Newly arrived Professor of Government Roderick L. MacFarquhar denies it, but his Harvard tenure was really a fall-back job.
"Fall-back is the wrong word. I was a politician," he comments, and "all politicians have other careers, which some have to return to more abruptly than they would like."
In fact, the former MP from Meriden, England (just east of Birmingham) has only one semester of teaching experience under big belt. For the last 30 years, he's been spending his time in academic research, journalism, and Parliament, moving from one to the next.
"It may sound cold-blooded," he says, but he chose China as an academic specialty to break into journalism to break into politics.
"I said to myself, 'What could I know about that 500 other journalists don't already know?"' he recalls. "The only place that taught not just the language but the government was Harvard."
So MacFarquhar got his Master's at Harvard, wrote for the London Daily Telegraph, founded The China Quarterly, worked for BBC-TV, won a series of research fellowships, and gained a seat in Parliament in 1974.
Easy as one, two, three.
There's no telling where MacFarquhar's political career would have gone, but two factors landed him at Harvard.
The first was his abandonment of the Labour Party. In the United States, he points out, politicians can switch parties and still run on personal charm. But in Britain, the populace votes for a party, he says, not a person.
So when MacFarquhar signed on in 1979 with the Social Democrats, a centrist spin-off group, he took quite a political risk. But he says he had to. "The Labour Party had a great tradition of reform in Britain, and now they're destroying themselves.... They're going very far to the left in manner which the British people, who are very sensible and moderate, will not tolerate."
"What we [Social Democrats] were trying to do was appeal to national unity against the increasing polarization between Left and Right," says MacFarquhar, who had served on several prestigious panels under Labour governments in the 1970s.
The gamble would have paid off, he continues, were it not for the Falkland Islands War of 1982. "Instead of taking votes from all parties, we were only able to take them from one [Labour]," he remarks. "We succeeded in getting almost as many votes as the Left."
"When he's studying Chinese politics, which is organized in factions, he can use his experience with factions in British politics," says John K. Fairbank, Higginson Professor of History, Emeritus, who taught MacFarquhar in the early 1950s.
In the spring of 1982, MacFarquhar had already spent a semester as a visiting lecturer at Harvard, testing the waters in case of political defeat.
"Eighty-two was an attempt by me to decide whether--if I had to choose a career other than politics, as the broad masses decided--teaching was something I wanted to do," he says.
His answer was apparently yes. Meanwhile, Harvard's Government Department started considering' MacFarquhar for tenure, hoping to replace Harvard's aging giants in the field.
At least four of Harvard's prominent East Asian specialists have recently reached or are nearing retirement age.
"He's done some remarkable work academically," says Fairbank. "He's not just a politician."
In fact, Fairbank adds, his starting the China Quarterly, "the leading worldwide academic journal on Communist China," and his editing of two volumes of the Cambridge History of Communist China "indicate his leadership" in the field.
As MacFarquhar ran for Parliament on the Social Democrat slate in 1983 from the Derbyshire South district, the Harvard Government Department was in the unusual position of rooting against him. "I told him I hoped he would lose, but it was just a joke," says Fairbank.
The Derbyshire voters didn't think so, and placed him third in a three-way race. 16.8 percent behind the leader, one Edwina Currie, a schoolteacher and Birmingham city councilor.
In the academic job market, "he could have gone almost anywhere," Fairbank surmises, but Harvard managed to snag him.
The Brit is now working on the "Cambridge History"; a book called "The History of Chinese Revolution"; and a third and final volume to his series, "Origins of the Cultural Revolution."
This past summer, MacFarquhar visited China to research, pouring over library books and interviewing the principals--something he couldn't do for 17 years preceding 1972.
"They wouldn't give me a visa," he says. "Someone [in China] felt they didn't like what I said about China. Today, of course, they have re-evaluated their history and now agree with what I've been saving all along."