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Keenan at the GSAS: Facing the Turbulence


He is self-effacing in discussing his assumption of the new post, constantly describing himself as "the new boy" who "hardly knows his way in the door," and whose first priority is still "just trying to learn the job." Yet it is obvious that Edward L. Keenan '57, new dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, has been doing his homework this summer. He sits in his office in University Hall 24 in complete command of the array of charts, graphs and reports that fill the files in his desk. He cites statistics from some of the books he included on his summer reading list, books with titles like "Ph.D.s and the Academic Labor Market."

A specialist in medieval Russian history who, at age 42, has already spent 22 years at Harvard, Keenan says the country and its graduate schools are entering a period of considerable "aggregate statistical turbulence. The question is, where will Harvard fit in to these statistics? We can't expect to live always in the style to which we've become accustomed." The new dean cites the studies with just a trace of resignation: Between now and 1990, as many academic appointments will open up as during the two-year period of 1965-66. That translates into about 4800 college jobs openings per year during the 1980s. During the same period, 60,000 new Ph.D.s in the humanities will not be able to find academic jobs.

At Harvard, about 30 percent of all GSAS students are now leaving the school without finishing their Ph.D.s Those who stay are taking a year to two years longer to finish their degree studies than they did just five years ago. The federal government has cut its financial support for Harvard's GSAS in half during the last decade.

Keenan predicts a possible crisis of low morale among both graduate students and faculty, a crisis against which he intends to do battle. "The existential situation of the graduate student is pretty trying. He can read The New York Times just as well as anybody else. He knows that zero or minus on the chart is him. Most of our students probably think, 'Well, I'm going to be all right. It's not going to be me.' In most cases that's probably a sensible and statistically plausible way of looking at it. But in some fields, it's definitely unrealistic."

As for faculty, Keenan says he increasingly expects to see "the professor who only has one student every other year in a seminar on a very complex subject, to which he's devoted a whole lifetime, that he's eager to convey to others. That professor, after a while, no matter how enthusiastic he is, begins to wonder, should he be doing something else?"

Keenan sees his role as helping to formulate policies to bring the graduate school through this period of radical demographic change, taking steps to "maximize the employability of our grad students," adding, "there are skills and kinds of experiences and attitudes that we can give to graduate students so that they can get a serious professional Ph.D. and then have a plausible option outside the academic world."

"The Ph.D. should not be a limiting degree. It should not just be used to make professors," says Keenan. The dean says he would like to see more joint programs combining preparation for the Ph.D. with others types of training, combinations like History and Law or English and Journalism. He says he expects that Harvard will participate in a new federally-funded program designed to help humanities Ph.D.'s find jobs outside the academic world.

Although he says the GSAS is already "very competitive" with the graduate schools of other major universities in its job placement track record, Keenan believes the individual departments "can and will do more" to find academic appointments for their students in the future.

Keenan says that the method of record keeping used by the graduate school makes an exact estimate of how well Harvard Ph.D.'s are faring in the job market impossible. Each department compiles its own study, and each uses its own criteria to determine what constitutes job placement. (In one department work as a bank officer or car salesman may be considered placement, in another only a teaching appointment at a certified college is counted as such.) Overall, 88 per cent of the 1976 graduating Harvard Ph.D. s found jobs, a figure which is next to meaningless because of the varying definitions of the word "job." But one thing is certain. Keenan says increasing numbers of graduating Harvard Ph.D. s have been finding placements at points lower down on the academic ladder: fewer receive appointments at major universities, more find jobs at two-year community and junior colleges.

Keenan speaks with trepidation about a piece of federal legislation now under consideration which he says could have a "disastrous impact" on the already none-too-optimistic job picture if it is passed. Congress is now considering outlawing mandatory retirement as a form of age discrimination. Keenan cites studies which show that such a move could eliminate as much as 80 per cent of the projected academic job openings during the 1980s. ("Professors are obscenely longlived." Keenan says.) With the law in effect, as few as 600 academic appointments per year may be available nationwide at that time. That's about as many available appointments as there are Harvard Ph.D.'s graduating each year.

