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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Though it hoped to report its findings by the end of the academic year, a committee charged with reviewing the Faculty’s appointment procedures will only begin to discuss the results of its year-long investigation today.
“We really haven’t begun talking among ourselves yet,” said Ford Professor of Social Sciences David Pilbeam. “We are going to proceed at the pace necessary to do the job properly.”
In one of his first moves as dean of the Faculty last fall, William C. Kirby appointed the committee to review all aspects of hiring scholars from the recruitment of instructors to the tenure process.
But assessing the wide number of opinions available has been more time consuming than originally expected by the committee, Pilbeam said.
“We [have been] trying to listen to a lot of people,” he said. “Even groups of people not representative of the whole opinion.”
But Pilbeam maintains that the committee has been meeting almost weekly and plans to continue to convene regularly throughout the summer.
“We appear to be plodding along, but we have been working quite hard,” he said.
And in an interview Friday, Kirby, who has not heard any specific recommendations from the committee, said he was not concerned with the delay and that an official report will likely appear early next year.
The committee’s mandate includes both a review of Harvard’s procedures and an examination of how effectively they are broadcast.
Though highly confidential, Harvard’s tenure policies are universally considered among the most intimidating in academia.
After a department recommends a colleague for tenure, the dean of the Faculty and four academic deans review the case and decide whether to convene an ad hoc committee for further review.
The ad hoc, consisting of several experts outside the field as well as Harvard colleagues, reviews the case for up to several months.
During this time they solicit letters from the candidate’s colleagues in the departments and request feedback experts in the field. One step in this process is the dissemination of a “blind letter” that asks scholars to rank several candidates without specifying which one is actually under consideration.
In a final meeting, the ad hoc committee, the president and the dean interview several of the candidates’ colleagues. Months or minutes after this meeting, the President makes the final decision on whether to extend an offer.
“There may be some changes to the procedures, but above all the goal is greater clarity and commonality,” Kirby said.
Kirby said that while communication between scholars and departments has improved, it could be better.
“The process should be as transparent as can be,” he said.
Kirby cites creating a more congenial work environment as one chief reason for the focus on clarifying the procedures.
“The departments which do it best treat their junior Faculty as full citizens of the department,” he said. “If you don’t treat them as part of your department, they won’t stay part of your department.”
Under the current system, Kirby said that procedures for promotion are distributed only to department chairs, who may elect to share them with their colleagues but are under no obligation to do so.
He said that at the time of promotion from assistant to associate, a professor should be notified of their prospects to receive tenure. While there is no set formula for when a professor may come up for review, a professor can spend no more than eight years in the associate and assistant ranks before his department must decide whether to put him up for tenure.
Pilbeam said that the committee has spent lots of time reviewing other University’s handbooks and that one of the goals of the review was to issue a handbook on appointment policies to the entire Faculty.
Other the next few months, Pilbeam said the committee members hope to draft more concrete recommendation as they continue to consult their colleagues.
The two members who aren’t themselves academic deans—Pilbeam and Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Mary M. Gaylor—will address the academic deans before the end of the year.
The committee’s chair, Richards Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science Cynthia M. Friend, could not be reached for comment over the weekend.
—Staff writer Jessica Vascellaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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