Searching for Deans at Harvard

I have been a member of the faculty of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government since 2000.

On November 5, 2014, Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, sent to members of the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) community a letter informing them, us, of the search for a new dean. Candid counsel was being sought from faculty, students, staff, alumni, and knowledgeable others. But, the advisory group for the search had already been established. It consisted of nine senior faculty from HKS, and four faculty from other parts of the University

One day later I sent to President Faust a letter that raised questions about the search process. In particular, I wondered why the only advisory group members from HKS were senior faculty. After all, the Harvard Kennedy School has 188 faculty, the large majority of whom are not senior. Moreover, HKS is a community that includes, in addition to faculty, more than one thousand students who are enrolled full time in its master’s degree programs. It further includes some 470 staff, who are critical to the School’s mission. I therefore suggested to President Faust that she might diversify the advisory group to include, for example, some faculty who were other than senior, and at least one or two students and one or two staff. The new HKS dean will, after all, lead not only senior faculty, but everyone affiliated with the Kennedy School.

President Faust replied to my letter, thanking me for my views, but reiterating that while she hoped to benefit from input from a range of people, she would continue to rely on the advisory group as originally constituted.

The purpose of this piece is not to extend this exchange, or to focus on HKS in particular. It is to suggest that the process of searching for all Harvard’s deans’ should be changed. In her letter of November 5th President Faust wrote that by establishing an advisory committee composed in the main of HKS senior faculty, she was following Harvard’s usual practice. My argument is that it’s time for this usual practice, this past practice, to change.

It is now widely agreed that search processes are fairer and better if they are led by groups that are diverse. In fact, in October 2014, Harvard Senior Vice-Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, Judith Singer, distributed a document titled “Faculty Development & Diversity.” While this document pertains obviously only to faculty, its conclusions are broadly applicable. In particular, search committees and, presumably, advisory committees should include members “from diverse backgrounds, who may have helpful – and divergent – ideas that can enhance efforts to recruit and evaluate candidates…. Research shows that committees of individuals with diverse perspectives make better decisions.” (Italics mine.) This conclusion has been by now widely confirmed, yet again in a recent book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, co-authored by Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein: “When dissent and diversity are present and levels of participation are high, groups are likely to do a lot better.”

Of course this raises the question of what constitutes diversity. Harvard, along with many other institutions, tends to think of diversity primarily in terms of women and minorities. (In this case diversity could also be construed to mean inclusion of faculty from other Harvard Schools.) But, especially as it applies to the search for a dean, to the search for a leader of the whole, the word “diversity” should be much more broadly defined. Advisory groups or committees charged with assisting Harvard presidents in their searches for new deans should include, at a minimum, a few faculty who are other than senior, plus some students and some staff.

Time has come to ditch Harvard’s past practice in searches for new deans. Time has come to update past practice so that it takes into account the latest research. Time has come for the process to be modernized and democratized – to be less exclusive and more inclusive.



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