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Jean Slingerland vs. The Faculty Council

A Primer on How Not to Get Things Done at Harvard

By Nicholas Lemann

One thing should be made clear from the start: in the general scheme of things at Harvard, Jean H. Slingerland, assistant director Of Expository Writing, is a distinctly minor figure. She is an English graduate student at work on a thesis, and before she resigned from Expos earlier this month, her appointment was by no means permanent.

So Slingerland's resignation didn't come close to shaking Harvard to its roots or anything like that. But it was unusual; officials at Harvard, especially in these quiet times, very seldom resign at all, let alone in a tremendous public huff.

The way Slingerland--a nervous, theatrical woman--made her ungraceful exit was almost a direct product of her minor-league status at Harvard, because she made the tremendous mistake of assuming that things like resignations arouse the sympathy of the Harvard Faculty. They don't. So instead of helping the Expos program through emotional advocacy, Slingerland bumped heads with the group that really runs the Faculty--the Faculty Council--and lost.

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Alan E. Heimert '49, chairman of the English Department, first approached Jean Slingerland about working in the Expos office in December 1972. She was working on her thesis at the time, and planning to teach a House course in English. "Mr. Heimert made me a proposition," Slingerland said. "I would be acting director of Expos for the following year, on a one-year contract, and I would get a second year if I got my thesis written. I said nothing for quite a while."

Slingerland accepted Heimert's offer in January, and then last spring found out that Expos had a new director--Gwynne B. Evans, professor of English--and a new guiding force, the Standing Committee on Expository Writing, a four-professor board.

Slingerland, Evans and the committee all began thinking about ways to change the Expos program soon after they took office. It seemed to all of them that Expos classes were too large and that the quality of teaching was not nearly what it should have been. So they came up with an idea to solve Expos's problems: offer exemptions from the Expos requirement to freshmen with SAT verbal scores and English Composition scores over 700, or with a four or five on the English Advanced Placement test.

The exemption would release about a third of each freshman class from its Expos requirement, thus enabling the Expos program to reduce class sizes without increasing its budget.

By last December, the new Expos plan was ready, and Evans submitted it as a proposal to the Faculty Council.

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The Faculty Council is an 18-member elected subcommittee of the Faculty that Dean Rosovsky likes to call "a combination of a dean's cabinet and a Faculty steering committee." It processes and votes on almost all the new legislation that comes before the Faculty, and the way it handles an issue is crucial to that issue's fate with the Faculty. At every Faculty meeting, on each proposal, the Faculty Council's recommendation is announced, and, one former council member says, "if the council splits the Faculty perks up, but if there's a unanimous Faculty Council vote, the Faculty goes to sleep and passes the issue."

The Faculty formed the council in 1970. It was a fairly political body at its inception. The Faculty's now dormant liberal and conservative caucuses come alive every spring and nominate slates of candidates to the Council. (Last year the box score on the election, sources say, was conservatives four, liberals two.) However, the council itself has become less and less political since its inception; Rosovsky, who served on the first council, says that he cannot tell any more who on the council is a Faculty liberal and who is a conservative. "In its first year," Rosovsky says, "there was lots of speechmaking, politics, ideology. Now, the council deals with running the Faculty of Harvard University."

At the same time it has become less political lately, the Council has become a bit less rigid. At first, the council's meetings were strictly confidential, so to most people at Harvard the nuts-and-bolts process of hammering out Faculty legislation was completely invisible. However, this spring, reportedly at the urging of some of its liberal members, the council instituted a weekly press briefing with an administration spokesman who fills reporters in on what the council is doing.

In fact, the council's new nonpolitical, efficient, relaxed mood typifies the way Rosovsky wants to run the Faculty. "There hasn't been a single issue in my administration in which I've been concerned about old politics. It's dead as a doornail. If the Faculty becomes political. I will have failed."

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The Faculty Council discussed the Expos proposal at seven different meetings from December to March. It invited a series of guest who know something about Expos to come to council meetings and discuss the proposal; Slingerland and Evans came twice to plug the proposal, and at one meeting in January, five Expos teachers and three freshmen generally criticized it. By February, the Faculty Council was becoming increasingly skeptical of the proposal, largely because most council members felt strongly that all freshmen should be required to take Expos.

By the second week of March, it had become clear to Slingerland that the council was going to reject the Expos proposal. On Friday, March 8, she got a letter from John B. Fox Jr. '57, secretary to the Faculty Council and Rosovsky's administrative assistant for council business. Fox asked to meet with Slingerland the following Monday to discuss the Expos proposal.

Monday at 3 p.m., Fox and Slingerland met, and Fox showed her figures on average Expos class sizes. The overcrowding of the classes was the main selling point of the exemption proposal; Slingerland had said all along that most Expos classes had well over 20 students, and had cited 15 as the ideal class size. So when Fox told her that he had calculated the average Expos class size to be about 17.5 students, he took a lot of the clout out of her argument.

"I'm terrible at arithmetic." Slingerland says. "Fox asked me if we had a calculator, and of course we didn't. Like a fool, I couldn't prove to him what was wrong with that 17.5. Because it's very complicated."

After she finished talking to Fox, Slingerland called up Dean Rosovsky's office and made an appointment for the next day.

On Tuesday, March 12, Dean Rosovsky had a full schedule--12 personal appointments. At 8:45 a.m., he met briefly with Fox, and then at 9 a.m. he spent an hour with Evans. Toward the middle of the day, Slingerland talked to Evans about his meeting with Rosovsky, and he told her there would be no exemptions in Expos next year. At 5:30 p.m., Slingerland had her meeting with Rosovsky. "He listened to what I had to say," she says, "and in the end, he told me there would be no exemptions. I told him that under these circumstances, I had to offer my resignation."

The next morning, Slingerland typed out her resignation and gave it to Evans, and that afternoon, the council met and accepted Rosovsky's recommendation that it reject the Expos proposal. Evans said, quietly, that he disapproved of the decision, and asked Slingerland not to reveal her resignation yet--so the next day, Thursday, she told a Crimson reporter that the council's decision was "the last straw," but that while she was thinking of resigning, she had not done it yet.

The next night, Slingerland was in Northampton listening to a performance of Bach's B-minor mass when she realized something. "After I'd made an ass of myself all that week, I saw that I, and it seems possible Fox and Rosovsky, had made a mistake on the averages," she says. "It turns out that lower-level Expos classes average about 19.6 and middle-level about 16.9."

That revelation did not do Slingerland much good. Two days later, the Standing Committee on Expository Writing accepted her resignation, effective July 1. She had not succeeded in changing the Expos program at all, but her crusade had annoyed council members and Expos instructors no end.

"All I did," she said last week, wearily drawing on a cigarette, "was shift some of my accountability to where it rests. But I was the fool. I blew it. The Dean knows more than I do."

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