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.

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