Danse Macabre at the GSD


"Readers of the Report, especially faculty members most familiar with Design School affairs through the past five or six years, will recognize that there are those who have taken advantage of the opportunity this enquiry presented to air old and unrelated grievances, or to fish in troubled waters. This adds an unfortunate sordidness to parts of the Report that, in my judgement, reflects on the School somewhat unfairly." --Maurice D. Kilbridge, dean of the Graduate School of Design

No matter how hard it tries, the Graduate School of Design can't keep its skeletons locked in the closet. Every few years the bolt slips, the door edges open and out step the remains of old GSD scandals in a veritable danse macabre. "Unfortunate sordidness" soon fills the air, as it has once again this month for the GSD, the University's long-time problem child.

The first skeleton out of the closet this year belongs to a long-departed former GSD faculty member named Chester W. Hartman '57, who now lives in San Francisco. When the GSD declined in 1969 to reappoint him assistant professor of city planning, Hartman successfully sought formal investigation of his charges that personal and political considerations had governed the school's decision.

Now, over five years after Hartman filed his formal complaint, the five-man University panel set up to study the allegations has completed its investigation, published a rambling 300-page report, and promptly washed its hands of the entire matter. The investigation now sits in the collective laps of the GSD faculty, which includes 55 voting members and a total membership of over 100. The GSD faculty will take up the report for the first time this morning in its initial meeting of the year.

While completion of the tedious, drawn-out investigative process offers some hope for resolution of the GSD's problems, the odds actually remain slim that the GSD will emerge from the thicket of charge and countercharge that has surrounded it for so long. There are several reasons why escape appears unlikely. First, the long report of the Hartman Review Committee suffers from ambiguity and information gaps that will prevent the faculty from resolving the affair without another in-depth review. Secondly, broad questions of what due process and academic freedom mean in practical application requires University-level study and definition and not merely an ad hoc faculty decision on Hartman's charges. Finally, a clean break with a muddy past appears unlikely while long-standing animosities between Dean Kilbridge and several senior GSD faculty members persist.

The Hartman Review Committee states at the outset that the limited cooperation of several key actors in the dispute weakened its investigation.

The list of those who were less than forthcoming with the panel includes virtually all the principal faculty members and administrators involved in Hartman's case. Reginald R. Isaacs, Norton Professor of Regional Planning, refused to answer any of the panel's requests for testimony and information. The committee also accuses Francois C.D. Vigier, professor of City Planning and Urban Design, and William Nash, now teaching at Georgia State University, of cutting off their cooperation in the middle of the inquiry. All three men--Isaacs, Nash and Vigier--are vital to any study of Hartman's case as they were the senior members of his department, City and Regional Planning.

In addition, the report finds that the present GSD dean, Kilbridge, and his predecessor Jose-Luis Sert, professor of Architecture emeritus, constrained the investigation.

Ambiguity arises in the study because the committee vacillates between an investigative role and a judicial one. While in some sections the panel makes value judgements about the legitimacy of including subjective factors in reappointment decisions, on other questions it defers to the GSD faculty. This on top of a mound of confusing overqualification, creates paragraphs like this:

Subjective elements, both personal and professional in character, probably did exert a significant influence on the departmental decision. But we are not prepared to assert that Dr. Hartman's academic freedom as traditionally defined, was violated. Nor are we prepared to assert that the objective reasons for their decisions, stated by Professors Nash and Vigier and by Dean Kilbridge, involved with teaching, research and scholarship, were not sufficient to explain, to justify and to determine the outcome of their decisions. This is not an uncommon situation.

Resolution of the Hartman affair by the GSD will be further impeded by the overwhelming collection of abstract and quasi-legal issues that are involved. If the faculty attempts to skirt these issues it would leave ground for fundamental challenge. But it could find itself in a hopeless debate if, for example, it tries to carve out the meaning and correct application of academic freedom. Such questions demand University-level study and definition, not ad hoc formulations by individual faculties.

The third and final constraint of the GSD faculty's efforts to bury its troublesome skeletons is the bitter antagonism between several GSD faculty, including Vigier and Isaacs, and Dean Kilbridge. These animosities originally erupted in the early seventies, when the professors clashed with Kilbridge over his efforts to make changes in the City and Regional Planning Deapartment. The dispute went to a subcommittee of the Corporation, which in early 1972 dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

Clearly the Corporation decision did not resolve matters. Instead, tension ran underground, further weakening the foundation of the GSD. Evidence of this is found throughout the report: "Potentially the most difficult factor to deal with is the existence to this day of bitter animosities between individuals. Some of these date back to the period under consideration; others arise from subsequent events and issues unrelated to this case ... If anything, each side has on occasion sought to undermine the other. Thus at the heart of the investigation we have a three-way rather than a two-way conflict."

No one at the GSD is predicting these days what will happen to the Hartman case and to the other interconnected disputes that have divided the School. Quick, decisive action by the full faculty faces many obstacles, and referral to another committee within the GSD would delay the already unjustly long appeal process. Chester Hartman says he expects little from the Design School; he has already resigned himself to continuing his odyssey to the University president and, perhaps, beyond that to the courts and the AAUP.

Hartman's attitude is the most realistic. His case is without precedent--never before has Harvard studies a non-rehiring case, just as never before the Isaacs-Vigier challenge of Kilbridge had anyone asked the Corporation to unseat a dean. Like a landmark legal case, the Hartman controversy appears destined for appeal to the higher courts.