Tinkering With Tenure
Altering bind letter system improves process, but more emphasis on teaching is needed
To its credit, the blind letter system ensures anonymity in the often politically tense tenure process. But the system mandates the evaluation of faculty who are not in consideration along with the actual candidate—inundating the evaluators with superfluous information and hindering the review. The system could also theoretically lead to bias—candidates could be listed against individuals of unequal qualification, stacking the deck and generating unconstructive comparisons.
Fortunately, at last week’s Faculty meeting, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby announced an alteration to the tenure process—replacing the current blind letter with a request for a more direct evaluation that lists multiple candidates but mentions the one that is under serious consideration. Though not finalized, this long-awaited change will improve the tenure process with greater transparency and efficiency.
By naming the candidate, the new evaluation request should counteract many of the shortcomings of the blind letter system. Evaluators will have more room to comment upon the work of the candidate—without the distraction or hindrance of time spent on irrelevant evaluations. The additional transparency will also allow Harvard to request outside feedback on internal candidates—the committee would be able to send the work of less-well-known associate professors out for review.
While these changes will ameliorate flaws with the blind letter system and allow for fairer treatment of internal candidates, they utterly fail to compensate for the system’s serious lack of consideration for one of the most important characteristics of tenured professors: the quality and tested duration of teaching—ostensibly one of the main things they are hired to do.
The inaccuracies inherent in the CUE Guide’s rating of teaching—often the primary gauge for teaching ability—fall short of providing a realistic picture of teaching skill in the classroom. Were Harvard to adopt a system like Swarthmore’s—whose tenure process asks students to write letters speaking to the teaching ability of candidates—teachers who truly inspire their students to intellectual pursuit would be as accredited as those who merely excel in the lab. Without this crucial component, Harvard’s tenure system, however marginally improved with the alteration of the blind letter system, will continually fail to bring the most important thing to the classroom.