Campus & Community

Pulling together for a better Harvard

long read

Senior Fellow, Overseers President discuss boards’ roles, reflect on their Harvard experience

The Gazette recently sat down with Robert Reischauer, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and Leila Fawaz, president of the Board of Overseers, to talk about Harvard’s governance, the implementation of recent governance reforms, and the interplay between the two boards.

In the question-and-answer session, Reischauer, the president emeritus of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Fawaz, the Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies and founding director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, reflected on their Harvard experience.

Gazette [to Reischauer]: Harvard has two governing boards, the Corporation and the Board of Overseers, while most universities just have a single board of trustees. How did this come about?

Reischauer: It goes all the way back to Harvard’s original charter, from 1650. I think the interplay between the two boards has served the University well over a very long time. There’s a sense of complementary strengths, and of checks and balances. At first glance it seems quite unusual compared to other universities. But really it’s not that unusual, since many universities with large boards of trustees also have an executive committee, and the role of our Corporation is in some ways similar to what those executive committees do.

Gazette (to Fawaz): What is a year in the life of an Overseer like?

Fawaz: We meet four weekends a year, and also during Commencement week. Over the last few years, we’ve come to interact more and more closely with the Corporation. For instance, a number of the Corporation members now regularly come to our plenary sessions. Typically, our meetings include a plenary session on some large topic, like international strategy, or innovative teaching, or the undergraduate experience. And we have a range of committees that meet, covering the major academic areas, as well as finance and management and institutional policy. We also have joint committees with the Corporation.

One of the Overseers’ distinctive roles is to guide the visitation process. It’s one of the main ways to assure the University’s academic excellence. We oversee more than 50 visiting committees that review the various Schools, the FAS (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) academic departments, and some other areas. It gives us an opportunity to see things up close and help advise on academic programs and consider what most needs attention.

Gazette (to Reischauer): How does the Corporation do its business?

Reischauer: There are issues we deal with every year on a regular basis, like budgets, major capital projects, approving tuition, setting the endowment payout, reviewing the president’s performance. And then there are issues, like campaign planning or Allston, which can occupy a good deal of the Corporation’s attention for a few years and then be replaced by other issues.

One big change in how the Corporation operates has been the several new committees we’ve introduced this academic year. They’ve allowed us to deal with some of the more transactional work at the committee level, and freed up more of the full Corporation’s time for bigger-picture issues.

Gazette: How closely do the two boards interact?

Reischauer: This is something that’s been evolving over the last six or so years. When I was an Overseer, there wasn’t all that much interaction. We realized that if the boards interacted more, they’d learn more from each other and their combined efforts would better serve Harvard. This has proven very much to be the case. As Leila suggested, several of us on the Corporation now attend the Overseers’ plenary sessions. We work together on committees. We work together on Corporation searches. And we see more of each other informally, outside our regular meetings.

Fawaz: The boards interact considerably more than they did before. For instance, the decision for the Corporation to grow (from seven to 13 members) involved close discussions and cooperation between members of both boards. And since the decision was made, several Overseers have been part of the committee searching for new Corporation members. [Note: The Corporation expanded to 10 members as of last July, and is scheduled to grow to 13 within the next several years.]

As another example, Bob came to the board’s executive committee meeting in February, so we could all talk about how the new Corporation committees are doing so far. And there was an excellent dinner meeting of the Corporation and our executive committee in the fall, to talk about some of the most interesting things the Overseers have recently been learning through the visitation process.

Gazette: How important are informal relations between the two boards’ members?

Reischauer: There’s quite a bit of interaction informally, as we run into each other professionally or socially. Once you begin getting together and knowing each other in Cambridge, you start taking advantage of opportunities to see each other elsewhere. The boards attract fascinating people. They’re congenial, they all care about Harvard, they all have insights into different parts of the University, and it’s interesting to spend time together, whether you’re talking about Harvard or the Super Bowl.

Gazette: Could you say something about who’s on the Board of Overseers?

