Tenure Bids Show Dean's Plan Faces Obstacles
The failed tenure bids of two prominent junior professors reflect biases inherent in Harvard's appointments process that threaten to frustrate a highly publicized plan to promote more junior professors to tenure.
That is the opinion of a broad array of scholars who said in interviews during the past two weeks that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will see its strength fade in the years ahead unless the tenure process is made responsive to Dean A. Michael Spence's stated aim of increasing the rate of internal promotion.
The University's use of outside scholars to evaluate tenure candidates favors older professors who have established wide reputations at other schools, the academics said.
In addition, although department members may sympathize with Spence's goal, the professors said, many will be reluctant to weigh academic promise as heavily as academic accomplishment when judging their potential colleagues.
The recent tenure rejection of Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History Alan Brinkley and what one professor called President Derek C. Bok's "pocket veto" of former Associate Professor of English Robert N. Watson's tenure nomination reveal these major obstacles, professors said.
In a report issued last spring, Spence said that Harvard can be less assured of attracting top scholars from other schools as two-career families become more prevalent and numerous other institutions gain stature.
Historically, the Faculty of Arts and Scienceshas filled 70 percent of its permanent posts withscholars raided from other universities.
In order to maintain its quality, the facultymust attract the cream of the nation's youngscholars and help them become top contenders fortenure here, Spence said.
The dean called for the faculty to give itsjunior professors more time for research,financial rewards for good performance and morefrequent evaluations.
However, the Brinkley and Watson cases, whichhave been viewed as test cases, suggest thatadditional changes may be required, professorssaid.
Spence has refused to see or speak to Crimsonreporters and has cancelled a pre-scheduledinterview since the tenure cases became a focus ofattention. Other administrators said it ispremature to assess the impact of his plan.
Hardening of the Arteries
"The machinery [for reviewing tenurecandidates] in the last 15 years--as machineryoften does of its own accord--has slipped in sucha way as to block passage of more creativeappointments," said Porter University ProfessorWalter Jackson Bate '39.
Bate termed President Derek C. Bok's failure toapprove Watson's tenure nomination a sympton of "asort of arteriosclerosis" that has beset Harvard'stenure process.
English Department members said that an ad hoccommittee of experts from outside Harvard convenedto advise President Bok did not strongly supportWatson's candidacy.
The committee's treatment of the scholar, whowon the English Department's unanimousendorsement, highlights the inherent coolness ofsuch groups to young scholars, they said.
All three of the outside scholars on Watson'sad hoc committee had themselves been rejected forHarvard posts, said a Harvard professor who metwith the group. Professors and administrators saidad hoc committees almost always include severalwho have been denied positions here.
"The fact is that a lot of people in academiahave been at Harvard at one time or another, and Idon't know if that means they all have axes togrind or not," said Cabot Professor of History RoyG. Gordon.
Bate wrote in a statement to The Crimson,however, that having been rejected by Harvardthemselves, ad hoc committee members "are notalways in the most benevolent frame of mind."
"Members of the faculty have wondered if thereis a puckish predilection for making the fur fly,"Bate wrote. Ad hoc committee members sometimes usetenure reviews as a chance to take revenge onprofessional rivals or "to take a shot atHarvard," Bate said.
Bate said ad hoc committee members tend toevaluate tenure candidates thinking, "If I didn'tget it [a Harvard appointment], then neither willthis young guy."
"If a professor at university `X,' `Y' or `Z'had it in for a particular scholar or for theHarvard English Department, they can do it in forus," said English Department Chairman Joel Porte,Bernbaum Professor of Literature.
Asked if that happened in Watson's case, Portesaid: "Yes, I think so."
Watson's tenure bid won the EnglishDepartment's unanimous endorsement last April,department members said. They said the vote cameafter Spence took the extraordinary step ofrelaxing the strict timetable on which seniorpositions are offered to facilitate the promotion.
It was the first time a dean of the facultypermitted the English Department to deviate fromthe so-called Graustein Chart since the 1960s,said Cabot Professor of American Literature AlanE. Heimert '49.
Leading scholars at other universities "wroteto say that [Watson] was the best Shakespearean inthe world of his generation," according toProfessor of English and Comparative LiteratureWalter J. Kaiser '54.
