The annual elections for Harvard’s Board of Overseers–the University’s 30-member governing body chosen by alumni–are usually straightforward affairs. A group of five insiders get a seat on the inside; pats-on-the-back and congratulations are exchanged.
So it has been for the past two decades. Every elected Overseer has been nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association, while those not officially sponsored–petition candidates who must gather hundreds of signatures just to appear on the ballot–have been entirely unsuccessful. Not since Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1989 has a petition-nominated candidate been elected as a Harvard Overseer. Even Barack Obama–yes, the president–lost his petition candidacy in 1991.
Given these formidable odds, one would logically ask (and many have): Why have we bothered to run as petition candidates in what has essentially been a popularity contest?
As any political science professor can attest, effective governance–whether on campus or on Capitol Hill–requires outside input. And while wise universities have provided alumni with avenues for real influence, those concerned with real improvement (rather than obsessive collegiality) have seized this opportunity. Impassioned graduates across the country should give back not just with donations, but by engaging directly in the functioning of their alma maters.
Universities are in danger of foundering on the shoals of “political correctness”–the notion that certain areas of life and thought allow for only one acceptable point of view. This culture, beginning in the mid-1980s and still going strong, has provided the impetus for all-too-many university administrations to punish students, and even faculty, for expressing “offensive” thoughts in controversial areas, especially those touching race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other hot-button contemporary topics.
The “PC” mentality has also resulted in Star Chamber-like disciplinary tribunals that lack due process and often enforce officially mandated political views. The fact that, in some institutions of higher education, a student or faculty member found to have deviated from acceptable speech can be sentenced to “sensitivity training,” says it all. And, of course, campus tribunals judge students not only for politically incorrect actions, but sometimes for more ordinary claimed infractions, and in such cases the lack of fair procedures likewise is felt.
That is why we, one conservative and one liberal (these issues being apolitical), are running for Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the university’s second most powerful (and only elected) governing body. There have been reams written over the past 25 years about widely perceived destructive trends on both the academic and the administrative sides of our campuses. One of us chronicled a large number of these problems in The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, soon followed by the creation of the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
But despite the public’s wide recognition that curricula and academic standards have been watered down, and academic freedom and fair disciplinary procedures have been eroded, little has changed in the nationwide campus culture that enables these phenomena. Indeed, Harvard’s “Administrative Board” that adjudicates charges brought against students, remains the single worst such tribunal in the country in terms of its lack of fairness and of rational fact-finding and adjudicatory procedures.
University governance, by and large, has remained the domain of the academy’s increasingly bureaucratized administration and famously quiescent trustees, interested in tranquility at all costs and therefore appeasing those who make the most noise. On many campuses, including Harvard, speech restrictions are justified by campus lawyers’ advice that it is better to deter students and even professors from uttering words or ideas some feel are insulting than to risk a lawsuit–even a frivolous one–by a person who feels harassed or offended by comments, which if said off the campus would clearly be protected by the First Amendment.
It’s no coincidence that intellectual horizons have narrowed in this environment. Broad survey liberal arts courses are being phased out at Harvard and all over the country, replaced by ever-narrower subjects reflecting not so much what educated students should know, but what faculty members prefer to teach within their narrow interests. And without a broad liberal education, how can today’s students be the informed citizens and prudent leaders of tomorrow’s world?
Yet the students are hardly to blame when they approach education as a means to make money; after all, when tuition and fees are annually hiked by the thousands, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the liberal arts ethos. Even in the current economic meltdown, Harvard has announced a tuition hike of three-and-a-half percent.
The time has arrived for those who care deeply for their alma maters to check their universities’ governance rules and find opportunities for degree-holder democracy to work its magic–something in addition to writing a check every year. The governance of American higher education shouldn’t be the sole province of overly compliant trustees, overbearing administrators and overloaded faculty. With our efforts in the April Overseers election, we hope to encourage all active alumni to give back by taking back their universities.Download file "Meanwhile, At Harvard ..."