Fawaz: For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about being on the board. We’re elected by the alumni, and we’re connected with thousands of alumni all over the U.S. and around the world. The Overseers themselves come from all different specialties and backgrounds. In my time, we’ve had an ambassador to Portugal, an astronaut, the person who’s now secretary of education, the person who became head of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a world-class violinist. We’ve had scientists and writers and judges and doctors. We’ve had people leading all kinds of different organizations — colleges, museums, businesses, foundations — people who are doing some amazing things all over the world.

There’s also international diversity. For instance, one of the Overseers — the only one who’s knighted, I think — is from England, originally from the Middle East. I started in Africa, then grew up in Lebanon. One of our newest members is from Brazil. And the people from the United States come from all over the country, and they have an extraordinary range of interests.

There’s been change in the composition of the boards, as Harvard has been changing. And the boards have moved closer and closer together. We see it as a partnership.

Reischauer: Another strength of the Overseers is numbers; there are 30 of them. They’re connected to many alumni, faculty, administrators, students. All those eyes and ears are a great resource for the boards.

Four of us on the Corporation now are former Overseers. And that doesn’t include the president and the treasurer, who are both Corporation members and ex-officio Overseers. I think that’s helped bring us together.

Gazette: The recent governance review led to some major changes, among them expanding the Corporation membership and establishing new committees. Can you tell us more about those changes, and also how the joint committees between the Overseers and Corporation work?

Reischauer: Since September 2011, we’ve had new Corporation committees on finance, facilities, and governance. And there’s a new joint committee on alumni affairs and development. There are also several joint committees that have been in place for a number of years, including the joint committee on inspection, which is basically Harvard’s audit committee, the honorary degrees committee, which also has faculty on it, and the joint committee on appointments.

When we were thinking about the governance changes on the Corporation side, we created a task force that included several Overseers, who were very helpful to the process. What we were ultimately trying to do was to strengthen the capacity of the Corporation to provide useful guidance for the president and effective fiduciary oversight for the University. We concluded that the group of six fellows plus the president should be expanded, in part so we could have a robust committee structure that would better serve the needs of such a large and complex institution.

Now, with a larger group, we have strong committees in areas at the core of what University trustees need to focus on. We’ve been able to bring in some non-Corporation members, individuals who contribute expertise and practical experience beyond what the Corporation members themselves can bring to the table. Both the finance and facilities committees have current or former Overseers among their members.

Gazette: I understand some members of the governing boards are taking part in the library lecture series that Harvard is doing with Cambridge and Boston. How important is engagement in the broader community?

Fawaz: Essential. Each of us has different relationships, with faculty and administrators on campus, and with alumni in different places. And all of us have a strong interest in students. We were all students here once, and many Overseers have children who have come here or who have friends who’ve come here. Knowing all these people, staying in touch with them, talking with them about Harvard, it adds a great deal to what we know.

I’ve tried to make a special point of getting around during my year as president. I visited with nearly all the deans last summer, as I was thinking about the board’s agenda for the year. I’ve had any number of informal lunches and dinners with people who are somehow involved with Harvard. I went to the 375th anniversary celebration in October, with a big umbrella, and the Alumni Association invited me to their meetings in February. I’ve also tried to go to various performances and other special events: “Porgy and Bess,” Wynton Marsalis, things like that. I have Tommy Lee Jones and Arts First marked on my calendar for April. Those events are a great pleasure, and they’re also opportunities to see people informally and find out what’s on their minds. I know that many of my Overseer colleagues feel the same way and find all sorts of ways to engage.

Reischauer: When we were doing the governance review, we realized it was important to engage more in the activities of the University and the larger community, beyond what we do through our meetings. It was difficult because few of us on the Corporation lived in the Boston area. But one of the obligations when you serve is to participate as fully as possible in the life of the community.

We’ve been making a real effort to do that. And of course, it’s been made easier now that there are a number of Corporation members living around Boston. They bump into Harvard people at social gatherings, lectures, sports events, performances, and other things happening on campus. So, in a low-key way, we’re better able to get perspectives on what’s going on around Harvard, and what people are thinking, which is really valuable to all of us.

Gazette: Why did you decide to serve the University in this way?