Although Keenan has never served as an administrator at Harvard's GSAS before, he garnered some first-hand experience with the vagaries of graduate school administration through a professional commitment he keeps halfway around the world. For the past two years, Keenan has served as one of the three American members of the board of overseers of the new Iranian national graduate school being built outside Teheran, Reza Shah Kabir University (RSKU). Four times a year, Keenan makes the 16-hour plane trip to Teheran, where he confers with the other RSKU directors over a three-day weekend.

It is a commitment that has drawn severe criticism from segments of the Harvard community. Critics label RSKU as direct support for one of the world's most repressive regimes. It is reliably reported that agents of the Shah of Iran's secret police, SAVAK, are present in most college classrooms in the country, taking careful note of students who dare to criticize the conventional texts. Keenan says he believes the reports are true about SAVAK's infiltration of Iranian universities, but thinks it may be possible to avoid this lack of academic freedom at RSKU. The new university will be located in a relatively isolated area next to a national forest outside Teheran, away from the major urban foci of the spy network, Keenan maintains. And since the RSKU facility will only be utilized for Ph.D. candidates preparing their dissertaition, instruction will be given almost exclusively on a one-to-one basis, rather than in a classroom situation, he says.

"The project has merit from almost any point of view. It is trying to help a very rapidly developing country generate its own capacity to produce Ph.D.s," Keenan says. "The moral calculus is essentially a personal one. Currently I think it is a legitimate, even promising, activity."

"I have yet to encounter any political interference of what we'd call the thought control type, and if I did, I'd quit," Keenan says, but adds "It would be naive to think that RSKU is going to be more like Cambridge than it is like universities in most parts of the world."

Keenan displays a warmth and respect for Harvard that is a sterling example of institutional loyalty. There was seemingly no question but that he would accept the GSAS post when Dean Rosovsky finally chose him as his candidate for the job after a four-month-long search process. "When the dean asks me to do something, I do it," Keenan says.

A look at Keenan's career helps explain his devotion to Harvard. Except for a two-year period of study at the University of Leningrad during the early '60s, Harvard has been Keenan's home for the past 24 years. He arrived in Cambridge as a college freshman in 1953, a self-described "kid from the boon-docks" of western New York. "This place has been very important in my life. Harvard has been very good to me," Keenan says and adds after a moment's reflection, "It still is." He served as master of North House for five years during the late '60s and early '70s and spearheaded a fundraising drive as director of the Russian Research Center.

It is somewhat ironic that Keenan the academic should find himself engrossed in the trials and tribulations of the academic market. It is a market with which Keenan has never known any problems. The specialist in medieval Russian history was given the unofficial nod for a tenured appointment in 1968, at the tender age of 33, only two years after he received his Ph.D., and joined the Harvard faculty.

Unlike most GSAS deans of the past, who carried half their normal teaching loads while serving as dean, Keenan intends to teach his full complement of courses this year, including a Gen Ed course, Social Sciences 30, "Lands and People of the USSR." "I'm not a workaholic and I'm not going to kill myself on purpose," Keenan says of his decision to not cut back on his teaching. "The crucial thing will be if I don't have time for my own work--my research and writing. If that happens, I'll have to make an agonizing reassessment.

Undoubtedly it is clear that Edward Keenan should be a very busy man for some time to come. As if teaching a full load of courses and occasionally jetting off to Teheran were not enough to keep him busy, he has committed himself to attempting to tackle the major long-range issue upon which the viability of graduate education at Harvard hinges.

The prognosis is guarded, as Keenan would be the first to admit. "What we must do here at Harvard GSAS is try to keep a certain amount of quality and self-respect at a time when all hell will be breaking loose on the charts," Keenan says.

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