Harvard Corp. to nearly double size

On Monday, Harvard announced a doubling of the size of its board of directors, “the President and Fellows of Harvard College”, from seven to thirteen.

By contrast, the MIT Corporation has 74 active members.

The Harvard Corporation, which is 374 years old, will also add term limits for its members — previously, members could serve indefinitely.

The Harvard and MIT Corporations are not quite directly analagous, though. Harvard also has a Board of Overseers, which has 30 members. Together, President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Board of Overseers will be 47 members, which is still dwarfed by MIT’s 74.

Secretary of the MIT Corporation Kirk D. Kolenbrander said that the structure of the MIT Corporation is “widely envied” by other universities.

In contrast, Harvard has come under fire in recent years for shortcomings in its financial oversight, and has been criticized for its governance.

“The Corporation has not functioned optimally with its small size,” said Phyllis Keller, a former Harvard dean. “This is a very sensible change and definitely a step forward.”

MIT is very proud of its corporate governance system, along with its 31 visiting committees. These committees represent a range of groups at MIT, including each academic department, as well as the Dean for Student Life and the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER).

The typical size for a governing board of a private research university is about 35 members, and most universities have term limits, according to Richard Chait, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and a national expert on higher education governance.

Harvard “has had some setbacks that quite properly prompted the Corporation to be a little more self-reflective,” said Chait, who advised the university’s governance review committee. “Harvard, like many institutions, recognized that the world is a little more complex these days for research universities than would have been the case a century or two ago.”

The changes come after a year-long review of the Harvard Corporation, which has been criticized by some faculty and alumni for its secrecy and because its concentrated power is wielded by a select group whose members, chosen among themselves, have served for unlimited terms.

“In the past, some people could hang on for a very long time,” said Morton Keller. “There have been a few cases of people on the board who just don’t really pull their oar. Now they are trying to make the Corporation a more effective body.”

Kolenbrander said that MIT was not aware of significant criticism of its governance process, though the MIT Corporation is always looking for ways to improve.

In an op-ed published in the Boston Globe last December, professors Fred Abernathy and Harry Lewis urged some Harvard Corporation members to resign, calling the board a “dangerous anachronism” that “failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities.”

“It is too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be,” the professors wrote.

Lewis praised Harvard for taking a thorough look at its governance and making the necessary changes to modernize.

“It’s a very dramatic change for a structure that’s been around for more than 300 years,” said Lewis, former dean of Harvard College. “I think they are very much to be congratulated.”

Much of this article is derived from a Boston Globe article by Tracy Jan.