Expos Out of Control Under Marius

Writers' Block

The teachers were restless.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in March 1989, and the entire Expository Writing teaching staff had just listened to teachers Elizabeth Muther and Susan E. Carlisle drone on for nearly an hour about their plan for "theme courses." And now Nancy Sommers was making an announcement.

"Beginning next fall, the classroom period for Expos will be extended to an hour and a half," Sommers, associate director of Expos, told the room. "Plan your syllabi accordingly."

The teachers were furious. Once again, teachers had not been consulted about a fundamental change in Expos, a required course for all first-years.

No voices were raised, but many questions were hostile. They questioned why no one had bothered to get teachers' opinions on the initiative. Some openly expressed outrage about the administration of the department. From her corner seat, an Expos teacher named Michelle A. Souda wryly asked if the change meant instructors would be paid more.

Sommers, standing at the front of the room, answered the questions curtly and looked shocked. Richard C. Marius, the director of the program, sat nearby and stewed. He looked sick, and he would later spend time in Stillman Infirmary for a "stomach problem," believed to be an ulcer.

Sometime during that meeting, or maybe in the first few hours after it, Marius made a decision: He would tolerate no more dissent.

Marius called three of his most vocal critics and best teachers--Sanford Kreisberg, Monica Raymond and Joe Finder--into his office the next day, one by one, and threatened their jobs. Marius says he simply brought the teachers in to "talk about their anger." Raymond, angry at Marius' tactics, submitted her resignation.

"It was a matter of principle," says Raymond, who still lives in Cambridge. "I didn't think I could teach people free writing and free expression in a place where I could not take advantage of free expression myself."

The same day Marius called in the three teachers, he put out a memorandum withdrawing the proposal to expand class time and saying that "we do not punish people for not worshipping us." Teachers considered the memo bizarre and dishonest given his treatment of Kreisberg, Raymond and Finder.

"Nancy is not the Tsarina of Expos seeking to conquer your green provinces and devour your fat cattle," Marius wrote in the memo.

Kreisberg and Finder would leave within six months, but getting rid of the current troblemakers was only a temporary solution. Something more permanent was needed. In a telephone conversation one night that March, Marius and Sommers decided on a method: They would reduce the eight-year limit on teachers' jobs in Expos to four. And there would be no grandfathering for teachers already hired under the eight-year rule.

Over at University Hall, administrators looked at the emerging chaos at Expos, and panicked. A year later, the standing faculty committee on Expos would approve the four-year change. One administration source familiar with the situation now calls that decision both a "mistake" and an "overreaction."

With the decision, Marius and Sommers broke literally dozens of verbal and written promises to teachers--who were never formally told about the change. And Marius and Sommers created a policy that, teacherssay, has hurt Expos instructors personally andprofessionally.

More importantly, the four-year rule that grewout of a few days in March 1989 has had negativeconsequences for the quality of teaching thatfirst-year students see in their Expos classes.

Finally, the behavior of Marius in thesecircumstances is part of a pattern of intimidationand retaliation against teachers who challenge hisauthority.

"That meeting was Ground Zero for Expos," saysa former teacher. "After that, everythingchanged."

Richard Marius was teaching history atthe University of Tennessee when Harvard tappedhim for the Expos director's job in 1978.

A well-known professional writer and novelist,Marius' job was to impose standards and restorethe University's confidence in a program that bymost accounts was failing its students.

Marius and the administrators he hired havedone much to accomplish those goals. Sue A.Lonoff, who was an Expos preceptor for eight yearsand is now a lecturer offering an Expos courseevery spring, says Marius' chief accomplishmenthas been the establishment of official standards."When I came in, there really were no criteria forevaluating teachers," says Lonoff. "There was verylittle way to decide who was to stay and who wasto go."

Marius changed all that, but eventually, thestress of administering the department soon tookits toll on the director. He took a sabbaticalduring the academic year 1987-88, and Sommers camein to run the program while he was gone.

Sommers receives praise from many teachers atthe time for being a good listener. Many remember'87-'88 as the last happy year before morale inExpos took a turn for the worse.

