Phelan’s Dismissal Puts Harvard Arts in Peril

To the editors:

An editorial opinion serves a function where it critically analyzes news or current events in search of some insight or understanding. In blithely accepting and adopting anonymous accusations against Ellen Phelan, former chair of the Visual and Environmental Studies department (VES), the Crimson staff failed in this task (Editorial, “Changing Function, Not Face,” May 16).

As a threshold issue, the accusations against Phelan are suspect. Phelan is criticized for long-standing administrative failings in the department, though she only held the position of chair for less than two years. Moreover, a report from FAS Personnel issued after they conducted a thorough organizational assessment of the department during Phelan’s first year as chair pointed to no failings on Phelan’s part, but acknowledged instead the “total faculty consensus that [Phelan’s] dual role of Chairperson of VES and Director of the Carpenter Center is a completely unmanageable job.”

Phelan is criticized further for failing to enter courses promptly in the course catalog—due this year on March 15. March 15 is also the date when Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles finally informed Phelan that the department could have two requested additional full-time appointments (information needed for the course catalogue submission) and when he simultaneously asked for her resignation as chair.

Phelan is also criticized for living in New York. While she maintains an apartment in New York, Phelan lived in a house in Cambridge throughout her time at Harvard, and her prodigious efforts on behalf of the VES department and the Carpenter Center are testament to her presence here. Other accusations are similarly misplaced.

The record concerning the mid-semester replacement of Phelan as chair should have raised questions for the Crimson staff. The various accusations against Phelan have been made anonymously. Knowles replaced Phelan without a public explanation. He has refused to describe to faculty members any specific examples of misconduct. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) itself has undertaken no formal investigation of these accusations, and the University’s general counsel has publicly explained the mid-semester decision of the dean to replace Phelan as chair not as one based on proven instances of misconduct but simply as an “administrative adjustment” within the dean’s purview.

If the dean has indeed concluded on this record that Phelan acted improperly, The Crimson and the University community should be concerned about a decision-making process where faculty members are not informed of the specifics of a charge and are given no opportunity to rebut them.

But the larger question for the Harvard community is what the mid-semester decision to replace Phelan as chair may mean about the Faculty’s commitment to the VES Department and the study of the arts at Harvard. The historical context of the events that occurred this spring traces back to the Buell Report issued in August 1993, where a Special Advisory Committee in Visual and Environmental Studies urged Knowles to strengthen the department and urged Harvard to affirm a commitment to making visual studies flourish at Harvard. Phelan was hired thereafter as Professor of Practice with the mandate to develop and direct a program in studio arts.

While, as your editorial concedes, Phelan did in fact achieve much of this mandate, she also challenged Harvard to solidify its commitment to the arts and to address historic problems regarding funding, space and faculty hiring. At the outset of her appointment as chair, Phelan wrote in September 1999 a detailed letter to Knowles outlining her concerns for the future of the department and her plans and ideas to build it. In January 2000 she received her first response from the dean, in which he acknowledged her “very thorough analyses and thoughtful recommendations for the future of Visual and Environmental Studies,” but wrote that the absence of Executive Dean of the Faculty Nancy Maull “will make it very hard for us to think through all the pedagogical, structural, and administrative, and educational issues, and to understand the intersecting concerns of appointments, space and resources that [Phelan’s] letter raises.” More than a full year later, Phelan still had not received any substantive response from the dean.

Phelan and the department looked forward to a substantive review of VES and its role at Harvard by an external review committee scheduled for the spring of 2001. This visiting committee of nationwide stature had not reviewed the department for five years and was to return April 10-11. Phelan’s unanswered letter to Knowles of September 1999 and thoughtful additional comment from many other faculty were scheduled to be sent to the visiting committee on Friday, March 16. Instead, on March 15, when Knowles asked Phelan to resign as chair of the department, he also informed her that he had cancelled the visiting committee that had been invited to campus.

As Phelan wrote to the dean the following day, “I had hoped that our visiting committee review would at least elicit some dialogue about our most pressing issues.” By removing Phelan as chair mid-semester, Knowles has thus avoided for the present this critical dialogue regarding VES’s pressing issues. In addition, though Phelan and other faculty have provided the new chair selected by the dean with their support, the new chair has neither expertise nor experience in the field, and it is unknown how or when this dialogue will occur. You write that you “hope that the new chair will be able to continue Phelan’s vision.” Instead of merely hoping, The Crimson and the Harvard community should challenge the dean to support that vision and to maintain a place for the arts at Harvard.

Indira Talwani ’82

May 23, 2001

The writer is an attorney retained by former VES department chair Ellen Phelan.