Harvard President Drew Faust (left) and Robert Reischauer, the Corporation’s senior fellow, discuss the changes within the Corporation, including its first expansion since its creation 360 years ago.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Q&A on Harvard’s changing Corporation

long read

Faust, Reischauer explain outcomes of governance review

At a time when many parts of Harvard University have been examining how they can function most effectively, the Harvard Corporation didn’t exempt itself. Having undertaken a close look at its own role and work, the Corporation is embracing a number of significant changes, including its first expansion since its creation 360 years ago. Its size will nearly double, from seven to 13; members other than the president will serve for limited periods; several new committees will be formed in key areas; and the Corporation and its members will pursue ways to engage more closely with the Harvard community. President Drew Faust and Robert Reischauer, the Corporation’s senior fellow, tell the Gazette that the changes are designed to expand the capacity of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere, as it guides the University forward.

GAZETTE: A fundamental question that faced the governance review committee was whether a structure devised for a fledgling college centuries ago is optimally suited to meet the needs of the University today. From the report, I take it you found some significant opportunities for change.

FAUST: I think it’s important to understand how the review began. The question was: What does a board like this one need to do in the 21st century, given the scale and scope of the University? We started with purpose, and we derived structure from purpose. The conversations were extremely productive. They helped us understand that we wanted to have more capacity, that we wanted to be more strategic, that we wanted more depth in certain areas, that we wanted to have more connection with people in different parts of the University community. And we wanted to be able to move in those directions in a manner that seems consonant with our responsibilities to an institution very different from the one being governed in 1650, when the Corporation was chartered, but that also sustains some of the advantages of our distinctive system of governance.

GAZETTE: The report emphasizes that the Corporation is a governing board and not a management committee. What should people take away from that distinction?

REISCHAUER: The Corporation should be focusing on long-term strategy, on big issues and priorities, not the kind of day-to-day management that’s more appropriately done by the president and the administration. We should be thinking about the elements of the University that persist through time, the financial strength of the University, the major opportunities and risks, the policies that can best maintain Harvard’s academic excellence over the long run.

GAZETTE: One of the key decisions you’ve made is to increase the size of the Corporation from seven to 13 members over the next two to three years while continuing to strengthen its working relationship with the Board of Overseers. Why two boards?

FAUST: The two-board structure has served the University well over time. There’s a sense of checks and balances. There’s a sense of complementary roles, with the Corporation taking the lead on traditional fiduciary matters and with the Overseers quite engaged in the visitation process, for instance, but also in taking up large topics of cross-cutting importance. The Corporation exercises most of the formal authority typical of a board, but the Overseers play an essential role in consenting to certain important actions and giving candid, rounded advice on many others. The size and range and combined experience of the Board of Overseers, the extent of their connections to people inside the institution, to the alumni community, to government and business and philanthropy and other universities and nonprofits — it all brings an essential dimension to Harvard governance more generally.

REISCHAUER: I was an Overseer for six years before I joined the Corporation. From my experience, the two-board structure provides real strength and depth. In some sense, the Overseers both help all of us see the bigger picture and think through strategic directions, and they also help us all see things at a more local, granular level, through the visitation process. And as the Corporation has progressed with the governance review, the Overseers have been reviewing some aspects of their visitation function. There’s always a question of how we can best reinforce one another’s strengths and coordinate our work. I think we’ve been on an especially good path the last several years, thanks to colleagues on both boards.

GAZETTE: Mr. Reischauer, when we spoke about this topic over the summer, you mentioned that the Corporation was unique among the boards that you serve on — that the small size of the group made for discussion that was more open and frank and intimate. Now the Corporation will be significantly bigger, and will do some of its work through committees. Are you concerned that some of the frankness might be lost in this transformation?

REISCHAUER: We’ve been mindful throughout our discussions of the advantages of a small board that meets relatively often. We’ve decided that the Corporation should be larger than it is now, and that will give us real added capacity. But it will still be quite compact compared to other university boards, many of which wind up forming executive committees roughly the same size that the enlarged Corporation will be. Expanding to 13 can help us combine the advantages of being relatively compact with the virtues of more breadth and depth. And while we’ll be counting on the new committees to do very important work, the key issues that emerge at the committee level will come back to the Corporation as a whole. The difference is, they’ll come to us having been subject to the more robust, in-depth discussion that committees make possible, especially in key areas like finance and capital planning.

GAZETTE: You said earlier that you were hoping to create a structure that would increase the Corporation’s ability to stay focused on the big picture and not get too preoccupied with immediate demands. How do these changes help?