Perhaps most symptomatic of the confrontationalattitude that emerged in Expos is the story ofDavid Heller. During the first week of March 1989,Heller, a first-year teacher in the program,abruptly resigned after a mix-up over Marius'scheduled visit to his class. Marius went to thewrong room, and when Heller returned to the Exposoffice, witnesses say, then-program administratorJulia A. Hendrix erupted at the teacher with noapparent provocation.

It seemed like a minor disagreement at first.Shortly after the incident, however, Marius wroteHeller a letter accusing the teacher of verballyattacking Hendrix. Heller decided to resign afterreceiving the letter. Marius, who never discussedthe incident with Heller, now says Heller wasgrowing "emotionally unstable" at the time.

So the director acted. He left a message onHeller's answering machine saying he would becalling the Harvard police. The next day, anundercover University police officer was posted atthe door to Heller's classroom to make sure theteacher did not return.

More disturbing than the decisions madeby the Expos administration, teachers say, wasUniversity Hall's unwillingness to do anythingabout it. The faculty committee, they note, backedMarius' move to the four-year rule in an effort toreestablish administrative control over Expos. Andboth of Marius' bosses in the last six years--Deanfor Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell andBuell's predecessor David Pilbeam--are aware ofMarius's problems in dealing with employees,sources say.

In nearly all matters, Pilbeam and otherspublicly deferred to Marius and Sommers. Two yearsago, after proposing to raise the four-year limitto five or six years, Pilbeam backed down afterMarius sent him a letter opposing the change.

Privately, the administration and Expos blameeach other.

"Richard has brought so much angst and angerupon himself. It's tragic, because he's a verytalented man," says an administration source."He's not equally gifted as an administrator, andmost of his problems begin with him."

Sources familiar with the Sommers-Mariusrelationship say she has attempted to take awaysome control from Marius, and in some cases hasserved, in the words of one teacher, "as a humanshield" between him and the staff. In someinstances, Sommers has convinced Marius toapologize to staff members he has slighted,sources say.

But some question her fitness to administer theprogram fairly.

Michael L. Harrington, who spent nine months asprogram administrator in 1990, and former Exposteacher Paula Bennett say Sommers and othersselected an ineligible essay for first prize in awriting contest among first-years to have theiressays published in the Expos magazine, Expose.

The essay in question had not been officiallyentered in the contest, and Harrington saysSommers admitted to him that she herself hadentered the essay, which was written by one ofSommers' own students. In a letter obtained by TheCrimson, Bennett charges she was retaliatedagainst when she spoke up about the "unethical"matter in which the winning essay was chosen.

"Nancy and Richard's subsequent behavior towardme was thoroughly unprofessional," wrote Bennett,now a professor at Southern Illinois University."I have put time into this letter because Ibelieve both the Expos program and studentsdeserve better than they are getting."

Harrington charges, and a source confirms, thatSommers ordered him to fire Exposé's volunteereditor, Edward P. Miller, and to excise anymention of prize winners' Expos teachers from themagazine. Sommers denies all these charges, sayingthat Marius fired Miller because he was not makingdeadlines and was improperly editing studentcontributions.

Nothing improper was done in the selection ofher student as the contest winner, Sommers says.

Harrington resigned in the fall of 1990 amidtroubles with the program's scheduling, for whichhe was responsible. Shortly before then, heapproached Herbert J. Vallier, then associatedirector of personnel services for the Faculty, tocomplain about how Marius and Sommers treatedemployees.

Vallier, now at the Groton School, says herecalls speaking with at least two teachers andother staff members about problems in thedepartment. Once again, however, theadministration was unable to improve theatmosphere at Expos. In fact, Harrington is justone of five program administrators to serve atExpos during the past seven years.

In interviews, the vast majority of 71current and former teachers were critical of theExpos administration's sensitivity and fairness.Many teachers, nearly all of them women, say theywere browbeaten and intimidated both verbally andin writing.

Some teachers charge that Marius' evaluationnotes are inappropriate. Several of the notes,which were viewed by The Crimson, includedintensely personal criticism.

