IMAGINE how silly it would be if Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences hired its employees the way other businesses do. Suppose, for instance, that the dean went around the country recruiting the best young prospects from graduate schools, made them associates, and if they did well after a few years offered them a chance to buy into the business as partners. The really successful professors would eventually get their names on the letterhead, and secretaries around Cambridge would answer the phone, "Good morning, Finley, Galbraith, Riesman and Handlin."
Or picture this telephone conversation from University Hall to New Haven: "Hello, Bart? Yeah, Roso here. Hey Bart, we're looking real weak over in English and we're gonna need some kind of utility art historian for the next few seasons. Whaddaya say you give us Bloom and Scully and we'll send over Bud Bailyn, a little cash, and a couple of assistant professors to be named later."
But it would probably be even sillier if other businesses hired their employees the way Harvard does. A law firm would become the laughingstock of the profession if it tried to hire only the nation's most celebrated lawyers and judges who had proven themselves by becoming successful and established at top firms and courts around the country. So would a baseball team that tried to sign both all-star teams to its roster.
But that is exactly how Harvard goes about hiring tenured professors: it has eyes only for distinguished scholars who are the leading figures in their fields. "These lifetime professorial appointments," Faculty guidelines state, "are reserved for scholars of the first order of eminence."
An elaborate review system ensures that Harvard will not grant tenure to academics of less than spectacular status. Before a department votes to recommend a scholar for tenure, it must elicit rankings of the leading candidates for the post from a half dozen professors in the field of the proposed appointment. The dean's office requires a department to take these evaluations into account in making a tenure recommendation.
Once a department votes to recommend that Harvard ask a scholar to spend the rest of his life in the Yard, President Bok convenes an ad hoc committee of scholars from Harvard and other universities who carefully scrutinize the candidate's qualifications. After the committee's session, Bok himself makes the final decision on the candidate.
IT IS DIFFICULT to object to a hiring system based entirely on pursuit of excellence, and it is probably presumptuous to raise questions about a procedure that experienced scholars and administrators have long chosen to use. But any policy as extreme as Harvard's ultra-cautious array of reviews is bound to look as if it gives short shrift in one direction or another. Two apparent shortcomings of the way Harvard grants tenure emerge--one pragmatic and one philosophical.
The first has been expressed most cogently by James A. Davis, the chairman of the Sociology Department, who said earlier this year. "Anyone preeminent enough to come to Harvard is probably pretty well dug in somewhere else. He or she is probably 40 or 50 with a spouse well-established at something and two or three teenaged sons and daughters who would rather die than come to Boston."
Harvard's insistence on eminent scholars does, as Davis suggests, keep the University's success rate down in its efforts to fill tenure openings. For all Harvard's popular perception as the Mecca of American universities, nearly every department chairman in the Faculty has stories to tell of assiduously wooing a scholar only to see him stop just short of going all the way, explaining that he's content to stay where he is.
After all, a professor with a big enough name to attract Harvard's attention undoubtedly has an elaborate and hard-to-move research project underway--especially, if he is a scientist or social scientist--with his own laboratory or computer center or team of graduate students. This is to say nothing of the family ties that make it all the more difficult to pick up and relocate in Cambridge, as Davis points out.
Davis speaks from experience. The Sociology Department has suffered--more notoriously than any other Harvard department--from its recent inability to hire tenured professors. And all three of the sociologists it offered tenure to last month have expressed serious reservations about the prospect of transferring their research projects, finding new jobs for their spouses, and, in some cases, schools for their children.
Other departments this year heard from professors who saw no reason to leave their current posts to come here. Allan F. Gibbard, a University of Michigan philosopher, turned down a tenure, offer because of a "comfortable family situation," according to Department Chairman Robert Nozick, Mark Griffith, a classics scholar at Berkeley, rejected tenure at Harvard, explaining, "I like it here very much."
The ramifications of a rejected tenure offer go beyond the fact that Harvard loses out on a certain scholar. Putting together a tenure offer is exhausting work for a department, involving endless paperwork and long, often nasty debating sessions. An unsuccessful offer takes its toll on a department's morale and may exacerbate divisiveness among its faculty members.
But aside from seeming impractical, Harvard's stratospheric tenure standards raise philosophical questions. Holding up eminence as the most important criterion in scholarship runs the risk of discouraging unorthodox innovation. Eminent professors, after all, in many cases gained their reputations by breaking away from the eminent scholars of their youth. The list of current luminaries whom Harvard once rejected for tenure includes Nobel-laureate Paul Samuelson, now an MIT economist and the popular astronomer Carl Sagan, currently at Cornell.
Harvard's argument against tendering bright young stars is usually the fear that such hot-shots might prove flashes in the pan and not live up to their promise. But it's equally possible that well-established professors will burn out--will fast become crotchety and behind the times.
Granting tenure to younger, more daring professors, in short, seems a risk Harvard should take. They may not make headlines right away, but in a few years you know they'll be the ones hitting the ball out of the park.