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THE MAIN HEADLINE of last Thursday's Crimson trumpeted that notoriously hip filmmaker Spike Lee would be teaching a one-semester course at Harvard next spring. And many students, quite understandably, promptly dismissed the paper as a Lampoon parody.
The reaction is not entirely unwarranted. Until last month, news about Harvard's ailing Afro-Am Department was consistently embarrassing or, at best, pitiable. To suggest then that, within two months, Harvard would have attracted both the nation's top Afro-Am scholar to chair its department and its most stimulating Black pop culture figure to teach a lecture course would have been laughable.
But somehow something went right.
For years, change-minded students and faculty members have argued that Harvard's tenure system stifles the very sort of innovative scholarship it claims to protect. But one and all acknowledge that there is little administrative support for even minor reform in the decades-old tenure system.
No one is claiming that the Afro-Am department is now completely healed, but it at least seems to have broken out of its self-perpetuating slump. Now we can begin to ask the hard question: What can Harvard do, within its tenure system, to bolster weak departments and maintain its strong ones?
For the answer, I would like to turn, curiously enough, to a humble corned beef sandwich.
UNTIL SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, it was not possible to eat a corned beef sandwich in the dining hall--unless, of course, you bought one in Tommy's Lunch and snuck it in. Half-sour pickles and black bean soup were equally unavailable. And forget about Dr. Brown's soda.
That, of course, was in the months and years BDD (Before-Deli-Day). Who can ever forget the amazement and, yes, exhilaration felt upon catching that first glimpse of the red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the different varieties of cream cheese, those huge black olives? And don't forget about the corned beef sandwiches.
That momentous day was more than a tasty break from the monotonous dining hall schedule. New Dining Services Director and Mealtime Messiah Michael Berry, in his well-publicized efforts to use student feedback to "accentuate the positive," has taken a bold initiative and added new novelty days to the roster. Now, New York Deli Day has spawned popular spin-offs: German Deli Day, Italian Deli Day and the strange and unusual Soup and Salad Day.
In fact, we may very well be witnessing the dawn of a new era in Harvard dining services. A dining hall renaissance if you will.
Despite these innovations, many students are still quite unhappy with the quality and variety of Harvard food. And many feel that the all-or-nothing meal plan works against those who frequently skip meals or eat small portions.
Clearly, the dining services' administration still needs to address many problems. But recent expansions of service, along with a new broad-ranging student survey, suggest that Berry might just be able to turn things around.
SO CORNED BEEF sandwiches appear in the dining hall and, within weeks, both Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Spike Lee decide to come to Harvard. Of course, no one is suggesting that the appointees accepted positions at Harvard due to a sudden unexplainable craving for cold cuts. But I do believe that the two fortunate events are some-how linked--not in substance, but in the creative inspiration that led to their succesful implementation.
Both the Afro-Am Department and the Dining Services seemed to have been bogged down in the institutional and structural mire of the status quo. Both have restrictive structures--the tenure system and the repetitive and all-encompassing meal plan--which were effectively prohibiting any sort of substantial change.
But in both situations, administrators were able to simultaneously work both within and around restrictive traditions. No one can reasonably argue that Spike Lee is worthy of tenure at Harvard--we all know that Harvard barely considers teaching skills in its tenure appointments. And his accomplishments, however noteworthy, could hardly be called scholarly. But does that mean that there is no place for Lee at Harvard?
In earlier days, administrators might have answered that there was, in fact, no place for Lee. But incoming Chair Gates and outgoing Chair Barbara Johnson have made creative use of Harvard's ability to appoint visiting lecturers. The result: a guest stint by Lee that will give the moribund department a dynamic lift and could well inspire other scholars to check out Harvard's Afro-Am--and maybe even to accept tenure here.
Likewise, it is not feasible within the current system to hold Deli Day every day: It is too expensive and might lose its appeal once the novelty wears off. (Salad bars were once an exciting new idea, too.) But by introducing a special treat now and then, Berry has spiced up the dull menu and reassured the student body that he is making a good faith effort to improve dining services overall.
In both cases, administrators were not deterred by the structural elements of the Harvard bureaucracy working against them. Instead, they found creative ways to work within the existing constraints. And if they continue to approach these problems with an eye towards innovation, they might find that those constraints are becoming less and less relevant.
It might do all Harvard administrators well to learn from the recent successes in Afro-Am and HDS, to pause and consider how they might apply these lessons of innovation to their own administration. In doing so, they will realize that there is no reason why each Harvard department can't recreate the short-term excitement of Deli Day and reap long-term benefits every day.
The Spike Lee-corned beef connection
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