One senior professor recently described Harvard's Fine Arts Department as "smaller than the sum of its parts."
On the one hand, says Oleg Grabar, Khan Professor of Islamic Art, the department's 17 faculty members include some of the world's foremost art critics, connoiseurs and historians. The department is regarded, with those of Yale, Johns Hopkins and Princeton, as one of the nation's best. And it remains unparalled in the study of Oriental art.
On the other hand, though, distinctly individualistic professors tend to build their own isolated empires, fragmenting the department and debilitating its ability to work as a whole, Grabar says.
"More members of Harvard's department have worked on the Pelican series of art than at any other university, but this means we might not spend enough time minding the store," Grabar says.
Indeed this may be the case. Delays in replacing some of the department's foremost scholars and charges last spring of poor treatment of women and graduate students have rocked the highly lauded department, forcing department members in recent months to take a closer look at domestic matters.
Last spring the small department drew campuswide attention when one of its four female faculty members resigned amid charges of sex discrimination. Assistant Professor Patricia Mainardi said in her resignation letter that "junior faculty members [in the department] are treated quite badly and women even worse than that."
There are no female senior professors--compared to 11 men--directly appointed by the Fine Arts Department.
After Mainardi announced her departure, 35 female graduate students in the department presented senior faculty members with a list of grievances of their own. The women charged, among other things, that the advising system is inadequate, the faculty does not treat female staff and students with respect, the important career-advancing jobs at the Fogg Museum are awarded solely through personal connections and the department appoints no women senior faculty members.
Senior faculty members acknowledged that the complaints were largely valid and have made a concerted effort to reform what some say represents a long--though unconscious--pattern of sexism within the department and Harvard in general.
A graduate student-faculty committee met throughout the summer to address the grievances, which were not limited to women's concerns. The graduate students late last month released a report summarizing the summer's meetings and making some recommendations for reform.
The suggestions have been discussed informally among department members and are expected to be addressed in full within the month. One request--that a permanent graduate student-faculty committee be established to review the advising system and disseminate information about teaching opportunities to all graduate students--has already been granted.
Other suggestions, whose futures remain unclear, include: allowing graduate students to participate in searches for junior faculty members, assigning all incoming students a graduate student advisor to work with them through their general exams, and making certain degree requirements more flexible.
But grievances aside, the department is not one marked by profound discord, says Grabar.
In fact, last spring's grievances and this summer's meetings, have set the department on the path of improved communication and coordination. The 100-odd Fine Arts graduate students and 17 faculty members have begun talking to each other about mutual concerns, and the department has begun looking into a handful of structural problems that perennially have been put on the back burner.
Most notably, the department will soon consider restructuring its introductory curriculum, according to Chairman Neil Levine. Levine said the changes could include adding more lower-level courses and "refining" the popular survey course, Fine Arts 13, "Introduction to the History of Art."