"Yes, he's been verbally abusive," says oneveteran teacher. "And we've lost teachers becauseof it. He's helped create a cruel, hurtfulsystem."

In fact, in the fall of 1991, eight Exposteachers won teaching prizes by the Bok Center fortheir work in the classroom. Just two years later,only two of those eight are still teaching atExpos.

Askold Melnyczuk, who taught at Expos from 1990to 1992, says one of the reasons he left wasMarius' style of managing people. "I think Richardis way too aggressive," says Melnyczuk, whobelieves Marius should either leave the program orbe sent to management school.

One current head preceptor says three teachershave personally complained about run-ins withMarius. "I've heard direct testimony from threeindividuals who had major run-ins with Richard,"says the preceptor.

A dozen former teachers interviewed say theyleft the program because of Marius' treatment ofthem.

"My trouble started in teacher training," saysone woman teacher who left. "I spoke up--I had myown style--and was shouted down. People wererewarded for keeping their mouth shut."

One teacher who spent four years at the programsays she was called into Marius' office to talkabout poor student evaluations.

"He laid into me, and said these are bad,"recalls the teacher. "The force of it was suchthat I wondered if he wanted me back next year."

Teachers also criticize Marius's treatment oftransfer students, whose essays he reads to see ifthey can pass out of Expos. Students say theyreceive caustic comments both in person and inwriting, and teachers say they regularly seetransfer students in tears and enraged aftermeetings with Marius.

"He's made comments to me specificallydenigrating students by name," says a currentteacher. "He said what was written was 'drivel.'He reminds me of the Kingsfield character in 'ThePaper Chase.' He doesn't respond to students."

Teachers also strongly charge that Marius'personnel decisions smack of favoritism. A primaryexample is the differences in treatment of SarahKing, who taught in 1991 and 1992, and Expos 17head Stephen Donatelli.

Marius let King go because of low ratings inthe CUE guide student evaluations she receivedbefore going through the Expos teacher trainingprogram. At nearly the same time, however, thedirector and Sommers were grooming Donatelli, whoalso had low CUE scores, for a promotion to headpreceptor.

The promotion was approved because ofDonatelli's hard work to improve his teaching andthe impressive papers that came out of his class,Marius and Sommers say.

A few teachers say they like Marius's directway of dealing with people. "Whether you agree ordisagree with the man, you know where he stands,"says Derek Owens, a second-year teacher.

But Marius's tactics in informing teachers ofhis decisions not to rehire them have made manysuspicious and angry. Sarah King, who taught forthree semesters in 1991 and 1992, and SvenBirkerts, who taught from 1984 to 1991, both saythey were told that they would not be asked backas they stood in front of their mailboxes in theExpos office hallway. Marius denies eitherincident ever happened.

In addition, the imposition of the four-yearlimit has had a human cost. Many teachers gave upsecure jobs elsewhere to come to Expos, and somesay they would not have taken jobs at the programwithout the possibility of staying eightyears--the previous limit for Expos teaching jobs.Others complain of not being informed of thechange until near the end of their tenure there.

Will Evans, a fourth-year teacher, gave up asecure job at Cornell to move to Cambridge on thepromise that he might be able to stay for eightyears.

"When I applied for the job, I was told it waseight years renewable," says Evans. "At theinterview, I was told it was eight years, and thenit was changed retroactively. I never had anapology, I never had an explanation."

To this day, Marius and Harvard maintain therewas never any promise of the possibility of eightyears. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs PhyllisKeller says there was "never anything in writing"and that teachers simply misunderstood.

In interviews with dozens of teachers hiredbetween 1978 and 1990, however, Expos teacherswere adamant and unanimous that the possibility ofstaying eight years was presented to them inadvertisements and in interviews with Exposadministrators, including Sommers and Marius.

An advertisement placed by Expos in theDecember 1988 issue of the Modern Languages'Association Job Information List describes the jobas "one-year contracts renewable for four yearswith the possibility of eight years foroutstanding service."

