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Carolivia Herron: A Professor Standing Up for Her Opinions


As Carolivia Herron, assistant professor of comparative language and literature and Afro-American studies, awaits her own peer review and promotion decision, she says she applauds the Supreme Court's recent opinion.

For Herron, the public scrutiny of tenure cases challenges the academic community to hold itself to the standards of free speech and free discourse they ask of the outside world--something which secrecy and back room discussions have not insured.

Many share Herron's assessment, but few are willing to criticize entrenched institutional practices so willingly. Herron herself might not speak so freely if she did not already have multiple job offers from other schools, making her less dependent on Harvard's decision.

"There are people who are afraid to stand up for their opinions, but epic is my thing," says Herron, who teaches Literature and Arts A-54, "Epic Fiction International." "I think you should be a hero."

Herron says she also has occasion to give evaluations for both her peers and her students. She says she is very cautious about her evaluations, and is willing to let them withstand public scrutiny.

"I check every sentence and say, `Can I stand by this?" Herron says.

Herron asks the same from her colleagues. If they want to challenge or criticize her, she says, they should do it to her face and in public, rather than reserve their remarks for confidential documents and committee room dialogue.

She acknowledges that there is social pressure not to openly criticize friends, but she says she strives to overcome this imperative.

And she asks her friends to do the same.

"I've had colleagues come to me with that sort of attitude and I've told all of them that I can defend my scholarship publicly," Herron says. "I tell them, `You don't have to come to my office after hours.'"

Herron has little patience for the "academic privelege" arguments made by several universities. Discrimination in peer reviews, she says, is "subject to the same kind of censure as any other anti-intellectual [comments]."

Ideally, Herron says, the academic community would regulate its own hiring decisions, and eliminate discrimination without the help of the courts.

But if that had been possible, she says, "I would not be [one of] the only Afro-American women teaching at Harvard."

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