Joining the Ranks

Demystifying Harvard's Tenure System

Shunella Grace Lumas

Ten people carry 10 identical dossiers into Massachusetts Hall at 10 a.m. on select mornings throughout the academic year. The dossiers vary in size depending on the person under consideration for tenure—some are thick like a phone book, others are thinner. Each of the 10 dossiers opens to a special letter from the chair of the candidate’s department outlining the tenure recommendation. Each contains a full-scale report on the candidate’s academic history: published works, research summaries, peer reviews, course evaluations, a résumé. Each has been read in its entirety before the committee meeting begins.

After a seven- to eight-year track, every tenure case at Harvard ends at an ad hoc committee meeting chaired by the President and Provost of the University. The meeting lasts around three hours. No notes are taken. No votes are taken. In addition to the President and Provost, the dean of the school, the divisional dean, and the Senior Vice Provost on Faculty Diversity and Development sit in ex officio. Five others join them: three area experts from co-divisional departments within the University and two from outside Harvard. Depending on the needs of the committee, Harvard will pay for experts from around the world to fly to Cambridge to participate in person.

“The ad hoc process is greatly shrouded in mystery; remarkably little is written about it,” says current Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Development Judith D. Singer. She smirks wryly as she swigs coffee from her mug, as if this is something she’s explained a hundred times before.

“What the ad hoc process does is it takes a recommendation that has come up out of a department, been through a dean, and says, ‘Let’s look at this with a fresh set of eyes. Let’s look at the totality of the evidence and make a dispassionate decision about whether the recommendations that have come up are really in the best interest of the University,’” says Singer.

In addition to the dossiers and area experts, the committee brings in a set of witnesses from the candidate’s department, typically the department chair and the chair of the committee that did the promotion review, among others. As the witnesses arrive at half-hour intervals, they see the membership of the committee for the first time. Until that point, the identities of the panel—except, of course, those who are ex officio—are kept confidential to prevent advance solicitation.

“We hear the testimonies from the witnesses,” says Singer. “We’re really counting on the expertise of the people who are in the field. And it’s not typically a 'yes' or a 'no' or a 'maybe'; it’s what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses, and on balance, where do you make a decision? There’s much more nuance than many people think. I think a lot of people think it is about voting; that it’s very hard and fast. It is more about understanding the contribution of this individual.”

Following testimonies, the ad hoc committee deliberates: Is the candidate’s research up to par? What about the candidate’s teaching? Does the faculty balance necessitate someone of the candidate’s specific field? Is the candidate of the highest caliber to be tenured at Harvard? Can the University do better?

“They do really look at everything,” says English professor Louis Menand, who says he has been a witness on a number of ad hocs. “They really vet people. It’s like a full body search. Everything comes out and everything is discussed. It’s one of the places where there is a real frank discussion about the value of somebody’s work.”

The cases are rarely cut and dry. Negative witnesses are often called in to dissent the promotion. “Even in a canonization there’s a devil’s advocate,” says Singer, “and that’s part of what the ad hoc process is designed to do: to raise all of the questions and say, ‘Are they of sufficient concern to not make a tenure appointment?’”

The ad hoc is the mostly anonymous end to Harvard’s tenure process—when the dozens of classes and published papers boil down to a single decision. Many tenured and tenure-track professors say the process is unfair, that it is too subjective, too anonymous, and too unpredictable. But fairness may be beside the point. Those familiar with the process say Harvard is not interested in promoting good junior faculty, but rather in making sure it has the very best.

Soon after lunch, the President adjourns the ad hoc session, generally without announcing a decision. Sometimes additional evidence needs to be gathered, additional experts need to be called upon. In easy cases, the President will make a decision before her next appointment that day. She alone has final say. Once decided, the dean informs the candidate of the outcome. The candidate, in turn, receives no report or explanation, simply the decision itself: a yes or a no.

A Lifetime Guarantee

Members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, junior and senior, gather once a month for a formal meeting in University Hall. They weigh proposals, hear updates on committees, voice concerns, and at a few meetings throughout the school year, they take time to recognize the newest members of their ranks. It is the only real moment of public recognition in an otherwise private process.

As University President Drew G. Faust calls out their names, the newly senior professors make their way one at a time to the front of the portrait-lined faculty room. Most smile. Some cry. Those who do not already have Harvard degrees are awarded honorary ones, and faculty applaud.

For scholars, History Department chair David R. Armitage says, tenure is the “ultimate prize.”