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."

The first intrusions into this collegial and somewhat clubby process, however, are coming from affirmative action--the government program that requires "documentary evidence" that a search was made for qualified women and minority candidates to fill each vacancy. It was in light of this new program that the department considered Doris Kearns for tenure last year.

Professors in the Government Department refer to Kearns as a "very special person." And everything about her tenure case has been unusual, an exception to the traditional standards of tenure. If her appointment eventually goes through, she will be the second woman in the department's history, one of the few to rise directly from an assistant professorship to a tenured chair, the department's youngest member, and the only person the Gov faculty ever approved before publication of at least one scholarly work.

Kearns is often called "brilliant" and "disarming," able to win over almost anyone after a few minutes of conversation. Her post in the Johnson Administration, which gave her access to enough intimate details of the president's life to put together a psychobiography, came quite unexpectedly, shortly after she co-authored an article for The New Republic on how to dump Johnson in '68.

While at Harvard her courses--especially Gov 154, "The American Presidency,"--have been very popular. Her lectures were peppered with anecdotes about Johnson and her midnight swims with him; in the background lay the rumors--which she at one time substantiated--that Johnson was in love with her and wanted to marry her.

Although her teaching received a lot of praise, when it came time for the department to vote on her tenure, she had not met what Mansfield called "the definite and reasonable requirement of publishing at least one scholarly work." She asked the department to postpone consideration from the fall of '73 until spring '74. Acting on the basis of a partially completed manuscript of her Johnson book, the department decided in October 1974 to recommend her tenure to the Dean of the Faculty.

Phyllis Keller, assistant dean of the Faculty, confirmed that the original recommendation was unanimous. Under the University's affirmative action program, Keller now sees everything connected with an appointment, including the "confidential" letters that each member of the department must send to. Rosovsky setting out his views on a tenure candidate.

Everything was going well for Kearns; after she received departmental approval, an ad hoc committee under Rosovsky studied the recommendation and, according to two reports, reacted favorably. But just as what Mansfield called "the highest prize in a man's life" was within her grasp, Kearns became involved in legal and romantic affairs that have seriously hurt her reputation here and sidetracked her appointment.

In June she broke with her original publisher, Basic Books, and announced plans to revise the book, co-authoring it with her current lover, Richard Goodwin. Goodwin is a freelance presidential adviser with many enemies in government and academic circles. Kearn's announcement prompted a suit from Basic Books alleging breach of contract, a caustic editorial in The Wall Street Journal, and the revelation that the manuscript she submitted to the Gov department had already been edited, for about $8000, by fiction writer Michael Rothschild.

Erwin Glikes, her editor at Basic, a division of Harper and Row, Inc., expressed bitterness about the switch. He charged that Kearns was being "hurt and badly used" by Goodwin. The suit from Glikes's publishing house is still unresolved, he said, and the lawyers for each side have just begun to discuss it.

The editorial, which one Journal editor confided was aimed basically at Goodwin, said the co-authorship would turn a "piece of scholarship" into "polemic." It asked whether Harvard would grant tenure "on the basis of scholarship the author would never publish."

In two May meetings precipitated in part by the editorial, the senior Gov faculty gave a definite "no" to the Journal's question.

According to one source in the department, the disclosures dissolved away Kearns's unanimous support; a small contingent, including Judith N. Shklar, the only tenured woman in the department, called the publicity irrelevant and said the faculty should stand behind its decision, and a second group maintained the department had made a mistake and should admit it by reversing itself. But the great majority of Gov faculty remained somewhere in the middle--generally favorable to Kearns but concerned that the book would not turn out to be the scholarly work they had reviewed.

Mansfield announced after the second meeting that four scholars who worked closely with Kearns on the book had absolved her of any charges of plagiarism from Rothschild, the fiction editor, but that, for reasons the department would not specify, consideration of her appointment would be postponed until the fall.

Privately, however, the department sent Kearns a letter telling her that she must drop her plan to co-author the book, return to the original manuscript and show "evidence of publication" such as galleys or proofs before her appointment can go through.

As one source said, "the ball is in her court now," and the department will wait as long as it takes for Kearns to finish the book. If she follows through on the department's advice, she'll probably get tenure, the source said.

