Whether in lawmaking, bureaucracy, business or other organizations, one of the best methods of thwarting corruption is transparency. Leaders are bound to make decisions others will not agree with, or even actively oppose. But people who make those decisions under the guise of secrecy, rather than in public, are likely to find their choices more heavily criticized. Decisions made without the reasonable chance to evaluate them — especially those made without broad participation across interested groups — are the most suspect.
The faculty teach us that here at Harvard Law School. From the democratic rhetoric of the Constitution to the most hypertechnical mechanisms of the bankruptcy code, the best laws of this nation are those that are clear in their objectives, unequivocal in their purpose and balanced in their application. We are inculcated with the further belief that even those laws we may disagree with should be evaluated and proposed in public fora, by public representatives. Only through rigorous public participation — made with complete information — can the governed fully bestow legitimacy on their leaders.
Universities, of course, are not democracies. When it comes to the decision making process, teachers are necessarily believed to be in a more prominent position than the taught. Students — a transient population obsessed with its short-term interests — are rarely thought to be the best decision makers. However, students are often the group that feels the impact of decisions most. How they respond to administrative decisions — and how their experiences and testimony may shape potential students’ decisions — is determined largely by the degree of transparency accorded by the administrative body. This is where HLS has a serious problem.
As reported in last week’s RECORD, the University administration, with the approval of outgoing Dean Robert Clark, chose not to make the Law School faculty — a group with tangible, long-term interests in the success of HLS and its endeavors — full democratic participants in the Dean selection process. In that same newspaper, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Joyce Curll declined to name the members of the admissions committee. The admissions committee arguably has the most impact on not only the Law School’s future, but on the lives of current and potential students as well. Certainly, problems of grossly indecent student behavior over the past two years point to the impact one incorrect admissions decision can have on the rest of the student body. While allowing current students a place at the table is currently out of the question (though an accepted practice at other law schools), the administration should make both the composition and decisionmaking processes of the committee clear to students.
Such maneuvering is the rule rather than the exception at HLS. Faculty meetings are where policy at the Law School is made, yet students have never been invited in the door, nor have minutes been provided. The Allston move is perhaps the most important decision being made about the Law School’s future in a generation, yet it remains shrouded in mystery, with students sitting on the sidelines. Governance marches on without us.
Admittedly, the blame cuts both ways. When the administration has held forums in the past, such as with the Allston issue, few students have attended. The students’ own representatives, who are tasked with representing our interests to the administration, have done little beyond holding bar reviews.
Positive examples do exist. The Committee on Healthy Diversity, for all its faults of logic, has not only incorporated a student voice, but held a well-attended public forum. In past years, the Law School Council helped to make great strides in quality of life, spurring the renovation of Hemenway Gymnasium.
We need more examples like this out there. The Law School may be run from the top down, but the impact of many decisions will flow from the bottom up. Keeping students informed — and keeping them involved where appropriate — would go a long way to making those decisions more palatable.
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