When Chairman Mao Tse-tung died last month, the two Harvard professors most sought after for comment by journalists and scholars were John K. Fairbank '29, Higginson Professor of History, and Ross G. Terrill, associate professor of Government.
That's the same Ross Terrill who made a tremendous impact on the American public several years ago with the publication of his 800,000,000: The Real China, a study of China today.
But it is also the same Ross Terrill who learned last May that the Government Department had decided not to offer him tenure, leaving him both surprised and saddened, he said earlier this week.
There is an easy explanation for the Government Department's decision, readily offered by members of the Department and the East Asian Research Center.
There are already two tenured professors teaching Chinese government--one full-time and one who divides his time between the Government and History Departments--and a third would have left the Government Department balance lopsided.
But the reasons seem to go far deeper. As a Ph.D student in political theory at Harvard, Terrill wrote a theses on English social theorist R.H. Tawney, but he has since transferred his interests to China.
Harvey C. Mansfield '53, chairman of the Government Department, said yesterday the department was very impressed with Terrill's talents and achievements, especially the Tawney book.
But his main interest is in Chinese politics, where we already have two professors," he said. "And we make our decisions on the basis of our needs," he said.
Besides Terrill's field straddling--he said this week "you pay a price at Harvard to do things here and there"--a member of the Government Department said this week "there are those who say his work is not scholarly, there are those who have it in for those who get so popular."
The Australian-born Terrill has written numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, appeared on television during former President Nixon's 1972 visit to China, and has written two books on China that, although praised by scholars, have made an impact on general readers as well.
Mansfield said he does not think the journalistic or popular appeal of the books was a negative factor in the department's decision, explaining that Terrill has done scholarly work, such as the Tawney book, in addition to his journalistic work.
Terrill's politics, too, might have been a factor in the decision, department members said this week. During the Vietnam War he wrote numerous articles expressing his opposition, and he has identified himself as clearly more sympathetic to the People's Republic of China than most of the Harvard faculty.
Terrill has also been feared as an "unguided missile," a close colleague said this week. "He is too well-connected in too many professions."
The colleague said that Terrill's multi-cultural nature--he wrote his dissertation on English social history, he is an Australian citizen, he has visited and written of China, and he is a permanent resident of the United States--is "suspect in the department.
Terrill said this week he intends to remain in the United States and become an American citizen, and added that he has made a commitment to intellectual work in America.
Terrill's interest in China goes back to his undergraduate days in Australia. He took a leave of absence from college one year to travel in Europe, and while there decided the shortest route home was not the popular one through the Middle East, but rather through Asia.
After considerable pestering, he said this week, he finally received permission from a Chinese consulate in Eastern Europe to travel home through the country.
He spent several weeks there, and when he came to Harvard as a student shortly thereafter, he started to study the Chinese language. He has pursued that interest since.
Terrill's case raises the question of the multi-dimensional scholar, the intellectual who constantly follows new interests and spreads into more than one field. For Harvard, at least, there seems to be no place for a curious mind of this sort, which cannot easily fit into one of the University's well-defined fiefdoms.