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On Tenure at Harvard

By David S. Landes

IN AN ARTICLE IN THE Commencement issue of The Crimson (June 15, 1972) entitled "Tell Me, Now Can I Get Tenure at Harvard?" Arthur Lubow offered the readers of the newspaper, including the thousands of vision to the graduation ceremonials, what purported to be in inside, scandalous view of the appointment process at Harvard. The principal thrust of the article was the influence of extraneous considerations in appointments; citing examples from a Fnumber of departments, but particularly from History. Lubow described a process in which personal preference and political sympathy outweigh intellectual merit.

Now it would be presumptuous of anyone to generalize about the appointment process at Harvard without extensive research and access to candid information from reliable sources in a wide sample of departments. I shall not, therefore, pretend to speak about things I am not familiar with at first hand. But I do want to address myself to Mr. Lubow's picture of appointments in History, first, because I do know something about them; secondly, because he has chosen to write about me in this connection; and thirdly, because this is a very important subject that deserves to be treated accurately.

What he has to say about me is arrant falsehood. He writes that the father of my colleague Patrice Higonnet helped me gain access to important French archives and he implies that because of this alleged assistance I supported Professor Higonnet's appointment to a permanent post in the Department of History Mr. Higonnet pere has never helped me in any connection, so that I cannot possibly have been in fluenced by his favor to support the appointment of his son, as The Crimson itself recognizes.

Is such a libel serious? One of the most interesting aspects of this nasty but of defamation is that a number of people who read the article knowing the falsehood of its allegation (many readers, of course, had no reason to doubt it--why would The Crimson print such things if they weren't true?) thought the libel to be beneath notice or even trivial. Others, they felt, were more seriously injured than I. Now it is an interesting comment on our time that a charge of corruption is thought trivial. Or perhaps it is a comment on the status of professors, whose good name should be as precious to them as to anyone. If a judge were-accused of dispensing justice in return for favors from relatives of litigants, he might be more than slightly upset. In any event, I do not consider corruption a small matter, any more, I suspect, than does Mr. Lubow.

Yet the article did hurt others more than I, for it disparaged directly or implicitly their professional competence, and that kind of injury is much less actionable than a false charge of corruption. What recourse does a person have if someone writes that he is not worthy of his appointment? Expressions of opinion, however inaccurate or misleading, are protected. Still, it is not irrelevant in the present instance that these opinions are also based on error, indeed, on such an array of misinformation as would (or should) embarrass the most hardened exponent of advocacy journalism. To choose just three blatant examples.

(1) Country to the article, Patrice Higonnet's book on Pont-de-Montvert was in press at the time of his appointment. For any departmental review committee, a book in press is a book and not a manuscript, and we would properly be accused of nit-picking if we failed to make this distraction. He had also published a series of important articles on French political alignments and interest groups during the Revolution and the Monarchie Censitaire, using computer analysis to after a new interpretation of the division between progressive and conservative opinion. To imply, as the article does, that Professor Higonnet was preferred to other candidates within the department whose publication record was equal or comparable (we ask for a book when we feel like and forget it when suit us), is simply false.

(2) The article in effect accuses Professor Ford of defending modern German history as his personal preserve; Mr. Higonnet was allegedly promoted because he did not know German history (more nonsense); Professor Stern's candidacy is supposed to have failed because he did know German history. Yet even a modest inquiry would have revealed that Professor Ford's area of special interest is early modern French and German history; that this is where he has made his contribution to historiography; and that he teaches modern German history at considerable-additional effort. Far from clinging to the subject, he has devoted a lot of time to finding someone to relieve him of the burden, and it was he who nominated Professor Stern for appointment in our department.

(3) The article says that one of the impediments to the Stern appointment was his allegedly "mushy left" politics during the student revolt at Columbia. Yet a phone call to the offices of The Crimson's sister newspaper. The Columbia Spectator, would have told that this is the last thing anyone can say about him, that on the contrary, he has been one of the toughest and most outspoken members of the Columbia faculty in combatting romantic "mushyleftism" in university politics. Be that as it may--and this is the heart of the matter--all of this could in no way have affected his appointment, which was proposed and considered in 1966-67, that is, well before the excitement at Columbia.

