Seth Waxman, who’s the president of the Overseers this year. They’ve seen Harvard and various boards from different angles, and it’s really an extraordinary group of people.

FAUST: The focus of our inquiry has been to work through our sense of what the work of the Corporation should be, and what it means to exercise its responsibilities in the context of a very complex 21st-century institution of higher education. The idea has been that, once we’ve taken that diagnostic step, we can begin to draw conclusions about the best way to organize ourselves to get that work done.

REISCHAUER: So we’ve been talking first about our fundamental role and responsibilities as a board. And, with those considerations informing us, we’ve been discussing things like whether we have the capacity we need to fulfill that role as well as possible; whether we should be considering a fuller committee structure to draw on broader expertise; how often we should meet and what our agendas should really focus on; what’s the special role of the senior fellow; how we can interact most fruitfully with different parts of Harvard, and make sure we’re both hearing what we should hear and conveying what we should convey.

Q: What sort of timetable are you looking at?

FAUST: We’ve made some good progress, and we hope to move through this in an efficient and prompt manner. But it’s far more important for us to do it right than to deliver a work product on a specific date. I’d hope we’ll reach closure on some key propositions well before the end of the academic year and have more to report then. We also continue to get thoughts from people and factor them into our thinking.

REISCHAUER: Yes, and if people in the community have advice for us, I hope they will continue to pass on their views. [Note: Comments can be sent in confidence to]

Q: The Corporation and the Overseers are seen as two very separate entities, but you’ve touched on a few areas where they’re working together. Can you tell us a little bit more about the evolving relationship between the two boards?

FAUST: Collaboration between the two boards was a high priority for Jamie Houghton, and enhancing the relationship between the two was a real accomplishment of his time as senior fellow. He established it as a rather regular practice for several members of the Corporation, in addition to the president and treasurer, to attend the plenary sessions of the Overseers. We’ve also been having the Corporation and the Overseers’ executive committee get together for dinner twice a year. And the Overseers take part in various joint committees and activities with the Corporation — search committees for new Corporation members, including the president, being one of them.

REISCHAUER: There have been times in which an issue has been before the Corporation, and we’ve invited a member from the Overseers with a particular expertise in that area to sit in and help us think things through — for instance, when we were considering the creation of the School of Engineering, or thinking about aspects of cross-School academic collaboration.

Q: It’s interesting to hear about those interactions, because if you hear people in some quarters describe the Corporation, you would think that it’s an impenetrable secret society. What are some of the ways that the Corporation connects and communicates with the Harvard community?

REISCHAUER: We communicate largely through the voice of the president who, after all, is more than just a member of the Corporation — she’s the presiding officer of the President and Fellows. Whether we’ve been communicating and getting around sufficiently, and how we can do better, are among the issues we’ve been discussing in the governance review. I know that, as I’ve been gearing up for my service as senior fellow, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time connecting individually with key people on campus. Several of my colleagues have also been touching base with various faculty and administrators, and I know Bill Lee has made this a real priority too, as he’s taken on his new role. I think the urge to examine all of this can be traced back to the last presidential search, in which many of us found it very useful to speak with deans, with groups of faculty, as well as with students and administrators to a greater degree than our basic meetings often allow. I know I learned a great deal from the experience, and formed some very helpful relationships.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about what direction the governance review should take? Will there be structural changes? Will appointments be term-limited?

REISCHAUER: We’re looking at many dimensions, including the ones you mention. The approach has been to think first about roles and responsibilities broadly, and then to consider what that implies for our structure and our practices — whether it’s capacity, or committees, or communications, or how long people are expected to serve. It all needs to fit together in the end, so it’s probably best to talk about things together once we’re further along, rather than preview where we might land on one question or another.

Q: But you both have a lot of experience at Harvard. Do you have any particular areas in mind that you’re certain need to be addressed?

FAUST: One real enhancement that I think would be helpful to the Corporation in a very important way would be to develop a process that helps bring wider, deeper expertise to the table when we need to make large strategic decisions on questions ranging from financial matters to capital planning matters, to a whole range of institutional challenges that seem to me far more complex than what the Corporation had to deal with 100 years ago, or 200 years ago.

By way of example, we’ve created the Financial Management Committee this year, which reports to me. The logic of that is to have complex financial issues discussed at length by people who have expertise in a variety of financial areas, both within and beyond the University, so that that group’s expertise can then be shared with the Corporation as we make decisions about matters like what the endowment distribution should be, what our debt profile should be, things like that. We need to make sure that when issues come up for decision before the Corporation, all of that kind of background expertise has been mobilized and doesn’t have to be derived entirely from the Corporation members themselves as they consider a particular issue.

REISCHAUER: And there are just so many consequential short-term issues that come before us that we need to be able to think about ways to stay focused on a long-term perspective, to see these issues in the context of a larger, forward-looking vision for the University as a whole. That’s an area that I think we’re going to stress.

FAUST: Yes, to enable the Corporation to focus on strategic issues and not be consumed by immediate demands. It’s what we all do in our lives — try to make sure the urgent doesn’t crowd out the important, right? As we’ve started this very self-conscious process of evaluation, we find that we are doing our work differently already, even apart from whatever structural changes we might undertake. We’ve been thinking harder about what belongs on our agendas. We’ve been thinking harder about our budget and planning processes, and how we deal both with opportunities and with risks. It’s changed the Corporation already.