The Case of 'Professor' Kearns


On the inside flap of Doris Kearns's recently released book on Lyndon Johnson, a short blurb lists her academic qualifications. She graduated from Colby College in 1964, served as a White House fellow in 1967 and received a Ph.D from Harvard in 1968. The paragraph concludes, "She is now a professor in Government at Harvard University." The last part is a little vague--and with good reason.

After nearly a year of delay, the nomination of Kearns for a tenured professorship at Harvard has once again come under active consideration by Dean Rosovsky and the administration.

Sources in the Government department confirmed this week that the senior faculty met "fairly recently" to consider the Kearns decision and have passed it on to Rosovsky. "The dean is in the process of interpreting what we did," one tenured professor said.

Although two of the tenured professors willing to talk about the outcome of the meeting on Kearns said the department had "passed" the nomination, a third denied that the faculty had approved it, indicating that the department's actions were somewhat more qualified than outright approval.

Several other faculty members called the situation "very confused" and "extremely delicate," but declined to elaborate. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53, chairman of the department, Rosovsky and Kearns all refused to comment.

The most probable scenario for the meeting, according to several junior faculty, is that the department did not take a new vote on the Kearns decision, but decided to let stand its original October 1974 decision approving her candidacy.

Since last spring when the department voted to hold up her case, Kearns has one-by-one torn down the barricades blocking her promotion. She canceled plans to co-author her book with Richard N. Goodwin, finally finishing her long-awaited book, "Lyndon Johnson and The American Dream."

She settled the publishers' law suits over her book and ended the unseemly publicity about her relationship with Goodwin, whom she has now married.

Another encouraging sign about Kearns's chances for tenure is the favorable reception senior faculty have given her book. "I think very highly of it," Don K. Price, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, said last Monday, echoing the sentiments of other professors who called it a "great book" and an "excellent institutional analysis."

But what may be complicating the situation, according to one junior member of the department, is that Rosovsky may have asked for the department members to write revised letters of recommendation to the dean, advising him of their position on Kearns. Each senior member wrote a statement on Kearns when her nomination first came up.

Rosovsky may also have decided to convene a new ad hoc committee of experts from outside the department to consider the worthiness of Kearns for tenure. In normal cases, Rosovsky puts together a committee to advise him on the appointment after studying the letters of recommendation from the department, examining her work and taking testimony from anyone opposing the nominee. Rosovsky has declined to specify whether the Kearns appointment must still go through an ad hoc committee.

Despite the delay in University Hall, however, the dean and president have rarely overruled a department in its choice for a member. If Kearns is denied tenure when the debate comes to an end--probably later this spring--it will have been at the initiative of the administration, a step that would again put Harvard at the center of academic controversy and may shake Kearns out of her version of the American Dream.

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