Politics: In Defense Of Doris Kearns

Everyone loves gossip, and Harvard University is no exception. For the last two years the focus of much of the campus gossip has been Doris H. Kearns, associate professor of Government and former White House Fellow. Harvard professors and students have joined national magazines and newspapers in speculation--What was her relationship with LBJ? Is she marrying Richard Goodwin? What is going on with her Basic Books contract?

Unfortunately some people on campus have confused a curiosity about Kearns's private life with a criticism of her qualifications as a Government professor at Harvard. As a result, the tenure which she was offered last October is now in jeopardy. Anti-Kearns undercurrents are noticeable among Government Department heavies who have questioned her academic "seriousness," her "intelligence" and her overall commitment to academia. One person closely related to the Government Department refused to discuss the Kearns case because it was "so political."

When Kearns was offered tenure last October, there was no doubt as to her academic "seriousness" or her "intelligence." The vote in the Government Department was unanimous in its recommendation for tenure. This recommendation was approved by Dean Rosovsky and the ad hoc committee selected by Bok to review her qualifications. It was somewhere in limbo between Rosovsky and President Bok when the news of the contract dispute with Basic Books hit the press. In a completely unprecedented move, the Government Department voted to renege on her nomination for tenure and to postpone final consideration of her appointment until the Fall.

Prof. Harvey C. Mansfield '53, chairman of the Government Department, intimated in December that he was not at all certain that Kearns would get tenure, "You don't have tenure until you have it." Moreover, he added, "These are lean years. Many associate professors will not become tenured professors this year." Although he refused to specify when Kearns's tenure would be voted on, Mansfield hinted that there might be a special meeting at the end of January.

The consensus at the Government Department is that Kearns will get tenure, but that it won't be easy. As one graduate student in Government commented, "The knives are raised in the Government Department. All they needed was something tangible to grab onto in order to kick her out. Now they have the contract dispute to point to." One junior professor of the Government Department said: "She'll probably get tenure, but it will be more a matter of pride than anything else. The Government Department does not want to go back on its word."

It is anomalous that Doris Kearns, whose course is described by the Confi-guide as "one of the finest courses" in the Government Department [and who is universally admired by students and faculty alike], is now having any problems getting tenure. There is no doubt that she is "intelligent." Her manuscript was well received by both the Government Department and by Rosovsky's ad hoc committee. Any doubt as to its authenticity was dispelled last May by Mansfield himself when he announced that four scholars close to Kearns had corroborated that the manuscript was completely her work product. The same manuscript which was approved by the Government Department will be published by Basic Books this May.

Equally important as her academic qualifications is her energetic commitment to undergraduate education and life at Harvard. Kearns was a resident tutor in Dunster House during the 1969 strike. This was a particularly difficult time to be a tutor because of the important role the houses played in organizing the strike. Roger Rosenblatt, former Dunster House Master and present editor of the New Republic praised Kearns for her devotion to students in a time of crisis:

Doris was the only tutor in Dunster House who was with me every night until three or four in the morning with as many as 300 students in the Dining Hall. In time of crisis where so many ran away from the disruption of their scholastic life, Doris accepted her responsibility as a tutor. I will never forget the gratitude I felt.

A fellow tutor in Dunster House described her as "extraordinarily warm," and incessantly available to students: "I often knew her to discuss the personal problems of students in the middle of the night."

Kearns's commitment to Harvard has not been completely academic. She was actively involved in the Kennedy Institute of Politics as the co-chairperson of the fellow selection committee. During the 1970 strike she was active in Peace Action, an organization which placed students in the campaigns of liberal anti-war candidates. The fact that Kearns is essentially a political being enhances her qualities as a teacher of the current American political scene. Her popular American Presidency course, Government 154, is filled with pointed anecdotes about her life in Washington and her activities on the campaign trail with Sargent Shriver during the McGovern Presidential Campaign of 1972.

Students' reactions to Government 154 are enthusiastic. Allison Graham '75 said, "She is by far the best leacturing professor I had in four years as well as the most accessible." Carol Leff, the head section person for the last two years said that Kearns's course had been filled all three years: "It has a very high steady enrollment. Her reputation as a good teacher proceeds her. Many people ask me whether she will teach it this year."

There seem to be two major criticisms of Kearns as a professor. First, some students have complained that Government 154 is "whirlwind historicism" because it whips through 200 years of American history. However, concentrating in depth on specific moments in history would miss the basic thrust of the course, which is to examine the evolving structure of the presidency, throughout American history. Secondly, Kearns is criticized for being overextended. For the last two years she has been so committed to outside activities that she has not been as accessible as before. Nonetheless she is still more accessible and approachable than most members of the faculty.

It is difficult to pinpoint the antipathy against Kearns. Perhaps there is a bit of the Eric Segal jealousy phenomenon involved. The consensus at Yale was that Segal would have received tenure had he not been a little too successful with Love Story. Kearns has dined with presidents and is friendly with the elite of the journalist, literary, political and academic society. Maybe this cosmopolitan aspect of her life has made her seem somehow less devoted to the rigors and seriousness of academic existence.

Then there are those who have insinuated that Kearns's relationship with Goodwin means she is "dominated" by him. The notion of Kearns, a White House fellow who has written a book, ghostwritten a presidential autobiography, and taught a Harvard course for several years, as "unliberated" is laughable. Moreover, it's nobody's business.

The most powerful attack on Kearns' getting tenure revolves around her contract dispute with Basic Books. Many of her friends were baffled by the controversy. Their general feeling was "Why did she blow it? She had it made. Now they've got a reason for not giving her tenure."

Kearns wanted to write the book with Goodwin because she thought it would be a "better" book, but Basic Books did not want her to change it to joint authorship at such a late date. If she had had any immoral, machiavellian goals in mind, she could have waited the short time until she was approved for tenure to accomplish her allegedly sinister deeds. By breaking the contract when she did, Kearns is guilty, perhaps, of misjudgment, nothing more.

In sum, Doris Kearns is charismatic, admired, intelligent, interesting, a great teacher, and in all aspects an asset to the university. It is absurd that she might not be given tenure because of a legal dispute with a publishing company of because of vague misgivings that she is not "serious" enough. The 1974-75 Confi-guide bemoaned the fact that Doris Kearns might someday voluntarily leave the university:

She stated in her biographical blurb that she hoped to enter politics once a friendly administration is in the White House. When and if she does leave, the Government Department will lose one of its brightest stars and one of its finest courses. But no one thought that Kearns would ever be forced to leave. Hopefully, the Government Department when it votes this month will vote to give its "brightest star" the tenure she deserves