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Denied Tenure, Honig Finds Herself at the Center Of Debate Over Gender Equality at Harvard

By Charles G. Kels

President Neil L. Rudenstine's decision last month to deny tenure to Associate Professor of Government Bonnie Honig has angered academics impressed by her scholarship and inflamed activists concerned with the paucity of tenured women at Harvard.

In addition the confrontation between protesters who feel the case warrants breaking Harvard's rule of silence about tenure decisions and those who must uphold the process--and its confidentiality--has led to a web of veiled accusations and incomplete information.

On April 30, 15 female senior faculty members sent a letter to Rudenstine questioning his decision and calling his denial of tenure to Honig "incomprehensible" given his public stance advocating equality for women at Harvard.

In their letter, which was obtained by The Crimson earlier this month, the Faculty members criticized the administration's failure to tenure an "excellent" scholar and questioned Rudenstine's commitment to a diverse teaching staff.

"Your decision to refuse Honig tenure has been greeted with shock and disbelief across the University and beyond," the letter said.

Some of the luminaries who signed the letter include Professor of Government Seyla Benhabib, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Alice A. Jardine, Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol and C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and Professor of Women's Studies Susan R. Suleiman.

According to The New York Times, "the letter amounted to a near-revolutionary action" given the traditional lack of "militance" among Harvard's female senior Faculty.

In a response sent to the 15 women, Associate Dean for Affirmative Action Marjorie Garber also expressed "deep dismay" and urged Rudenstine to reverse his decision. Garber wrote that she supported the "strong letter."

Honig, 37, has published two books and a collection of essays, crossing an important hurdle for tenure. She has been offered tenure by Northwestern University with a related position at the American Bar Foundation, a Chicago research organization.

"Professor Honig has done fascinating work at the intersection of cultural studies and political theory," said Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel, who chaired the committee that recommended Honig's tenure. "She is in my view worthy of tenure at Harvard."

In retrospect, several signatories expressed regret over the public release of the letter, which was intended for Rudenstine's perusal only.

"I wish it hadn't been leaked, because I think possibly if it had not been leaked, President Rudenstine would have changed his mind," Mansbridge said.

In a private letter of response which administration officials declined to release but which was obtained by The Crimson, Rudenstine defended his decision and reaffirmed his commitment to the hiring of women.

"I assure you that my commitment to the advancement of women at Harvard remains unequivocal, and I have every confidence that we will continue to make effective progress," Rudenstine wrote.

In an interview earlier this month, Rudenstine said he would not reconsider his decision. He did not give an explanation for why Honig was denied tenure in either the interview or the letter in accordance with Harvard's tradition of confidentiality in tenure cases.

"I cannot comment on individual cases," he said. "I treat them all with the same kind of care and come to a conclusion based on all the evidence and all the testimony and my own evaluation of what I see."

The correspondence between Rudenstine and the senior female faculty members initiated a flurry of protest letters to the president.

Undergraduates, graduate students and junior Faculty members joined the 15 women in sending letters to Rudenstine. In a related protest, several economics professors composed a private letter to Rudenstine "expressing dismay" at the possibility of losing Honig's husband, Professor of Economics Michael D. Whinston, who has also been offered a position at Northwestern.

Whinston is one of only two industrial organization specialists on Harvard's faculty.

"I shudder to think at the prospect of his leaving," said Professor of Economics Eric S. Maskin.

Charges of Impropriety

Further complicating the denials of tenure to both Honig and Associate Professor of Government Peter Berkowitz are allegations of procedural improprieties in decisions.

In a letter addressed to Associate Provost Dennis S. Thompson but sent to Rudenstine and other top political theorists, Johns Hopkins University Chair of Political Science William E. Connolly, who was once Honig's academic advisor, wonders aloud whether "back-channel communications" unduly influenced the decision on Honig's tenure.

Both Honig and Berkowitz were supported by their respective departmental committees and each was endorsed by senior Faculty members in a department-wide vote.

Various sources have confirmed that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the government department faculty supported the Honig nomination and that four of the five professors on the ad hoc committee supported her.