Marius disputes all allegations of verbalabuse. He says while he's made some mistakes, hehas always treated his employees fairly anddecently. Criticism comes from disgruntled formeremployees who are still upset about having toleave, he says.

"I've never raised my voice to anyone in thisprogram," Marius says.

Asked about Marius' treatment of employees,Sommers says teachers are better authorities onthe matter than she.

"How teachers react to Richard's personality isan issue," Sommers says. "How teachers react to meis also an issue."

Those closest to Marius say thestrongest single motivation for his decision toclamp down on Expos was the case of MichelleSouda.

After seven years at Expos, Souda was fired inthe fall of 1990 when she returned from Italy lateand missed her first week of classes. She hasretained attorneys in an effort to win asettlement from Harvard on the basis that hertermination was discriminatory.

Teachers say that Marius' behavior toward Soudawas at times verbally abusive. Marius declined tocomment on Souda during an interview earlier thismonth.

The director has long told teachers in Exposthat Souda was fired because she was not a goodteacher.

That assertion, teachers say, contradictsMarius' own actions. Sources say the director gaveSouda rave reviews during visits to her class. Andsome new teachers at the time were given hersyllabus and advised to visit her classroom inorder to improve their own preparation.

Teachers say the Souda case has made Mariuswary of praising instructors too much.

"One of the outcomes was Richard is distrustfulof putting anything positive in writing because hethought it could be used against him," a formerteacher says.

Marius believes the four-year rule andother policy changes he has made recently haveimproved morale. He says he "doesn't believe" theassertions of current and former teachers aboutthe state of affairs at Expos.

"If what you're saying is true," Marius saidincredulously in a recent interview, "I don't knowanything."

But current teachers insist morale remains low."I love teaching Expos," says one teacher. "I hatebeing a member of the Expos faculty."

In some ways, Marius seems to grow less andless receptive to criticism. When an article lastApril in the Perspective, Harvard's liberalmontly, attacked several program practices, helashed out at its author and the piece in a letterto the editor as "malicious, dishonest and lazy."In interviews, current teachers say they wereembarassed by Marius' response, and one Exposadministrator called it "appalling."

The Perspective article's author, Kaleil Isaza'94-'95, says he called Marius after the liberalmagazine received his letter in hopes of makingpeace.

"He was vicious on the phone. We have some ofwhat he said posted on the wall here," says Isaza."He said he would do what he could to make sure Inever got a job in journalism."

In spite of all this, an administration sourcesays that, at Harvard, Marius is untouchable. He'sa visible author, a solid teacher, and a reliablefundraiser for the University, administrators say.

"He, like many members of the Faculty, we askto speak to alumni," says John P. Reardon '60,executive director of the Harvard AlumniAssociation. "He's a very effective speaker, andvery interesting. I think he's very popular. I dothink that alumni do form a bond with Facultypeople they get to know."

And even if morale has not improved, Expos hasbeen quieter recently. Although transfer studentsstill occasionally feel his wrath, Marius has hadfewer confrontations with teachers because he'saround the office less. Sommers has effectivelyassumed day-to-day decision-making control.

There are many indications that Marius, age 60,is on his way out. During the course of atwo-and-a-half hour interview, Marius repeatedlysaid that he "won't be staying at Expos forever."

Friends say Marius is tired. He is still, theysay, a warm friend, a brilliant writer and atalented teacher. But he is also, theyacknowledge, a poor administrator who has causedmuch pain to those who work under him.

Eight current teachers say they believe it istime for Marius to step aside. Among formerteachers whose demise at Expos he hastened, hisdeparture would be considered just. Sources saySommers herself is working and waiting until shecan step in, revamp the program, and, hopefully,improve morale.

"The administration knows how terrible Richardis," says a former Expos teacher. "They know thateveryone loathes Richard, that he's extremelyineffective."

"The bottom line is the administration doesn'tcare about Expos and students enough to replaceRichard."CrimsonNancy E. GreeneThe best leave first The followingExpository Writing teachers won CUE guide awardsin 1991. None are still teaching in the program: