An Unfortunate Departure

Despite her disfavor in University politics, Dean Skocpol did much for GSAS pedagogy

The University lost an effective, if sometimes divisive, administrator when Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Dean Theda Skocpol resigned last Tuesday. In just two short years under her leadership, she has accomplished much, most prominently overseeing a broad rethinking of the way the Faculty teaches graduate students and undergraduates alike.

Yet the GSAS dean’s tenure has not been a quiet one, nor one unscathed by controversy and political vendetta. Rather, Skocpol’s career as a scholar has been tumultuous since its nascence, marked by several prominent confrontations with University administrators. In 1980, she filed a grievance against the University, alleging gender discrimination when her tenure application was denied. She had described Harvard as “the most arrogant university in the Western world,” but was eventually granted tenure after administrators reviewed her charges of prejudice.

Twenty years later, when she was offered the GSAS deanship, she had yet again ventured to the forefront of an administrative crisis as an outspoken critic of former University President Lawrence H. Summers. At the vanguard against Summers’ aggressive leadership style and his remarks concerning women and science, she led the Faculty in passing a docket motion censuring Summers’ conduct.

Skocpol’s penchant for controversy, however, has not been without its costs. Most notably, it recently backfired in her widely rumored campaign to become the next dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Her leadership style, which interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles tactfully termed “gently unambiguous,” proved to be the sticking point with many senior faculty members, recalling the strong-willed tendencies of Summers’ tenure. This ultimately led to University President Drew G. Faust voicing doubt about Skocpol’s bid for the FAS deanship and, by many accounts, to Skocpol’s subsequent resignation when she realized her ambitions might not be realized.

Despite the controversy surrounding her, we might never know whether Skocpol would have served capably as FAS dean. We are, however, appreciative of the job she has done as GSAS dean. Because of her initative, for example, the GSAS will require mandatory English testing for TFs starting next fall, in large part due to frequently voiced students complaints about their inability to comprehend their section leader. She has also been a strong advocate for mandatory TF evaluations in order to hold TFs accountable for their performance.

Her Faculty-wide accomplishments have been equally impressive. She chaired the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development, which called on teaching to be given “major and equal weight” as research in deciding professorial salaries. Effecting her and her task force’s recommendations will be critically important in the face of many professors’ tendency to devote scant attention to pedagogy in favor of research, writing, and publication. Though scholarship is no doubt vital to any modern research university, it cannot function as such without quality instruction from devoted researchers. Still other achievements include her work to ensure that all Ph.D. students have adequate dissertation funding, to unify “best practices” from the highly modular and disconnected graduate programs, and to improve access to financial and tracking data.

University politics can be quite the minefield to tread, and we regret that Skocpol’s personal attributes and managerial style fell out of favor with her colleagues. With her resignation, we have lost a driven leader whose vision for the pedagogical improvement of Harvard will be sorely missed. But her resignation also reflects lessons to be learned. Like it or not, University politics clearly demands that administrators not only have vision and drive, but also the ability to accomplish their goals diplomatically.