THESE AND OTHER ERRORS of fact raise the question how. How could an article assemble so much misinformation? One reason, certainly, was its dependence on the least reliable of sources, namely assistant professors unhappy that they had not been promoted to tenure. These are necessarily ignorant of the proceedings attending their candidacy because they do not participate in the deliberations; nor are they ever really informed of the facts--for obvious reasons, the most important of which is the desire and need to preserve and improve their job chances elsewhere. Why did The Crimson rely on these misleading sources? Not because any senior faculty members would have refused to talk. Most of us were never approached. To be sure, had we been interviewed, we would have refused to discus personal details and particular cause, because these are properly confidential, not in the interests of the tenure faculty but of the candidates themselves. What is more, the operation of a fair, honest procedure of evaluation of intellectual and pedagogical qualifications depends on confidentially; very few people, whether inside or outside the University, would be prepared to state their unvarnished opinion of a colleague for public consumption, let alone for the attention of the colleague in question. Still, we would have been happy to discuss the actual workings of the appointment process--in principle and in general.

To be sure, principles and generalities do not make such good reading as personal can histories, especially when those are altered for the sake of drama. Even so, the readers of The Crimson, who know less about Harvard appointments than they did before reading the article, may be interested in some accurate information.

Promotion to tenure at Harvard is a complicated, long process (sometimes too long to catch the persons we want), which begins at the level of the department and does not finish until the overseers have confirmed the appointment. The procedure varies somewhat from one department to another but allowing for manor differences the aim of the procedure everywhere is to insure (1) that all assistant professors within the department receive explicit consideration, and (2) that an effort be made to locate and assess the qualifications of suitable candidates anywhere else.

IN HISTORY this search is generally performed by an ad hoe committee composed of persons in and out of the field of appointment, while all members of the department are encouraged to submit suggestions. This committee, which usually has to read thousands of pages, narrows the choice to one or more leading candidates and makes proposals to the full tenure committee of the department. These proposals are made long enough in advance to permit reading of the works of these nominees and such others as may be proposed for comparison. Then the discussion starts, and as often as not, there is hot a sufficient majority to warrant of a proposal to Dean. The History Department, like most other departments, is an intellectually group, of diverse interests and styles. This is a strong defense against mediocrity, for it takes an ususually impressive record to win the assent of a large majority. On the other-hand, the difficulty of the procedure leaves all of us with the feeling that we sometimes miss someone we should be getting, because a relatively small group of dissenters has blocked a nomination.

No system is perfect. It would be unreasonable and inexact to pretend that the present method of appointment excludes all extraneous considerations, such as the personal preferences and political sympathies stressed in the article. Just as the editors of The Crimson, in choosing their successors each year, must do their best to confine the issues to those of merit and yet sometimes--some of them, surely--allow themselves to be influenced by friendship and political congeniality, so faculty members are not perfect machines of judgement and no doubt similarly swayed. We are all supposed to be above such considerations, yet no one can look into the heart of his colleagues and swear they are pure; indeed it is a rare man who can look honestly into his own heart. The aim here is to minimize these influences. This is why the procedure is so complicated and full of checks and balances--why the ad hoc committee within the department is composed of men of varied specialties why every proposal contains within itself other possibilities why each nomination is then subjected to scrutiny by a university ad hoc committee composed entirely of persons outside the department half of them coming from outside the university why faculty members give more time and psychic energy to the co-option of their colleagues than almost anything else they do.

Even so, Harvard does not always make the right choice. And in recent years we have found it harder to persuade the persons of our choice to come here from better paid jobs elsewhere. The Crimson writes as though this were a very bad thing we are losing, it notes, some of our best young scholars by sending them away at the most critical point in their careers. It might have also noted they when we do succeed in bringing some of these scholars back, we have to pay a very high price, for they have advanced rapidly elsewhere, faster than they could here. All of that many be had for Harvard, although I am not at all sure. Certainly it is a sings of good health the part of other universities, and that is no doubt a good things. We could do worse than to continue furnishing the country and world with first class scholars and teachers.

With all that, we do very well indeed, as the article implicitly recognizes. And this in itself is evidence that the system by no means the corrupt or prejudiced one pictured in this article. The quality of the faculty could simply not maintain itself under those conditions. Good choices are cumulative: good scholars while mediocrity feeds on itself.

The abyss that separates the facts of the matter and The Crimson version suggests that The Crimson needs to give more thought and care to its journalistic responsibilities. Insofar as its aim was to improve the quality of appointments at Harvard, no one can object. But insofar as the purpose was to reveal alleged in justices and miscarriages, it have worked a little harder, asked a few more questions talked to more people, thought a little longer. The whole business will serve as an object lesson to history majors on how not to do research.

One final point I could understand a journalistic philosophy that affirmed the primacy of the truth let the chips and personal feelings fall where they may or a philosophy that gave some consideration to personal sensibilities and weighed the price of some revelations against the human cost Buta policy that brutalizes both the truth and people is indefensible.

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