Teaching Is the Issue
THEY COME EVERY YEAR as surely as the leaves turn and fall. This year's round of tenure denials, however, are at odds with both student sentiment and, more important, with often-articulated University goals--better teaching and a better environment for junior faculty.
While it is not our place to endorse candidates for Harvard's lifetime faculty posts, the recent denials of tenure to Dunwalke Associate Professor of American History Alan Brinkley, Professor of History Bradford A. Lee and Professor of English Robert N. Watson call for renewed scrutiny of Harvard's tenure policy. First, these professors represent some of the College's most valuable teaching resources.
Second, the string of denials appears to be at odds with the "strengthened internal promotion system" for junior faculty who show excellence in research and teaching recommended in a milestone report made last April by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences A. Michael Spence. Even as Spence pleas for more time to implement his recommendations, those very junior faculty are--to put it mildly--slipping through his fingers.
This fall's appointment decisions--as well as those last year regarding popular Psychology and Sociology professors James Stellar and Paul Starr--have only reinforced the role of junior faculty as disposable commodities whose time spent teaching often serves to subsidize older professors who may then forsake the undergraduate community for their research. The Catch-22 of Harvard's publish-or-perish tenure policy is that it ultimately rewards a non-commitment to teaching.
And this is where the issue hits home for undergraduates. Consider: Last year over 1000 students signed a petition on behalf of Stellar's appointment to a lifetime post--an effort that came to nothing. Brinkley and Lee consistently teach some of the most popular courses in the book and bear a great burden of their department's teaching load. Brinkley and Starr, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist, now at Princeton, also practice a cogent writing style in their academic work that promotes accessibility to their research. The University itself honored Lee with the Levenson Award as Harvard's most outstanding teacher last year. Yet the door has been opened for all four--the door out.
That trend not only undercuts the needs of the undergraduate community but contradicts the commitment to teaching that Harvard President Derek C. Bok has long advocated in his annual reports.
Clearly there is a gap between the University's commitments--which we think are well-targetted--and its practices. We don't want to think that the commitment to teaching is mere rhetoric.