Popular Levitsky Awarded Tenure

Steven R. Levitsky spent more than two decades studying Latin America despite his mother’s confusion as to why a “nice Jewish boy” would do so. On Friday the Harvard government professor, an undergraduate favorite, was offered tenure here.

Levitsky only learned about the decision the following day. “I had gone home early to make latkes for a Hanukkah party, and couldn’t be reached,” Levitsky said in an interview yesterday.

“I was shocked,” he went on. “I never, ever expected to get tenure at Harvard.”

Levitsky, 39, is the most recent of seven new professors to receive tenure under University President Drew G. Faust this fall, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Robert P. Mitchell.

“We are very excited about having Professor Levitsky as a tenured member of our faculty. He is an outstanding scholar, wonderful teacher, and excellent University citizen,” Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith said in an e-mailed statement.

Levitsky, who currently holds a prestigious John L. Loeb associate professorship in the social sciences, is being tenured in the government department. He also has an appointment on the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies.

Levitsky becomes part of only a handful professors who teach in the social studies program to have been tenured in the program’s nearly 50-year history, according to Dean for the Social Sciences David M. Cutler.

Levitsky’s tenure announcement spread across House open lists Monday and inspired the creation of a group on Facebook.com dedicated to him. His enthusiasm for the material he teaches—and, as many of his students testify, Argentine soccer—is widely acknowledged by undergraduates who have taken his classes. Levitsky has received CUE ratings above 4.7 out of 5 for all of his courses since he began teaching at Harvard as an assistant government professor in 2000.

Levitsky’s introductory comparative politics course, Government 20, has 270 undergraduates enrolled this spring. This spring he will teach Government 1295, a comparative politics course on Latin America, along with a social studies junior tutorial on Latin American politics.

“He has quite honestly been among the top several professors I’ve worked with at Harvard,” said George Soroka, the head teaching fellow for Gov 20. “It has been a wonderful opportunity to work with someone who gives so much thought to pedagogy.”

“He is extremely engaging and really passionate about what he is teaching,” said Katherine A. Beck ’08, who took his junior seminar last spring. “He is a fantastic discussion leader and made me excited about coming to class.”

Over the last few years, Levitsky’s course enrollment numbers have climbed significantly. Gov 20 now has 270 students enrolled as opposed to 149 last fall, and Gov 1295 grew from 91 students in the spring of 2006 to 128 this past spring.

Levitsky graduated from Stanford in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and received his doctorate in political science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1999. He primarily studies Latin America, focusing on informal institutions and organizations, political parties and party change, and political regimes in the context of democratization.

But the scope of Levitsky’s often goes beyond his regional interests, according to Eduardo J. Gomez, who served as a teaching fellow for Gov 1295 last semester.

“His work on informal institutions and political regimes has really opened up a lot of ideas and interest in how informal politics works and how regime type matters when it comes to democratization,” Gomez said. “He is one of the seminal contributors and pioneers in that field.”

Soroka, who studies post-communist politics, added that he would have known of Levitsky as a scholar even if he had not worked with him in the context of Gov 20.

“His work has had an impact beyond his regional focus,” Soroka said. “His work on institutions, especially, has influenced post-communist studies and a variety of other fields.”

Levitsky also advises several campus student groups, including the Harvard Organization for Latin America and the Harvard College Project for Sustainable Development. Levitsky said that, while he could be more involved on campus, he usually goes home after work to spend time with his wife and three-year-old daughter.

Levitsky joked that had he been denied tenure, he would have sought employment at one of the other universities in the area or at Boca Grande Taqueria, the burrito shop near his home.

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.