FAUST: It’s interesting that, over the year of discussion that has led up to the changes we’re announcing, we’ve already become much more self-conscious about focusing our activities and our agendas on more strategic issues, even before a structural change. We’re already more conscious of what most merits the Corporation’s time. We’re less inclined to focus on discrete projects or yesterday’s headlines, and more focused on the bigger questions. The group will stand back a bit more from the day-to-day. And we’ll be adjusting our meeting schedules somewhat with that in mind — creating a little more space between meetings, but having the fellows here somewhat longer when the Corporation is in town.

REISCHAUER: I think Drew is absolutely right, that a lot of this change has taken place already and arises from our introspection and discussion about whether we’re spending our time in ways that are most useful to the president and the University. Once we started talking explicitly about the need to be more strategic, about really focusing on priorities and core fiduciary responsibilities, our agendas began to shift, our discussions began to shift, and we’ve already noticed the difference.

FAUST: Another significant part of the shift relates back to the work that will get done in committee meetings instead of by the Corporation as a whole. Some of the more granular discussions about finance or about capital planning will take place within groups that have particular expertise in those areas and that have time to explore them in more depth. That can have a big effect on how we use the time of the whole Corporation.

GAZETTE: Let’s stay at the granular level for a minute. These changes will introduce limits on how long Corporation members serve: six years, with the prospect of extending for another six. What’s the rationale there?

REISCHAUER: Looking around at virtually all other governing boards, we realized that our situation of having indefinite terms is quite unusual and that it would be a healthy change to define them. We think it will allow for continuity but at the same time provide for a steady flow of new expertise and talent to help Harvard with its decision-making.

FAUST: I think the idea of continually bringing in fresh perspectives and also opening opportunities to a wider range of prospective members is important as well. We have terrific people around us in the wider Harvard community, and no shortage of talent, and this is a chance for the Corporation to take fuller advantage of it.

Harvard is a complicated place, so we don’t want periods of service that are too short. We want people to have a chance to develop a familiarity with the institution and some kinds of deep institutional knowledge and be able to serve long enough to use that knowledge and not just to have constant turnover.

GAZETTE: The report also confirms that the senior fellow is to be chosen by the Corporation, not just determined by length of service.

FAUST: We’re giving the senior fellow more defined responsibilities for agenda development and leadership in a governance committee and other kinds of roles that weren’t made so explicit before. There may well be individuals who’d be happy to serve on the Corporation but not feel that they wanted to take on that additional leadership role, which can be quite demanding. So, we wanted to be clear that being the senior fellow shouldn’t simply be a product of how long you’ve served. This just seemed to make sense to all of us. People have many commitments in their lives, and they might be eager to serve but not eager to take this on.

REISCHAUER: Also, it connects with the issue of creating defined terms of service. If being senior fellow were just a product of who’s served the longest, under the new system the role would probably turn over automatically every two years or so, and that might not be optimal.

GAZETTE: The report also says that the Corporation is committed to communicating more fully with the Harvard community. Was there a sense, at the end of this review, that the Corporation could do a better job of keeping the community abreast of its activities?

FAUST: One of the things we heard often during the review was a desire to hear more about the Corporation and its work. So we’re committed to communicating more regularly. We’ll try out some different modes of doing so. Conversations like this one are an example. We’re not sure just what will be most effective and will reach people in a way that explains our work the best, so we’ll be sometimes communicating through me, sometimes through the senior fellow, sometimes, perhaps, through several members, or through the whole group. We’ll try some different things and figure out what seems to work well, but the notion that it will be more frequent is at the heart of the review.

REISCHAUER: And there’s a commitment on the part of the fellows, going forward, to interact, both formally and informally, with a wider range of people and groups around the University — faculty, administrators, students, alumni. We learn a lot from what we hear, not just inside but outside our meetings. And I expect we’ll try different ways to do that.

GAZETTE: I was interested by the emphasis toward the end of the report on the Corporation’s intention to encourage different parts of the University to collaborate more and draw greater strength from one another. Why at this point in time is that a priority for the Corporation?

REISCHAUER: This is part of Drew’s vision of a more cohesive, integrated University. It’s something the Corporation fully endorses, and we see it as an important focus of how the governing boards think about their work. There’s a feeling that Harvard has an extraordinary array of excellent, distinctive parts. But we haven’t always managed to be greater than the sum of our parts to the extent we ideally could be. There’s real opportunity here, in a world where disciplinary boundaries are crumbling, where real problems in the world don’t come packaged in boxes labeled according to the names of our departments or Schools, where the people pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge are often working across School and disciplinary boundaries. We want to encourage that.

FAUST: To me, the Corporation is quintessentially an institution that represents and has responsibility for Harvard as a whole. So I see its fundamental job as thinking about the whole, and about the parts in relation to the whole, and trying to be a force that makes Harvard not just an agglomeration of Schools, but a University that thinks about itself as an integrated organization. So it seems to me almost inherent in the idea of the Corporation that its long-term view is also a unifying view.