Bok, who has final say over seniorappointments, has not made a decision sincereceiving the ad hoc evaluation in May. Severalprofessors said that they had been told privatelythat the decision, should it come, would benegative and that in the last 10 or 15 years thead hoc evaluations essentially have becomeverdicts on tenure candidates.
Kaiser condemned Bok's handling of Watson'scase in front of about 500 students attending thefirst lecture of Literature and Arts A-40a,"Shakespeare," a class he was scheduled to teachwith Watson. The president's failure to actprompted Watson to accept a full professorship atUCLA, Kaiser said.
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles,Watson said that Spence told him his chances ofwinning tenure here were slim.
"The only reason there wasn't a decision isbecause it would embarass Spence and it wouldembarass the English Department," said one aprofessor from another department who spoke oncondition of anonymity.
Spence Cuts Review Short
Brinkley's case never made it to the ad hoccommittee. Brinkley won his department'sendorsement, but unlike Watson, he copped only 13of 24 votes cast, one faculty member said. Afterseveral of the History Department's most prominentAmericanists dissented in letters andconversations with Spence, the dean haltedBrinkley's review, faculty members said.
Senior department members who said theysupported Brinkley's bid called him a leadingrepresentative of a cadre of American historianswho focus on specific topics and periods.
They said that their older colleagues'opposition to Brinkley suggests that when actuallyconfronted with a decision, the department willresort to its established practices and ignore thedean's intentions.
"The problem of implementing something likethis policy is similar [to the problem ofimplementing] affirmative action," said DuboisProfessor of History Nathan I. Huggins.
"The dean says something, and the departmentsnod their heads; and then the real decisions comethe same as always," he said.
Department members said Adams UniversityProfessor Bernard Bailyn, Loeb UniversityProfessor Emeritus Oscar Handlin and TrumbullProfessor of American History Donald Flemingobjected to promoting Brinkley. The three areproponents of what Huggins called "the Harvardstyle of American history," an approach that seesthe field as sprawling and eschews specialization.
Said Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Richard N.Frye: "Fleming and Handlin found [Brinkley's] worktoo journalistic."
Fleming refused to comment on the Brinkleydecision, but said tenure decision should not beinfluenced by current trends.
"I don't think the standards have changed. Idon't think they should change. I don't think theywill change," Fleming said. "The standards arewhat they were in the past."
Asked if that stand was realistic in light ofthe dean's concerns about Harvard's ability tolure scholars, Fleming said, "There have neverbeen that many people who could do this type ofwork in the past either."
Others took a different view.
"The old standards which were not only qualitybut quantity are going to be difficult tomaintain," said Winthrop Professor of AmericanHistory Stephan A. Thernstrom.
"It's time to take more chances," saidThernstrom, who, at 51, is Harvard's youngesttenured professor in American history.
Scholars agreed that Spence's decision to haltBrinkley's multi-staged tenure review indicatesthe tenure system discourages such chances.
"The dean didn't make a judgment about Brinkleyas a scholar; he just knew that a young candidatecould never survive an ad hoc committee with aless-than-perfect case," said a faculty memberfamiliar with the review.
Associate Professor of American HistoryBradford A. Lee, another popular junior professorand a recipient of a Levenson prize foroutstanding teaching, also recently failed to wina permanent position. That case offers less-clearcommentary on the tenure system because Lee didnot muster enough support within the HistoryDepartment to win its endorsement, professorssaid.
Humanities Vs. Sciences
Scholars from a wide variety of fields agreedthat young academics in the humanities and socialsciences have more trouble passing ad hoc reviewsthan do their colleagues in chemistry, mathematicsand other more quantitative disciplines.
"In the sciences everyone knows someone isgoing to be great when they're 22 or something,"said Heimert, the literature professor. "In math,someone has solved an equation no one else hasever solved."
Even scholars in the humanities and socialsciences who criticized the ad hoc committees saidthe idea of bringing in outsiders to evaluatetenure candidates is a good one. They criticizedthe way the idea has been applied.
"Machinery is not created by God. It's not likecancer or death. It is under human control," Batesaid. He said the ad hoc reviews would be helpfulif department members were able to take part,members were screened more carefully and othermodifications were brought about.
"The dean thought he could promote more ofHarvard's own people without changing theselection process that has been bringing Harvardancient, august experts for a decade," said onejunior faculty member.
"He certainly can't believe that any longer--atleast I hope he doesn't," said the associateprofessor, who said he will be considered for alifetime post within two years.