Harvard University has a problem, and everyone seems anxious to admit it: the number of tenured women professors is unacceptably small.
In 1995, The Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, founded in 1988 by a group of Radcliffe alumnae, established an escrow account to which Harvard graduates have donated about $500,000. This money will be withheld from the University until, according to Committee Chair Peggy Schmertzler '53, "Harvard has made substantial strides in making more effective affirmative action procedures in ...recruiting, hiring, promoting and retaining women."
This year, the senior class followed suit by setting up the Alternative Senior Gift Fund, whereby seniors may donate money to be similarly withheld.
On Monday, April 21 about 75 students gathered in front of University Hall to protest the lack of women and minorities on the Faculty. The same week, nearly 900 students filled out blank checks to the University as a symbol of their frustration with University hiring practices.
The University's 1997 Affirmative Action Plan declares that "the Dean of the Faculty acknowledges that [the 11.5 percent rate of female Senior professors in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)] is low and that progress in changing the proportion of women in the tenured ranks is disappointingly slow."
These five things indicate that Harvard is angry with Harvard. So why do we care, perhaps more than we've cared about anything in a long time, how many women are on the Faculty?
Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles wrote in a fax: "With the proportion of women in the College (properly, and naturally) rising towards 50 percent, it is, of course, proper that the proportion of women on the faculty rise similarly. We are, after all, a co-educational (as well as a co-residential) institution!"
And more substantively, the need for more women at Harvard is, in Schmertzler's words, "crucially important ...because students are getting an inadequate education." The reasons for this shortcoming are: female professors serve as role models and mentors for female students; they offer points of view that are absent in an all-male faculty or all-male departments; and as Schmertzler puts it, "both men and women need to see women in positions of the highest leadership because they need to be ready to live in an equal society."
In the 1997 Affirmative Action Plan, the University pledged to remain "firmly committed to attain[ing] racial and gender diversity, believing that a diverse faculty is essential to excellent scholarship and teaching." In a letter dated Feb. 11, 1997, Rudenstine wrote to Schmertzler: "There is nothing I regard as more important to Harvard's future excellence than sustaining and enhancing the quality of appointments to the tenured faculty, and achieving that objective will depend in considerable degree on our success in appointing greater numbers of outstanding women scholars and teachers to tenured positions across the university."
It seems as though all sides of the debate see eye to eye, so why are students, members of the Faculty and activists still incensed?
Despite the significant improvement made in the first five years of the Rudenstine-Knowles Administration (24 percent of all tenured appointments have been to women), the fact remains that since 1991, the percentage of senior women on the Faculty has only increased from 9.6 percent to 11.5 percent, an annual rate of change of less than .4 percent. At this rate, it would take almost 55 years for the fraction of tenured women at FAS to reach one-third!
And there is little reason to believe that there will be a significant increase in the rate of female tenuring because the 1997 Affirmative Action Plan is little more than an affirmative awareness plan. As Knowles wrote in the fax, "I hope that in the coming years, the gender ratio in the College and on the faculty may in all fields approach unity...and that all admissions (to the College) and all appointments (to the Faculty) be gender-blind."
It is true that there are significant obstacles in the way of quickly achieving an acceptable tenure ratio of men to women. In the first place, the rate of Faculty turnover is, according to Knowles, "only about 4 percent" each year. Secondly, the size of the Faculty is very large (418 Senior members), which makes significant percentage changes difficult despite improvements in number. Thirdly, no one should or would have quality sacrificed for quantity.
However, these obstacles only offer further evidence that the University is not doing enough to rectify the situation, and that it must make an enormous, conscious and affirmative effort to rid itself of its male hangover. If the President, Deans and department chairs of the University continue to offer only significant improvements, in the vein of "gender-blind" appointments, neither they nor most of us will see the day when The Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard can happily go defunct.
The Administration deserves much applause for its efforts in the past five years, but to leave it at that would beckon, as Rudenstine wrote in his Feb. 11 letter, "complacency or self-satisfaction." The President concluded his letter with the following inspiring statement: "Continued progress will depend on...ensuring that promising women scholars receive careful attention in the context of individual searches; sustaining a climate that is supportive of women and attentive to their concerns, both in reality and in perception; creating organizational structures, processes and incentives conducive to identifying and appointing outstanding tenured women; broadening and reinforcing the pathways for women to pursue and sustain academic careers; sharing information across Faculties and departments...and continual support and encouragement from myself and other university leaders."
Absolutely. Rudenstine has outlined the essential pieces of effecting meaningful change, but surprisingly few of these steps have been taken. For example, while the Associate Dean of Affirmative Action "reviews follow-up reports on the outcomes of each search," department heads have to do more prior to each search. Another example is that while a new endowment has been given to promote women's issues, a day-care center at the Law School is about to close. As Schmertzler said, "Harvard has proposed solutions to this problem; they just haven't done them.... Words are cheap; let's get the actions."
The recent activism on the part of students, members of the Faculty and The Committee for the Equality of Women at Harvard, coupled with the action and promises of the Administration, means that this is not just a time for intense criticism. With the capital campaign theoretically raising enough money to create 90 new Faculty positions, and a genuine commitment on the part of the Harvard community to make Harvard a place that offers equal opportunity to women and men, right now is the time to encourage progress and goad it along with vocal support and the vigorous conviction that Rudenstine's goals are the right ones.
Harvard has always been known for being of unparalleled quality in scholarship. Some have worried that it will be in danger of losing this reputation if it takes affirmative and forceful steps to increase the rate at which it tenures women. This danger will surface only if it fails to do so.
Daniel M. Suleiman's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.