Outstanding Junior Faculty Merit Tenure
Coming one after another, President Neil L. Rudenstine's decisions last month to deny tenure to two associate professors of government surprised more than a few faculty members. When the department recommended the two in-house professors for tenure, it seemed like an excellent chance for the University to accomplish its goal of increasing the number of junior faculty who receive tenure.
The path to tenure on the Harvard faculty is not an easy one. When a department wishes to fill a senior position, it charges a faculty committee to conduct an exhaustive search to consider who is at the top of the field. The committee compiles a short-list of candidates and discusses their work with scholars from all over the country. Only when they have narrowed down the list to one does the committee recommend a candidate to the department.
As a result, it's fairly rare for a Harvard department to recommend its junior faculty members for tenure. Not only must these young professors measure up with their colleagues throughout the world, they are also judged relative to professors with a decade or more of experience.
And as Rudenstine's decisions last month show, even after the department recommends an in-house professor for tenure, it's no guarantee that they will pass the next level. There, Rudenstine and an ad hoc committee again compare the candidate's work against other members of their field and scrutinize the department's recommendation to ensure the faculty's commitment to the candidate.
The result is that tenure at Harvard is one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the academic world. Even senior faculty in the department of government who supported Jennifer A. Widner and Jean C. Oi's bids for tenure would not criticize the strict process that denied them.
"I think anyone who has been close to the process is impressed at how much time and care goes into it," Government Department Chair Susan Pharr told The Crimson. "And the fact is that the standard for tenure at Harvard is incredibly high."
Senior faculty members like the process because it guarantees that Harvard has the best faculty on the senior level. We, too, applaud Harvard's high standards.
However, we wonder if they may hurt Harvard in its quest for a strong junior faculty and also in attracting women and minorities. As one female junior faculty member told The Crimson last week, "Harvard is a cultural institution that offers progressive space, but it doesn't offer the possibility of job security."
We fear that Harvard may lose some of tomorrow's top scholars by being reluctant to tenure promising faculty until they have already proven themselves--and gone elsewhere.
In an age of two-career families, junior faculty members may have doubts about beginning their careers at Harvard, because they know that in seven years they will almost certainly have to move their families to another locale. Why not then begin their careers at another university where they will be more likely to remain for the long term?
And how strongly will today's junior faculty be committed to their departments when they know their long-term prospects are so slim? Several professors have privately told the Crimson that morale among junior faculty is low.
President Rudenstine recognizes these concerns, but he defends the process as the price Harvard must pay to ensure the quality of its faculty.
"I have always said it would be desirable for more junior faculty to be appointed [to tenured positions] but given the process you cannot make a blanket guarantee," he told The Crimson.
We are reluctant to ask President Rudenstine to lower the high tenure standards that make Harvard the nation's finest University.
However, we do believe that he and the faculty should give an extra edge to those young, promising faculty members who have distinguished themselves early through their work at Harvard and show great promise of continuing the University's tradition of excellence in the future.