Just the Tenured of Us

The Perilous Path to Promotion at Harvard

he Cambridge real estate market doesn’t look as steep in a U-Haul’s looming rearview mirror on the way to Ann Arbor, Mich.—or to San Bernadino, Calif., Syracuse, N.Y. or Any-University-Town, USA. This is a mixed blessing for the families of Harvard junior faculty members who spend an average of six or seven years here and then move on to other institutions.

Harvard’s tenure standard, as it is officially articulated by the University, is simply that Harvard tenures the best in the world. Practically, this policy has resulted in a widespread and long-standing perception that no one at Harvard ever gets tenure. Many associate professors, most recently Keith J. Bybee in the government department, decide to seize plum offers elsewhere and bypass the tenure review altogether.

Internal promotion is becoming more and more common here, making up 36 percent of all senior appointments between 1996 and 2001, up from 33 percent from 1991-1995 and 27 percent from 1986-1991. But these numbers do not mean that junior faculty have a 30 percent chance for promotion. Instead, the group that stands for tenure is self-selected.

Going up for tenure at Harvard is a painful and cruel process. This is according to someone who emerged triumphant. “The whole system is still quite terrible and dangerous,” says professor Alyssa A. Goodman, who received tenure in the Astronomy department in 1999. Goodman is more outspoken than many on the subject of tenure at Harvard: in passing, she worries that her rabble-rousing while on sabbatical this year is not the most prudent move. But she is proud of changes that the Astronomy department is making in junior faculty hiring to ensure that early-career jaunts to Cambridge are not always temporary.

Goodman says her department used to hire junior people without carefully considering whether they might meet the “best in the world” standard seven years down the line. Recently, however, beginning with the chairmanship of professor Robert P. Kirshner ’70 in the early ’90s, the department became more selective in junior faculty hiring. As a result, three out of the last four people to come up for tenure in the Astronomy department have been promoted. “The criteria in the beginning are that we will not hire people unless we believe that they have a very very good chance,” says Goodman. “We’ve had several junior faculty searches where we’ve actually hired no one.” She says she is one of the most vocal dissenters to Harvard’s tenure process. But since institutional change is glacial, the best she and her colleagues can do is work within the system to make the process a bit more humane.

Goodman says that changing standards earlier makes the whole process run more smoothly. In the government department, notoriously difficult for junior faculty, chair Roderick MacFarquhar describes similar changes. “I think that the department has been very hardworking in its attempt to get first-class junior faculty,” he says. “It’s not something that I chant as a mantra every September, but all my colleagues on search committee are well aware that they have to be thinking ahead.”

Another complaint Goodman shares with junior faculty is that the secrecy of the process and unrealistically high expectations breed departmental strife. The most prominent allegations against the secrecy of the process come from former government professor Peter Berkowitz, who claimed in a suit against Harvard that procedural impropriety and backroom dealmaking derailed his shot at tenure. The case is currently pending in Massachusetts appellate court.

Harvard’s system is similar to those of most other large research institutions, with one crucial—and controversial—difference. After an extensive review process, ultimate hiring power rests solely with the president of the University. Goodman decries this as out of fashion, but Benedict H. Gross, the chair of the math department, is enthusiastic about his department’s track record and the process in general. “It’s essential that one person who has an idea of how the Faculty is moving forward oversees the process,” he says. “I’ve been extremely impressed with President [Lawrence H.] Summers in the ad hoc proceedings. He seems very well informed.”

Summers’ apparent facility for the process bodes well for other changes. One area of criticism has been a perceived assumption that academic families are boundlessly mobile. Where the previous policy assumed a young academic could land on his feet elsewhere, produce brilliant research and then return to Harvard with heightened stature intact, finding jobs and housing for families gets more and more complicated: professors speak of recruits who turned down Harvard because of logistical problems.

Previously it was common for junior faculty to leave Harvard, gain prestige elsewhere, and then, once ensconced in the ranks of the world’s finest, return to Cambridge. This old model of tenure, of which Goodman is particularly critical, was somewhat more reasonable when no one worried about the logistics of spouses’ employment. But now, two jobs, especially two academic jobs in the same geographic area, are increasingly difficult to find.