Berkowitz, unlike Honig, was not recommended by his ad hoc committee, the final stage before Rudenstine makes his decision.

The ad hoc committee is composed of two to three members from other Harvard departments and three specialists in the field from other universities. Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles oversees the selection of all ad hoc committees.

One source characterized Berkowitz's committee as openly "hostile" to the candidate, suggesting that foul play had occurred in the selection of the committee's members.

The Honig case has been surrounded by allegations of procedural improprieties as well, centering on a perceived contradiction in the statements of Princeton Dean of Faculty Amy Gutmann.

Recently asked to review a manuscript by Honig that was submitted to Princeton University Press, Gutmann gave a generally favorable recommendation of the book--which was accepted for publication--but did not express commensurate support for Honig's tenure nomination in a recommendation to Harvard. Though the two positions are not mutually exclusive, some speculated that outside influence altered her opinion of Honig.

Several sources noted that Thompson--a personal friend of Rudenstine and the only one of Harvard's five senior political theorists to vote against the Honig case at the departmental level--had several connections with the tenure decisions.

Connolly's letter, which is written in a mocking tone, is addressed to Thompson and suggests that someone violated the sanctity of the tenure process and that Thompson should serve as "Special Investigator" into the case.

In addition, Berkowitz wrote an editorial last fall for the New Republic criticizing the mainstream liberal values of a book co-authored by Thompson and Gutmann.

According to one University official, the confidential nature of Harvard's tenure process has prevented any information that could explain the alleged improprieties from being released.

Both Thompson and Gutmann declined to comment on the tenure earlier this month, citing the confidentiality of the tenure process.

Several government department sources have suggested that the theories followed by Berkowitz, who follows Straussian ideas (a relatively conservative version of political philosophy) and Honig, who is a post-modernist and feminist scholar, prejudiced members of the generally mainstream liberal department against their candidacies.

In Retrospect

Looking back, the signatories of the letter of protest say they did the right thing but disagree as to whether the letter had any positive effect.

"I would do it again because it was right, but I don't think it was consciousness-raising. Since it didn't accomplish its end, the only other benefit that might have come would be for the president to have thought more about these issues," Mansbridge said. "I'm not sure that happened in this case.... [The letter] was a failure. I was quite depressed by the result."

When asked whether Rudenstine would be less likely to turn down the next well-qualified female scholar who comes up for tenure, Mansbridge said:

"I would hope so. I've become rather discouraged by this interaction."

Currently, five of the 28 tenured members of the government department are women.

Forty-eight of the 418 tenured members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, or 11.5 percent, are female. In the six years that Rudenstine has been president, the number of female tenured Faculty members has increased by 10, or 28 percent, while the overall number of faculty members has increased by only 6 percent.

Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters said she thinks the protest might have laid the groundwork for future progress.

"The letter was an expression of our feelings about the situation, and we expressed it to the president," Waters said. "We had hoped he would change his mind, which he didn't do...[but] there are always benefits when colleagues take personnel decisions seriously and have frank discussions about those important personnel decisions."

Waters said she favors re-evaluating the entire tenure process at Harvard and changing the system at the ground level.

"In the future I would like a change of policy," she said. "I think that when a person has gotten all the way through all of these different hurdles, then when the answer is no, they should get some kind of feedback as to exactly what the reasoning was. I think it's time we had a look at the whole process of getting tenured at Harvard. It's time to think about whether our tenure process is designed for the '90s."

Both Benhabib and Professor of Chemistry Cynthia M. Friend declined to speak further about the Honig case. The other 11 signatories were unavailable for comment.

"To state the obvious, [Rudenstine's] decision puts in further doubt the claimed commitment of the administration to promote junior faculty from within, especially women," Honig said late last month.

So far, neither she nor Whinston has given any official indication as to whether they will accept Northwestern's offer.

"It's going to be a loss for the students and for the faculty," Waters said. "I will miss Professor Honig as a colleague."

Honig and Whinston were vacationing in South Carolina at the time of publication.

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