News Analysis: Behind the Scenes, Skepticism Over Skocpol's Rise

Graduate school dean's campaign for FAS deanship may not prove successful

Theda Skocpol said Tuesday that she was quitting her post as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) because she had accomplished what she set out to do when she accepted the position two years ago.

"It makes sense for incoming university and FAS leaders to recruit a new GSAS dean as an ongoing member of their future leadership team," Skocpol said in a statement.

Behind the scenes, however, Skocpol’s resignation coincided with what appeared be a wave of uncertainty about her candidacy for the deanship of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), one of Harvard’s most powerful posts.

In Cambridge, Skocpol is known as a headstrong leader and discipline-defining scholar with an acute sense of Faculty politics.

But in recent weeks, the prospect of Skocpol’s promotion has stirred strong opposition among professors advising President-elect Drew G. Faust in her search for a new dean of the Faculty, according to an individual close to the faculty advisory committee and a senior FAS faculty member. The criticisms of Skocpol have caused Faust herself to express skepticism, the individuals said.

Only last spring, Skocpol’s candidacy seemed promising when she rose to the top of Interim President Derek C. Bok’s list of potential candidates to lead Harvard’s flagship school, according to the sources. But when Bok floated Skocpol’s candidacy among faculty members and top administrators, he encountered strong resistance that forced him to reconsider, the individuals said.

In the end, Bok asked Jeremy R. Knowles, a chemist who had led FAS from 1991 to 2001, to return to University Hall for an encore.

The Crimson granted anonymity to the individuals because their relationships with University officials would be compromised if they were named. Skocpol declined to comment for this article, as did a Harvard spokesman.

With her announcement on Tuesday, it appears Skocpol’s years-long campaign to assume one of Harvard’s most influential jobs may not prove successful.

THE QUIET CAMPAIGN

Skocpol’s climb to the highest level of Harvard leadership has been defined by controversy.

In 1980, when she was denied tenure in the Sociology Department—where she had been an associate professor for five years—Skocpol alleged sexual discrimination, citing her gender as the reason why the department's eleven male members turned down her candidacy.

Five years later, an investigation led by President Derek C. Bok—then in his first go at leading the University—found in favor of Skocpol's claim. She was offered tenure and returned to Harvard from the University of Chicago.

"It was not a happy story," Harrison C. White, a member of the Sociology Department from 1963 to 1988, said last spring about the affair.

Skocpol was appointed dean two decades later after anthropologist Peter T. Ellison resigned from the position over disagreements with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers.

In the Summers dust-up, Skocpol operated as both provocateur and problem-solver.

Skocpol told Summers at a February 2005 Faculty meeting that the president's actions amounted to a "crisis of governance and leadership." At the same time, Skocpol along with Knowles and Libraries chief Sidney Verba ’53 offered themselves up as a committee that could represent the Faculty in its relations with Summers and Harvard's governing boards.

The self-described "little troika of a group" was widely criticized as undemocratic and as working to silence—not facilitate—debate.

While Skocpol has been a boisterous Faculty member, she has led a quiet campaign to become the Faculty's permanent dean.

In her pursuit, Skocpol seems to have had assistance from Bok. The interim president summoned Skocpol to lead the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development, providing her with a significant resume-boost and a highly visible soapbox upon which to address the Faculty.

"Theda Skocpol has done a truly remarkable job as dean of the Graduate School," Bok said in a statement on Tuesday. "We owe her a great debt."

DECANAL DECISIONS

To some, Skocpol came to mirror the controversial president that she once opposed, in equal parts praised both for her brilliance as a researcher and derided for her authoritarian and divisive approach to leading.

It is a leadership style that Knowles, in characteristically circumspect fashion, referred to in his letter yesterday as "gently unambiguous."

With Faust's selection as president and the dean search having been placed in her hands, some professors speculate that Knowles' successor will be a male scientist both to provide proper balance to the female historian who will occupy Mass. Hall and to help assist in the direction of Harvard's expansion of the sciences into Allston.

It seems, though, that personality and not gender or discipline may have halted Skocpol's plans.

"Look at Harvard," Knowles said in an interview prior to Skocpol's resignation, "Male president, male provost, male dean. Look at Princeton. Female president, female provost, female dean. My only concern—and I'm sure that President-elect Faust thinks the same—is...that my successor should be someone who is going to be a very close colleague and work very well with President-elect Faust in shaping the future of the Faculty."

In a statement on Tuesday, Faust endorsed Skocpol’s efforts as GSAS dean. “I hope still to benefit from her ideas and her thoughtful counsel going forward,” Faust said.

While Skocpol's resignation suggests an unlikely future in Harvard administration, she is said to be considering significant leadership positions at other universities.

If that's the case, it will be an end as clamorous and contentious as was her beginning.

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at jacobs@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.