Reischauer: To be asked to be part of the governance of the foremost university in the world is an opportunity few people would turn away from. Harvard can do more to shape the future of higher education than any other institution in the world. It can have an enormous impact on how our society confronts the very difficult challenges we face. It’s a fascinatingly complex organization that presents interesting questions of management. Helping Harvard fulfill its several missions a bit more effectively is a very satisfying way to spend one’s time. And it’s both enlightening and fun to interact with such a remarkable community of faculty, administrators, and students.

Gazette (to Fawaz): What’s your personal motivation?

Fawaz: It’s just a huge honor, and a way to try to be helpful. There are so many people here —  faculty, students, staff — who are doing extraordinary things, and you get to know them in a way you couldn’t otherwise. You also get to know the other Overseers and the Corporation members, who are also doing fascinating things. There is absolutely no incentive not to serve Harvard. It’s an institution that’s meant a lot to all of us, and I think for all of us it’s a way of trying to give something back.

Gazette: How has your view of the University changed since you began serving on the governing boards?

Reischauer: My involvement has given me a whole lot more appreciation for how challenging it is to manage a big, decentralized organization like this, where authority is so widely distributed, and where there’s so much to be gained by figuring out ways to have the parts working together.  I think all of us are invested in making it easier for students and faculty in one School or another to feel like part of the whole University.

I’ve also been impressed by the progress Harvard has made to strengthen its management, to rationalize many of its systems, and come to grips with the challenging circumstances created by the financial crisis.  It was really quite impressive to see how people came together under Drew’s leadership not just to weather the storm but to think about constructive changes for the long term.

Gazette (to Fawaz): How has the University changed as an institution over your service here?

Fawaz: I was a Ph.D. student in the ’70s. The History Department, where I studied, was 90 percent men, most of them older. It was really a different place. Now, we have a woman president of Harvard — probably one of the most exciting things that has happened in my years here. She dealt with the financial crisis with a real sense of calm and determination, and I greatly admire her leadership. And we have faculty and students who are very exciting and diverse.

Harvard is also much more focused now on doing things internationally. That’s very important. On the surface, the University seems not to change. But everywhere you look, there’s change going on — slowly, sometimes, but it’s real change.

Gazette: When you were both students here, if someone told you that you would one day be on the Board of Overseers or the Corporation, what would you have said to them?

Reischauer: I probably would’ve said, “What are they?” If you saw me then, when my hair was down to my shoulders and I rode a motorcycle, you would’ve realized how absurd that question would have been.

Gazette (to Fawaz): What would you have said?

Fawaz: You know, it would have been totally out of the question. I mean, the forefathers of Harvard are probably turning in their graves. But I’ve been welcomed and made to feel at home from day one.

Gazette: Do you have any advice for current students, how best to make use of their years here and be engaged in the Harvard community afterward?

Reischauer: My advice would be to take this opportunity to get as broad an education as you can, because you’ll find that the minute you walk out of Harvard Yard with your degree in hand, you will be pressured to specialize. Keep alive the curiosity that brought you to Harvard.

Fawaz: Maybe it’s not the first thing you’d think of, but I’d tell people to make the time to read.  You may not realize it when you’re a student, but this could be the last time in your life when you have the luxury of reading anything you want, anytime you want. You may never have the opportunity the same way again. Soon enough you’ll be reading for a job, or a presentation, or a meeting. It’s just such a luxury when you’re a student to read anything you want, anytime you want. And to take the courses you want.

Reischauer: I’d really encourage students to stay in touch after they graduate. There’s an unbelievably broad range of opportunities to remain engaged. Before I was an Overseer and then a Corporation member, I didn’t know a lot about all that was happening in Cambridge.

With everything online now, including the Gazette, reading what’s going on at Harvard is usually one of the first things I do when I get to work. Often I want to jump on a plane and come up here to listen to some talk … or get together with some professor who’s doing fascinating research on some topic that I don’t know a lot about but that looks like it’s going to affect the course of science, world peace, or whatever.

There are much better mechanisms for staying in touch and getting engaged now than in the past. Take advantage of them.