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Kirby Reforms Tenure Process

Changes to help junior faculty

By Jessica E. Vascellaro, Crimson Staff Writer

Subtle yet substantive changes aligning Harvard’s tenure procedures to those of other universities were announced by the Dean of the Faculty Tuesday.

In the first Faculty meeting of the year, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby reported on new procedures for soliciting information about tenure candidates as well as increased departmental support for junior professors.

“Overall my expectation is that these changes, and others you will hear of, will make our procedures more effective and efficient, will produce greater consistency and clarity...and thereby strengthen the Faculty,” he said.

But if Kirby aimed to clarify the rules, he tinkered with them as well.

“We will also be changing several of our procedures for the promotion to tenure,” he told the full Faculty Tuesday.

The most significant revision involves changing the format of a letter that departments send to academic experts soliciting information on potential candidates.

These “blind letters” have traditionally asked professors to rank a list of candidates without providing information about them or specifying which is most seriously under consideration.

Kirby said this format seemed unnecessarily indirect and that the new letters will identify any Harvard junior faculty member under consideration and include samples of recent or unpublished work.

The revised letter will also allow a department to indicate its own preferences.

This change—which Kirby outlined in a recent letter to department chairs—was based upon the recommendations of a committee on appointments which he convened last fall. A member of that committee stressed yesterday that the recommendations are not final, noting that the committee plans to meet at least once more.

Kirby said he is still working with the committee to revise the Faculty handbook to reflect the change and promised to make the new guidelines widely available.

“Indeed, we’re not only going to revise it, we’re going to publish it, so everybody knows,” he said.

Kirby has said for over a year that one of the main goals of the appointments review was increasing the transparency of the tenure process.

According to some faculty, that goal has been met.

“[The policy] is more transparent, more honest and has the effect of making internal appointments more likely rather than less,” said Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn said that other universities complained that Harvard was “playing games” and pushing secret agendas with its blind rankings. He said the new letters would address this complaint by directly stating if Harvard departments already have a favorite choice.

Newly appointed Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker also saw the change as an important statement of Harvard’s support of its junior faculty members. He said the new letter will make internal candidates as attractive as possible to external reviewers.

Once an assistant professor at Harvard, Pinker says he left for Stanford in 1980 after being told by a member of his department that Harvard never promoted its junior faculty. Despite several efforts to get him back, he did not return until this year.

Pinker said he was pleased that this move put Harvard more in line with other universities, where junior faculty members are almost always considered for tenure track positions.

He also said that Harvard is one of the last remaining schools to use the completely blind letter format.

In addition to satisfying disgruntled junior Harvard faculty, others said the new policy is aimed to help the external reviewers as well.

“The reason for doing it this way is to try and simplify the life of the people who get the letters,” said Professor of History John Womak.

Womak said the number of searches, and hence “blind letters,” has vastly increased over the last 10 years and that departments could benefit from more nuanced and relevant information from outside sources.

In other changes to appointment procedures, Kirby said that departments would be required to write an “internal interim assessment” for their junior faculty at the beginning of their third year at Harvard. Many former professors have complained that they were not given a realistic indication of their tenure prospects until it was too late.

“I think it is critical to the future of our Faculty, and essential in the lives of our assistant and associate professors, that we aim to provide them at each important milestone—particularly at the point of consideration for promotion to associate professor—with a clear assessment of their work to date and their future prospects, so that they can have confidence in our processes,” Kirby said.

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at

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