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John Harvard's Journal

Developing Deans, Calendar Consensus

July-August 2007

Beyond what he characterized last October as a “formidable agenda” of substantive work, Derek Bok pursued less publicized ways to improve Harvard’s operations, from the grooming of future deans to the seemingly mundane matter of aligning the schools’ academic calendars.

In his October briefing, Bok referred to academic leadership as a “strange and baffling phenomenon.” Scholars are not selected for their management skills, and academic institutions do little succession planning or development for potential deans or other senior administrators. Too often, he said, those appointed to such positions are thrown into the job with no training or support—as he was (Bok became Harvard Law School dean at age 37). The issue was timely because Bok’s successor would have to appoint new deans of arts and sciences, medicine, and design, and at least one vice president.

Accordingly, Bok took two actions. To address the problem of “bench strength,” he asked three deans to explore ways of “developing some potential successors” and of providing future deans with orientation materials, briefings, and even continuing advisory services while they are in office. The effort was led by the Business School’s Jay O. Light; that school appoints senior associate deans (for curriculum, faculty development, external relations, and international development) who help manage the institution and form a pool of faculty members experienced in administration. Working with Light were the Graduate School of Education’s Kathleen McCartney and the Radcliffe Institute’s Drew Gilpin Faust. Once the latter was named president-elect in February, Bok said, the need for any formal report from the group disappeared; instead, its findings are directly relevant to Faust’s searches and her work with her eventual decanal team.

Meanwhile, to advance the pending searches, Bok organized advisory committees and winnowed lists of candidates for each position, seeking a dozen or so prospects for his eventual successor’s consideration. (As her move into Massachusetts Hall on July 1 neared, Faust indicated that she was proceeding rapidly in her searches, taking advantage of the work Bok had initiated; see "Arts and Sciences Transitions" and "Brevia" for early results.)

In addition, Bok circulated a May 2 letter to the community soliciting views on moving Harvard toward a common calendar, with classes beginning in early September, exams ending before the December break, coordinated Thanksgiving and spring vacations, and a late-May end to the academic year (including Commencement). The president, provost, and deans embraced such a proposal in 2004, but deferred implementation while curriculum reviews proceeded. Now, Bok said, the deans, Overseers, and particularly the Undergraduate Council (whose constituents want a winter break unencumbered by exams) have again expressed support for such a calendar change. All mention the benefits to students of cross-registering in courses at different Harvard schools (impractical now) and at MIT; opportunities for professors to teach in other Harvard schools; and increased options to study abroad, to work or intern in the summer, and to schedule athletic competitions. (For details about the new calendar adopted on June 6, see www.harvardmagazine.com/go/calendar_reform.)

Last September, Bok moved to change deadlines for applications to the College (see “Adios, Early Admissions,” November-December 2006, page 68). By taking on another such issue late in his tenure, he spared his successor a headache, while making good use of the political capital at his disposal during his interim presidency—as he had expressed a willingness to do.