Tenure: Notes on Becoming a Baron(ess)

Kearns Hasn't Published, But She Probably Won't Perish

"The government of the Government Department is very feudal," Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53, chairman of the department, said last month. "The king is weak and the barons are strong, with the system designed to promote the common good of finding the best possible barons without promoting the selfish good of each one more than is necessary."

By "selfish good" Mansfield was referring to the desires of some professors to stock the department with professors of their own scholarly persuasion or perhaps to judge candidates on the basis of personal or political biases. "It's silly to deny that politics has any effect," Mansfield said, "but overall the process is remarkably straight and fair."

In many ways the tenured professor is like a baron. Once titled, he has enormous prestige in the academic community, few restrictions on his work and the security of a guaranteed income for life.

And when the department meets to consider nominating someone for a permanent appointment, the discussions must be thorough, because, as Mansfield said, "once a professor is accepted, he becomes infinitely wise and it is no longer possible to raise the questions that were raised when he was discussed."

The department last year considered at least two radically different tenure cases. After little debate, it cleared the way for the return of Edward C. Banfield, a controversial urban affairs expert who left Harvard in 1971 for the equivalent of a University professorship at Penn; and in several, long-winded sessions, it considered the promotion of Doris Kearns, first approving her for tenure and then postponing the decision until she finishes her first book. She says that will be this fall.

The Gov faculty also appointed three selection committees: one to study the Kearns nomination, one to look for a professor in constitutional law and a third one that Mansfield said he couldn't talk about, "but was no great secret."

According to sources in the department, however, the third committee is looking for someone to occupy the chair that was held by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger '50. That seat, which is paid for by both the Government Department and the Center for International Affairs, has been held open--partly out of courtesy--since Kissinger left in 1969.

Activity scheduled for this year includes locating an assistant professor to teach Gov 124, "The Supreme Court," and searching for someone to replace Stephen D. Krasner, an assistant professor in international relations who is leaving after the fall term. Mansfield said the department may also find itself with a new chair in Japanese politics, as some of the money the Japanese government has given Harvard will probably be used for that purpose.

When the department meets to consider appointments, the Gov faculty often divides along methodological, institutional and political lines. "People do have those opinions and tend to prefer to hire people with the same opinions as themselves, but we would very quickly go down the drain if we used similarity of opinion as the main criterion," Mansfield said.

The department, however, is pretty homogeneous politically and is perhaps a little more conservative than the faculty generally. Mansfield agreed that there is no "wild-eyed radical or similar conservative" in the department but said he didn't think the lack of political extremes is a problem.

The scholars the department considers for tenure are never called in for an interview or asked to fill out applications listing their qualifications. "We can get away with that for junior faculty," Mansfield said, but for permanent appointments, "it would make them look like beggars and us like sovereign judges."

Instead the process is kept "collegial." When a search committee is interested in a professor, it begins an elaborate game of cat and mouse to find out if he's "moveable." They make discreet inquiries to some of his friends or approach him informally.

"Sometimes you hear stories, can infer this from his family circumstances or tell if he's at a manifestly inferior university," Mansfield said, noting that in most cases, "some members of the department know him quite well already."

Aside from the outsiders, the department also has an obligation to pass on all the associate professors after they have been here three and a half years. Most are denied tenure. In those cases, Mansfield said, he calls in the junior faculty member and delivers the verdict "with some necessary sugar coating, which doesn't really fool the candidate but makes the experience easy."

Though the discussion is supposed to center on issues of scholarship, Mansfield said he feels that confidentiality of the meetings is necessary to insure candor by the participants. "Academics are good at telling someone their faults when they are inferior or in print," he said, "but on a face-to-face basis they tend to get either very angry or very inarticulate, and I think you could see this in 1969 and '70."