Show Us the Evidence
Judicial Tradition, Integrity Demand Harvard's Tenure Process Be Reformed
Veracity is the political precondition for democratic virtue. --Dennis F. Thompson, Associate Provost and Professor of Government.
Yes, the time has come for Harvard to reconsider its tenure review process. The Trail of Tears behind us is testament to the violence our process produces. The era of the integrated electronic network before us will be most beautiful and humanly satisfying if we build on principles of openness and feedback, and faith in our capacity to judge the merits of an argument after exchange and deliberation with our peers.
Our present system breeds hypocrisy and distrust, infantilizes senior Faculty and allows division to fester as factions fight for favor with the father. Fear of authority, and complicity with it, makes members of our community reluctant to raise objection to the father's arbitrary use and abuse of power, and leads others to shun and punish those who do.
We are at a transition point in the history of information technology. Our rhetorical environment is fast changing to one in which secrets are much harder to keep. This means that credibility will depend increasingly on true character. Individuals and Institutions will be less able than they have been in the past to present the world with a two-faced smile while using manipulative media power to achieve audience acceptance.
More the questions will become: Where is your Evidence? Where does the Burden of Proof lie? In our present environment the burden rests upon an assumption of propriety unless displaced by a plausible accusation of wrongdoing. What is a plausible accusation? What is an accusation but an initially plausible damaging story? What are the ethics of starting one? What is our institutional and professional responsibility for seeing that they don't get started? What is our responsibility for starting them when they're true? How can we know?
We should cease organizing our own process so as to foster them. For once they start--once secrecy lets fears fester so that accusation resonates, opposed only by pompous privilege--they fester into a boil unless they're lanced with Evidence. Evidence depends on Openness. Let them see where your heart is. Let us show them where it is, with pride in our judgements and in our ability to articulate them. This is the strategy for which the United States Supreme Court spoke when asked in 1994 to consider the issue of privilege and secrecy in university tenure processes, a strategy Harvard opposed before the Supreme Court and still continues to oppose, the Supreme Court's wisdom not withstanding.
There are good alternatives. The judicial tradition, for example, puts faith in the ability and courage of tenured judges to make decisions on the merits, to articulate them fairly, to disclose and submit them to review, and to recuse themselves when they are, or even appear to be, incapacitated by bias. I commend this model to attention for purposes of thinking how a revised University process might actually work.
Join our story. We are actors in the public interest who teach nobility in life and law in search of truth and justice. Let us choose together how to be a better Harvard. Let us do and be it.
Are we capable of governing ourselves? This is a fundamental question, not just about our tenure system. It's about whether the story we make of our lives is a true and good one. It's about how our myth is made.
Charles R. Nesson '60 is Weld Professor of Law.