Professor Vaux Enlists Students in Tenure Fight

Linguistics scholar says teaching not valued by Faculty

About one third of Harvard’s linguistics concentrators met Sunday night in the Winthrop House Dining Hall as a response to a plea by Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux for support in his fight to be considered for tenure.

On Saturday Vaux sent an e-mail to “two or three dozen” students explaining his belief that he is being illegitimately shut out of the tenure process due to lack of respect within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and the linguistics department for his field of specialty.

Vaux also suggested that teaching ability is not given enough weight in the tenure process.

“Be forewarned that senior faculty and administrators do not put much stock in being a good teacher,” Vaux wrote in his e-mail.

According to Vaux, FAS policy requires that when professors are not going to be considered for tenure, they must be notified of this when they are promoted from assistant to associate professor.

Vaux said Diebold Professor of Indo-European Languages and Philology Jay H. Jasanoff, who is the linguistics department chair, notified him of the department’s intention not to request a senior professorship in Vaux’s specialty—phonology—last month. Vaux was promoted to associate professor in May 2000.


Jasanoff is on leave and could not be reached for comment.

Vaux, who is on sabbatical this semester in Milwaukee, Wis., said in an interview yesterday that he has filed a complaint over his treatment with FAS Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Vincent J. Tompkins.

In addition to his procedural complaint, Vaux believes that Faculty have not raised valid objections to tenuring a position in phonology.

“[The] points presented sound very much like the ideas of old-time Harvard insiders who want to keep the department small...and keep our department from becoming a viable, intellectually stimulating place,” Vaux wrote in his e-mail.

Thomas Professor of Linguistics and the Classics Calvert Watkins refused to comment on whether Harvard’s linguistics department merits a tenured professorship in phonology.

Vaux instructed his supporters to take action before the formal decision to deny him entry into the tenure process.

Seventeen students attended the Sunday meeting and discussed efforts to contact senior Faculty members, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Students at the meeting spoke out against Vaux’s possible exclusion from the tenure process for a number of reasons, citing in particular the quality of Vaux’s teaching and the personal attention he gives students.

“Bert is the only faculty member who has taken an active and passionate role in my Harvard education,” said Blake J. Boulerice ’04. “He helped me to realize that Linguistics was where I belong.”

Other students at the meeting suggested the group downplay Vaux’s popularity, instead emphasizing his ability to integrate other subjects within his field.

“He may be a phonologist, but his knowledge of and respect for other fields is so great that he really brings all the resources of the department together,” Nassira D. Nicola ’05 wrote in an e-mail.

Several students commented that his ability to widen linguistics’ appeal by relating it to other subjects makes it a more exciting concentration.

“If this department doesn’t take a broader approach to Linguistics, there will be no department,” said Suzanne J. Podhurst ’04.

Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology Michael S. Flier, who is acting chair of the department, declined to comment for this story, citing the confidentiality of the tenure process.