Brinkley Tenure: Part Two

From Our Readers

Following is an open letter to President Bok.

With great distress, I have read recently of the denial of tenure to three of Harvard's most talented and respected junior faculty members, Alan Brinkley, Bradford A. Lee and Robert N. Watson. I had the pleasure and the privilege of being taught by all three before I graduated from the College in June 1985, and sincerely believe that the quality of my education would have been considerably lower had these teachers and I not crossed paths.

I am writing, therefore, to ask for an explanation and reconsideration of the seemingly senseless decision to deny tenure to all three. I understand that explaining such a decision after the fact is hardly common practice, and reconsideration even less usual. It seems to me, however, that these are special cases, coming as they do so soon after Mr. Spence's announcement last spring that the University would begin to try to promote faculty members from within.

Apparently it is too late for Harvard's undergraduate English literature scholars to enjoy Mr. Watson's insights and intelligence, as he has left for the University of California at Los Angeles in much the same way that Andrew Delbanco, another tremendously talented literature teacher, went to Columbia University. It is still possible, however, to allow Mr. Brinkley and Mr. Lee to continue passing along their fascination with and vast knowledge of modern American history to the undergraduates whose education is, allegedly, a high priority for the University.

Wiser people than I have lamented the imminent departure of these fine teachers, but few of these senior professors have seen their younger colleagues from the other side of the lectern. Their teaching skills alone ought to be enough to earn reconsideration for Mr. Lee and Mr. Brinkley. Mr. Brinkley's courses have been oversubscribed for years, an indication of quality, ability and trust as certain as the Levenson Teaching Award won by Mr. Lee. Both men infuse their teaching of history with insights beyond the chronological and political--in Mr. Lee's case, the diplomatic and military: in Mr. Brinkley's, the social and intellectual. Far more important, both generate great interest from undergraduates through their own obvious enthusiasm for their subject and for their students.


I have never found either of them anything but accessible and eager to share their passion for a very important field. By forcing me to organize my thoughts as I synthesized material, both of these teachers made me a better writer; by making me consider the interrelation of historical events, both made me a better thinker. At many universities, these are considered sufficient goals for the course of an entire education, but Harvard asks for more. Thanks to committed teachers like Mr. Brinkley and Mr. Lee, it is able to expect that students can and will meet these expectations.

The time seems to have come for Harvard to make teaching as high a priority as scholarship in its consideration of lifetime appointments, and I encourage you, Mr. Bok, to take these particular situations into your own hands. I am not asking that you automatically grant tenure to either or both of them, merely that these decisions be made by the University's highest authority, an authority that has made a serious commitment to improving the quality of undergraduate education.

During the recent commemoration of Harvard's 350th birthday, much was made of the treatment of the first undergraduates at the hands of the first head of the College and his wife. Master and Mistress Nathaniel Eaton, we were told, repeatedly beat the students and fed them rotten pudding. It saddens me to think that in three and a half centuries Harvard has made so little progress in the treatment of its undergraduates. Instead of being neglected physically, they are now being neglected intellectually.