In June, Goodwin, also a former aide to Johnson, said he was dropping out of the project so he would not "harm the women I love" and to "dismiss the totally absurd and irrational doubts that it wasn't her own work."

"If a woman gets involved in a situation, people assume she is being dominated. It's incredible, but that's what it's all about," he said. He didn't mention that he wasn't acting voluntarily, however, but within the strictures of the Government Department's request.

Kearns and Goodwin were unavailable for comment in early September, failing to answer phone messages. In Washington, Goodwin's answering service would only say that the couple were "away" and Kearns's answering service in Cambridge said only that she had been "in touch." A spokesman for her agent, Sterling Lord, said the agency had also been trying to reach Kearns for several days. There was no answer at Goodwin's Cape Cod hideaway.

But continued publicity, especially an article that appeared in The Washington Post in August quoting Kearns on her romance with Goodwin, has made a few Government professors uneasy. "These aren't the kinds of things that it's usual for someone to say in print," a professor, who asked not to be identified, said. And he called the way Kearns talks about her relationship with Johnson "shameful."

"She'll never again be able to gain intimacy with the subjects she studies," he added.

Kearns has taken the year off to finish the book and iron out her personal problems. (It is her second leave in three years.) She is on probation now. If she had kept her name out of the newspapers and waited several months before announcing a change of plans, she would have been beyond the reach of the department. Instead she was caught in the twilight area between the time the department votes tenure and the administration and the Corporation approve it. The impetus for the May reconsideration reportedly came from the administration, and it is between the dean and the president that the nomination may face its most serious obstacle.

To Dean Rosovsky, tenure is not very feudal. An economist, Rosovsky said the process was much more like a trust, with each professor a shareholder. The responsibility of each member is to find "the best possible person in the world in any field."

As dean of the Faculty, Rosovsky handles the administrative side of permanent appointments, gathering the opinions of an ad hoc committee and making his own decisions about the candidate.

The ad hoc committee--composed of professors from Harvard and other schools--usually meets for one day. "I sort of orchestrate this part," Rosovsky said. The committee calls witnesses, including anyone who has opposed the candidate in the department meeting. "We make sure the negative side is fully heard," he said.

Although Rosovsky declined to comment on specific cases ("I do not think these things should be part of the public discussion"), he said that slightly less than one in five candidates fail to make it past the ad hoc committee.

According to University guidelines for the ad hoc committees, the department must submit, along with other documents, a lengthy recommendation for an appointment and evidence that it has conducted an open search for "all possible candidates," especially for women and minorities.

The ad hoc committee doesn't exactly vote, but advises Rosovsky, who said he can always tell "if the vibes are right." When he's satisfied, he sends the nomination on to President Bok, who considers the appointment and if he likes it, sends it to the corporation, whose approval is usually automatic.

Although the president of the University rarely rejects a nomination, Rosovsky said that Bok has taken longer to approve appointments and in a few cases has considered them "more seriously" than past presidents.

In the Doris Kearns case, the nomination appears to have been somewhere between Rosovsky and Bok when the news about the Kearns book broke and Rosovsky organized and attended the two special departmental meetings.

The tenure process--which Rosovsky said judges candidates primarily on "scholarly output" and "good teaching performance"--was designed to consider candidates with long records in academia and whose published work is often the most important "input" into the decision. Here the system was faced with a talented 31-year-old woman who had only one, incomplete manuscript to show for her years at Harvard. In the back of everyone's mind, one professor said, was the psychological effect of the affirmative action program, making her appoinment more likely and helping her to obtain a unanimous recommendation in October.

But after the events of last spring, the Gov Department and the administration were having second thoughts. Their subsequent actions indicate they don't feel they made a mistake in approving Kearns, and still consider her a brilliant, if eccentric, scholar who deserves a chair here. But they made an exception to the rules of the game by not waiting for her completed manuscript. Now they're holding off to fit her appointment into the more traditional pattern of tenure.

If it's any consolation to Kearns, once she wins Corporation approval, she will achieve golden stature at Harvard. Even after Banfield left a tenured chair for a higher-paying post at Penn, the department welcomed him back without delay when he wanted to return. As one professor said, "If God takes one trip into nell, he's no less holy when he returns; he is still God, right?