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IF ANY doubts remain that Harvard's tenure system is in serious need of an overhaul, they should be put to rest by the recent news about the English Department.
Three junior members of the department said that they are considering teaching positions at other schools. Two others have already accepted outside offers and will leave Cambridge by September.
The potential departure of one-third of the junior members of the English Department is shameful. And the fact that Harvard continues to wink at such crises without acknowledging the systemic problems at their root is evidence of the torpor which has taken hold at the top of this institution.
THE young scholars' stated reasons for considering fleeing Harvard are very sensible.
Looking around, they see a department that has promoted only one junior professor from within Harvard in the last 26 years.
They see Joseph A. Boone, a promising young scholar of the English and American novel whose tenure bid was nixed by the English Department last spring. He now has several tenure offers from other top schools.
They see Deborah A. Nord, an expert on the Victorian novel who last spring did the nearly impossible--gaining the endorsement of the English Department for tenure at the University. In a shocking move, President Derek C. Bok and an ad-hoc committee of outside scholars rejected her for a senior position.
They see an administration that heaps them with advising, teaching and committee responsibilities while at the same time demanding that they churn out works of global eminence at age 30.
In sum, they see a University that treats them as day laborers for eight years before summarily jettisoning them without any sense of remorse.
THE oft-repeated defense for the University's tenure system is that Harvard will only give lifetime appointments to academics who have climbed to the top of their fields.
All the costs inherent in such a system--high turnover among junior professors, disregard for teaching ability in the tenure process and low morale among young scholars--are said to be necessary to maintain Harvard's pre-eminence.
Unfortunately, the current tenure system no longer can even maintain Harvard's excellence by its own definition. In fact, in many fields--such as English--the system does just the opposite.
A large part of the problem is that the system works on a lowest-common-denominator approach. The only people to receive tenure are those who all the aging members of the department can support as being at the top of the field.
"At the top of the field" as defined by the senior members of a department often means "respected and safe" in practice. In a politicized field like English, the University rarely takes a gamble on a talented young academic on the cutting edge of scholarship.
Instead, a department will typically sputter along, only tenuring traditional, established scholars who conform to some arbitrary standard of "excellence." Meanwhile, more daring departments at other schools will race ahead.
THE English and History Departments are case studies in the failure of the tenure system. Despite their claim that their high standards prevent them from tenuring more than an infinitesimal fraction of their own junior faculty, these departments are rapidly losing stature nationwide.
The situation may be changing in History: Two junior professors, Hue-Tam Ho Tai and H. Leroy Vail, have been promoted to tenure in the last year. But the English Department hasn't seen the writing on the wall.
The department has three outstanding tenure offers to D.A. Miller, Stephen Greenblatt and Lawrence Buell. If none of these scholars accept tenure, the outside committee of scholars that helped the English Department make these offers over the last two years will have accomplished nothing. And Department Chair Robert J. Kiely has announced only one junior faculty appointment for next fall.
Thus, the department will continue to lag far behind student interest in areas such as modern American literature and Victorian literature. Although its problems are of a slightly different nature, Afro-American Studies also suffers at the hand of the tenure system. Its inability to attract faculty members has resulted in a situation in which no courses will be taught this fall by members of the department.
IN THE short term, Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence must take two courses of action to combat the department-level and system-wide tenure problems.
He must exact a committment from the English Department to prevent the number of course offerings from further declining. The department should make counteroffers to the junior faculty and encourage them to stay. But for every junior professor who leaves, a new one must be hired.
He must assemble a faculty committee (along the lines of last year's Verba Committee on faculty affirmative action) to suggest sweeping changes in Harvard's tenure system. The use of secretive and capricious ad-hoc committees to advise President Bok on tenure cases should be abolished and replaced by a Faculty-wide system in which no department could block tenure appointments at will. The University should institute a tenure-track system, which would guarantee each junior faculty member a realistic chance of receiving a tenured position.
Although Spence has made improving the tenure prospects of junior faculty a top priority during his five-year deanship, the old guard shows no signs of giving, and the young administrator has shown no will to take the kind of dramatic action necessary.
The situation in English demonstrates that there is more at stake now than the careers of a handful of young faculty members. At a time when the number of Ph.D.'s is declining and the number of faculty retirements is on the rise, the ability of the University to remain in the forefront of academia is threatened.
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