Low Female Tenure Numbers Decried in Letter to Summers

26 professors ask president to focus on promoting women

A letter signed last June by 26 professors lamenting the declining number of female tenure appointments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) sparked heated discussions at a meeting of the FAS governing body yesterday.

Just one of the 22 new tenure appointments during the 2003-2004 academic year—Professor of Anthropology Noreen Tuross—was female, according to statistics released this summer.

And women received just 13 percent of the 32 tenure offers last year, down from 36 percent of senior offers during 2000-2001, the last year of Neil L. Rudenstine’s presidency, according to Science magazine, which first reported the letter last week.

The professors’ letter and the complaints voiced at yesterday’s meeting echoed concerns about the female tenure statistics that appeared last year, when Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby highlighted the declining numbers in his annual letter.

“It is going to be a smaller group of women within the people who have been offered tenure,” Kirby told The Crimson in June. “[But] we have had stronger and weaker years in recruitment of women at all levels of the Faculty.”

Kirby wrote in an e-mail yesterday that while the numbers have not changed significantly since the latest statistics were released over the summer, a number of pending offers “lead me to expect that the coming academic year may have rather different results.”

In their June 18 letter, professors warned Kirby and University President Lawrence H. Summers that the decline may be an unintended result of new policies—including a push to tenure younger faculty—enacted over the past few years, Science reported.

But Summers said yesterday that the “pattern is determined by departments” and their recommendations for tenure.

“The appointments the University makes are the appointments the departments recommend,” he said. “A very small percentage are turned down...the real issue is the appointments that departments make.”

Summers said he is meeting in October with a standing group of women faculty.

Kirby wrote that a new, more transparent tenure procedure and divisional deans would help, and added that he would emphasize the issue in upcoming meetings with department chairs.

“Deans and presidents can approve proposed appointments, but sustained progress has to be built primarily on proposals brought forward by departments,” Kirby wrote.

But leadership from Kirby and Summers is critical, said one member of the Faculty Council, the 18-member FAS governing body.

“It’s got to be led by the dean or the president for it to get anywhere,” said the member, who asked to remain anonymous.

Some faculty said they worry that department chairs are not making the recruitment of women a high enough priority.

“Most members of the search committee are men, and they’ll often bring in a token woman candidate after they’ve decided to hire somebody else,” one signer of the letter told Science.

The letter said Summers’ emphasis on tenuring younger faculty—because it comes at a time when many women have children—may have contributed to the trend.

But Summers said that hiring more young faculty may actually increase the number of tenured females in coming years.

“I think it’s clear that there are more women in younger cohorts than there are in older cohorts and there are more women on the junior faculty than there are in the outside pool,” he said. “So the emphasis on hiring people before their best work is completed should contribute to increasing women and minorities on the faculty.”

And Kirby wrote that the nearly 40 percent of junior faculty offers to females last year represented the success of policies aimed at hiring more women.

“We can see results faster in searches at the assistant professor level,” he wrote.

Nancy Tobin ’49, research chair for the Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, said Harvard needs more transparency in hiring, including gender breakdowns by department—not only by the current humanities, social sciences and natural sciences breakdown.

While Summers has asked faculty to investigate why females lag behind males in various fields, Tobin said Harvard needs to do a self-study of female faculty hiring, as institutions like MIT, Princeton, Yale and Duke have done.

She added that while Harvard may not lag behind all its peers, it should be leading the field.

“Harvard’s probably in the middle of the pack for comparable institutions,” Tobin said. “It’s certainly not a leader, and we sort of expect that Harvard would be a leader, because it considers itself a leader. That comparable institutions aren’t doing better—I wouldn’t use that as an excuse.”

Summers noted yesterday that the University already makes a significant effort with its $25 million outreach fund to recruit female and minority faculty.


Members of the Faculty Council—which is chaired by Kirby—said they discussed the issue extensively at their first meeting of the year yesterday.

“There were some strong opinions expressed,” said Weary Professor of German and Comparative Literature Judith L. Ryan.

Kirby announced a new initiative in which he said divisional deans will implement “extra-departmental mechanisms for identifying outstanding talent, with particular attention to women and minority faculty who might be recruited to Harvard.” He added that he had asked the deans for interim reports at the end of the semester with lists of tenure candidates and processes by which they would be included in searches.

Ryan, who said the measure was discussed at yesterday’s meeting, called it “definitely a step in the right direction.”

“Although the divisional deans have already been working on this topic, they have now started to codify it and make practical suggestions on it,” she said.

The council will reconsider the issue soon, one council member said.

“There was no clear sense of where to go from here except departments have to be more diligent,” the council member said. “The dean took it quite seriously.”

Ryan said although Summers was correct in asserting that appointments originate from departments, it is difficult to determine where the issue of declining female tenure appointments arises.

The council also discussed a number of other topics yesterday, including the curricular review and the new systems biology initiative, Ryan said.

—Rebecca D. O’Brien contributed to the reporting of this story. —Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at marks@fas.harvard.edu.