Sign of the Times

TIMES THEY ARE a changin'.

Certainly not a new thought, yet the administration of Harvard University often seems unaware of this wise and simple adage. The University rarely seems capable of more than fitful efforts at responding to the challenges posed by a rapidly changing educational environment. Last year was as fine an illustration as any of the slow and clumsy character of Harvard's decision-making, with three important faculty issues receiving sporadic amounts of effective attention.

Foremost among the issues facing the faculty was the thorny problem of government-supported research. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Nadav Safran was forced to resign as director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies after secret CIA funding for his research and a conference was made public. Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence eventually published a report which shifted much of the blame onto some supposedly sloppy administration by Spence's predecessor, Henry Rosovsky. The report was widely perceived both inside and outside of the faculty as a whitewash, and a superficial one at that.

The scandal emerged as one facet in a developing national debate over the government's role in supporting research--a debate set off, in part, by controversies over President Reagan's "Star Wars" program. National intelligence agencies do not dish out cash on the same scale as the Department of Defense, but "spook" funding still poses a double threat to responsible scholarship. First, it imposes the risk of the government censoring or biasing sensitive research, and second, such support can destroy the credibility of both the scholar and his institution.

Harvard has been slow to recognize the new realities of research funding. As the University has increasingly become the recipient of government funds normally directed toward academic research, and corporate gifts have dropped off, cash from the CIA and the like looks increasingly tempting to political scientists, economists, and regional specialists. While the CIA has pledged to loosen the strings on its grants, it is up to University Hall to establish firm controls on this kind of activity. President of the University Derek C. Bok has promised new guidelines to prevent a repeat of this fiasco, and one can only wish him Godspeed. But as Dean Spence's secretive and timorous handling of the Safran affair demonstrates, the University has been slow and inept at adapting to new funding problems to the current drain on research resources.

Sometimes even the most ossified policy can break down under new pressures. Last April, Dean Spence announced a long overdue reform in Harvard's practice of passing over its own junior professors for tenure in favor of world class heavyweights. Three problems motivated the change. First, the traditional tenure policy has been yielding fewer and fewer top academic guns eager for the opportunity of supping at the Faculty Club and purchasing overpriced Boston real estate. Second, Harvard has become a junior faculty farm team for other universities, providing them top tenurable scholars who will often prefer to stay put when Harvard finally gets around to recognizing their talents. Third, Harvard may also be losing junior talent who prefer to work at a school where they have a shot at tenure, instead of setting up shop in Cambridge for seven years and then folding the tent once Harvard has turned up its nose.

Spence plans to tenure up to 10 percent more of the faculty, drawing these extra professors from the junior faculty, as well as granting leaves, salary increases and other benefits to the promising young hotshot. This is a good first step, particularly if the posts are allocated to some of the harder pressed departments like Visual and Environmental Studies. But Spence should make sure that these goodies don't direct the junior professors towards research at the expense of teaching.

This change of an entrenched Harvard attitude might be taken as a sign of increased flexibility were it not for the eruption of a different crisis within the Law School faculty. There, long simmering tensions between the conservative and radical wings of the faculty--involving paralyzing controversies over Critical Legal Studies and minority faculty--broke wide open last year. Decisions to defer or deny tenure to three liberal professors violated a 17-year tradition of in-house tenure.

While the tenure decisions themselves may or may not have been correct, the fact that a majority of the faculty is angered over how these decisions came about points to poor leadership by Dean of the Law School James Vorenberg '49. Yet rather than seek to heal the rift, Vorenberg decided to grease the appointment wheels by stacking the tenure committee with conservative stalwarts. The result, not too surprisingly, was to further divide the faculty.

Vorenberg's first step should be to address the widespread discontent over the composition of the tenure committee by appointing a new one more acceptable to both sides of the faculty. Next he ought to work to either bridge the political divide within the faculty--an admittedly Herculean task--or establish a compromise on how scholars will be considered for tenure in the future.

These three issues are typical of the pressures Harvard will continue to face in a changing educational environment. The mediocre performance of the administration will doubtlessly continue until the University casts off its fear of controversy and openness, and stops assuming that the past glories of Harvard will shield it from the tremors of change.

Recommended Articles