University Grants Young Female Star Unusual Tenure

Harvard reacts to pressure to tenure younger professors in the humanities

In a swift move to tenure one of the English department’s rising stars, the University granted an unusual internal appointment last Thursday to a 31-year-old woman who has taught at Harvard for just two years.

Assistant Professor of English and American Literature Leah Price ’91 became one of the youngest females ever tenured at the University and just the second junior faculty member to receive tenure in the department in the last 12 years.

Department leaders said the decision reflected new pressure to tenure younger faculty in the humanities and suggested it would be a pattern for future appointments.

“We hope this success will be encouraging to other junior faculty,” said department chair Lawrence Buell. “I hope that over the next half-dozen years we will see a number of promotions from the ranks of junior faculty.”

Price’s appointment follows University President Lawrence H. Summers’ call last year for departments to identify opportunities for giving tenure to younger scholars whose best work lies ahead of them. Harvard has traditionally given tenure to seasoned scholars who are in the later stages of their academic careers.

“The reality is that the academic world is changing,” said Reid Professor of English and American Literature Philip J. Fisher. “There is now active recruiting in humanities at other universities, and Harvard is being forced to start earlier.”

Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language Erik I. Gray said Price’s appointment fills a gap that often emerges in humanities departments between young, untenured faculty and much older full faculty members.

“There are often five or 10 years that are not represented, since in the humanities senior faculty are not hired until about 15 years into their careers,” he said, “but this appointment will change that.”

Price is currently traveling and could not be reached for comment this weekend.

Her track to tenure began in earnest last spring when the department conducted its required second-year review of her work as a junior faculty member.

“It was obvious that she was doing exceptional work here,” Buell said.

Around the same time UCLA’s English department—a strong rival of Harvard—made Price a tenure offer. Harvard’s department followed quickly with a recommendation to the Council of Deans and the president that Price become a full professor. That recommendation was approved on Thursday.

“The only option was to lose her, so the question wasn’t what you do, but rather do you act now or not at all,” Fisher said.

“We have had problems in recent years retaining our best faculty members because they often leave before they are considered for tenure,” Buell said.

The book that landed Price her new appointment is called The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel, which studies the use of literary anthologies, from the Bible to Bartlett’s Quotations.

“Whoever is appointed must be a known quantity,” Buell said. “It was important to us that her work had received a high level of acclaim and achievement from the outside world.”

More unusual is Price’s promotion just two years after she was appointed an assistant professor.

“The humanities are unlike the sciences, where people often do their best work by age 30 or 35,” Fisher said.

Price began her education at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude in literature in 1991. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received a Hoopes Prize for her thesis “Lery and Cervantes.”

She received a doctorate in comparative literature from Yale University in 1998 and spent the next three years as a research fellow in England, at Cambridge University.

Price is on leave this year at the Stanford University Humanities Center, where she is conducting research for her next book project on the “secretarial imagination” and novels in the age of communication.

A specialist in the Victorian novel, Price has published broadly on 19th- and 20th-century British fiction, especially how anthologies, abridgements and compilations of quotations have changed the way the novels have been received.

“She brings a kind of quirky, fresh, subversive account of the real-life of novels to her classes,” Fisher said.

Price has taught several courses at Harvard, including a freshman seminar “Victorian Literature and Technology,” an introductory course “Rhetorics of Reading” and honors seminars “Sexing Victorian Fiction” and “Gender Writing in Victorian Culture.”