Family did play a large part in Bybee’s decision he explains, pausing to show off a requisitely adorable snapshot of 4-month-old Evan, and Syracuse offered his wife, Jennifer L. Champa, a position as an urban planner for the university. And while Bybee is a bit worried about acclimating to upstate New York winters, this is a permanent (for now, at least) move that he is very much looking forward to. “At a certain time the view was that junior faculty did their time, left and came back,” he says. “[But] It’s not like a I have a letter from Jeremy Knowles saying ‘So long, farewell, wink, wink.’”

Even at a research institute like Harvard. teachers should be judged based on their teaching ability. Teaching evaluations do make up a part of the tenure review process. But, Bybee says, the national audience that candidates aim to impress isn’t really concerned with whether undergraduates found lecture handouts helpful. So teaching quality is not strictly part of the tenure incentive structure, which means that often popular teachers don’t stick around that long. This is not just because tenure is impossible to get, but also because Harvard’s hiring structure includes many non-tenure-track positions for those who have the greatest likelihood of working with undergraduates.

Brett Flehinger, an American historian who won the Levenson award for outstanding teaching last year, is at California State University-San Bernadino, and many students miss Flehinger’s flair. He explains that he was at Harvard on a one-year lecturer contract here, and that he was always realistic about his future not being in Cambridge. But with a Harvard Ph.D. and three years of teaching experience, he is familiar with the culture of junior faculty. “It’s a research institute. The reality is that’s what they tenure on. It’s definitely demoralizing for junior faculty that there is a 70-80 percent chance that they will be fired,” he says. “Harvard defines its tenure process as getting the best in the world. But it’s not always going to be clear if 38- to 40-year-olds are the best in the world.”

For the beleaguered junior faculty, a career at Harvard contains sufficient hints about one’s future prospects at the University. After four years as an assistant professor, faculty members apply to be promoted to associate professors by submitting their work for a review process similar to the tenure judgment. “It’s not hidden that the system here is more difficult. It’s a question of what incentives are set up by the system. The incentive is to do research—things you need to do to get tenure. You impress senior colleagues by impressing a nationwide audience.”

Apple-polishing pet projects can, Bybee admits, make a teaching burden seem onerous for ambitious junior faculty. “So where are the students? Teaching is taken seriously rhetorically and even beyond rhetoric: it’s not the case that whether or not you get tenure hinges on teaching ability, but teaching is taken very seriously.”

Bybee puts a positive spin on the fact that so few people in his field of American politics have been promoted. He says he always imagined teaching at Harvard would not be a lifetime job and so he had more freedom to pursue his own interests without concern about gaining favor in order to advance. “The ticket to success is to do your research and publish as much as possible,” Bybee says. “Because there are no guarantees from the University, you have the freedom. Teaching gets left up to individual tastes.” Bybee says. This freedom, at the price of a secure future, is a good thing the way he explains it. “The uncertainty has two sides to it. It can really orient your attention outside the institution onto that national audience. But it also gives you the freedom to do what you want. I really do like teaching, and teaching undergraduates for me that meant I could put a lot of energy into classes. I really think that can be one of the wonderful things about this system.”

And it’s he’s not up at night tormented by what-ifs. “You can play it out in your mind backwards and forwards, but there’s no substitute for putting yourself up. I can’t say that I’d be particularly optimistic.”

Bybee’s former colleague Matthew J. Dickinson, who taught American Politics in the government department for six years from 1993 to 1999, left for a position in the Middlebury College political science department before going up for tenure because it just made more sense to him. “You need three things to get tenure,” Dickinson explains. “First, you need to be very good. Second, you need to be very lucky. You have to come up at a time where what you do is considered hot. And three, you need a mentor, someone on the inside who will carry your water.” Dickinson says he didn’t think he had all three factors going for him (the first, he says, everyone has).

“You can make one hell of a department with people who have left Harvard voluntarily or involuntarily,” he says. But Dickinson’s situation is unique because his family lives in Ripton, Vermont, 15 minutes outside of Middlebury, and he was commuting to Cambridge. Middlebury “was a chance to go to a name-brand school and be near my family.”

Despite commuting over the mountains for six years and the eventual decision to leave Harvard without going up for tenure, Dickinson has no second thoughts about the time he did spend in Cambridge. “I came out of there a much better political scientist than when I came in.” Dickinson, comfortable enough in his choice to reflect positively on his experience, is an anecdotal anomaly. Many people who either left Harvard without pursuing tenure or who were denied tenure do not even want to discuss the issue for feaar of picking at the scabs. The tenure process may be inching toward user-friendliness, but critics remain who feel the process discourages teaching and encourages trendiness—hardly friendly at all.