Harvard's teaching tenure policy is as complicated as an income tax return and almost as incomprehensible as Professor Sorokin's accent.
Under the present "up or out" system in force since 1939, a teacher, if he is lucky, advances from annual instructor to Faculty instructor (a five-year appointment) to associate professor and permanent tenure.
No one stands still; the only alternatives are promotion or a "terminating appointment," which is an academic way of saying, "You're not fired, but you can't come back after next year."
This system grew out of the Walsh-Sweezy controversy in 1937. In that year two young Economics instructors--J. Raymond Walsh and Alan Sweezy--were dismissed. Their supporters immediately raised the issue of academic freedom, charged that they had been fired because they were "dangerous reds." What had appeared to be a routine housecleaning became a cause celebre.
Faculty Bigwigs Probe
A Faculty committee investigated the affair for a year, and reported that there was no evidence of anti-radical prejudice. But the investigators did find evidence of misunderstanding and administrative incompetency, and recommended that Walsh and Sweezy be re-appointed--a suggestion which President Conant turned down.
Almost a year later, in March, 1939, this same "Committee of Eight" issued a long report urging drastic revision of the University's hiring-and-firing procedure to prevent teachers from being fired by mistake. Among their proposals was the suggestion that the rank of assistant professor be abolished.
Dangling Assistant Professors
Assistant professorships are not permanent appointments. Under the old system it was possible for an assistant professor to be kept dangling on successive three-year appointments while the Administration made up its mind whether or not he was worthy of permanent status as an associate professor. If the verdict was No, the unlucky assistant professor might find it difficult to secure a post elsewhere.
What the Committee of Eight wanted to do was to make it impossible for a man to teach at Harvard more than eight years without being given permanency, or being sent packing while he is still young enough to get another good teaching job. The Committee explicitly stated that the rank of assistant professor should be abolished gradually, with due regard to existing commitments.
The Axe Falls
In the spring of 1939, after the Faculty had very briefly considered the Committee's proposals, the President accepted them "in principle." Shortly before Commencement the news leaked out that ten assistant professors, all occupying key teaching positions, had been given "terminating appointments."
When College opened the following fall, the storm broke. Undergraduate organizations, ranging from the Student Union to the Student Council, and led by the high-sounding "Committee to Save Harvard Education," campaigned for the retention of the ten assistant professors.
The fight was carried into the Faculty room, and for a time attendance at Faculty meetings tripled.
The issue boiled down to this: the Administration said the men had to be let out because of a shrinking budget, and the students and a large part of the Faculty held that the men could be kept without straining the budget.