Report Calls for Social Studies Makeover, But Reform Stalls

Political theorist Tuck to lead 5th largest concentration as it mulls changes

One year ago this week, five senior faculty members published an internal review that recommended sweeping changes to Social Studies, long considered to be the most prestigious social science concentration at the College.

One year later, the report’s most fundamental changes have yet to be implemented.

The 2005 review, recently obtained by The Crimson, recommends an overhaul to the tutorial system, an increase in the participation of senior faculty members, and a substantial decrease in the number of concentrators.

One of the report’s recommendations—the creation of a steering committee consisting of four or five senior faculty members—will be implemented this summer, according to Dean for the Social Sciences David M. Cutler ’87.

But other recommendations—such as the reorganization of the department’s five tracks, the recruitment of professors from outside Harvard for tenured posts, the addition of contemporary social science readings to the department’s sophomore tutorial, and the relocation of the department’s Hilles Library headquarters to a site closer to the Yard—have not come to fruition.

The department is currently led by a 30-member committee whose members are drawn largely from the anthropology, economics, government, history, and sociology departments, and several of whom have only limited involvement with the concentration.

But the report—authored by five-professor group chaired by political scientist Peter A. Hall, and including historian David R. Armitage, economist Edward L. Glaeser, sociologist Mary C. Waters, and political scientist Theda Skocpol—called for a smaller steering committee that will manage and direct the department.

Thomson Professor of Government Richard Tuck, who will assume the position of Social Studies chair from Professor of Government Grzegorz Ekiert, explained the status of the steering committee: "We're in the process of thinking about people and approaching them. [The committee] will include representatives from obvious feeder departments...that at the moment provide teaching for Social Studies."

A professor familiar with Social Studies said that the way the steering committee is being formed is likely to result in a committee of academics who reflect the interests of Tuck, an historian of political thought, and not necessarily those of concentrators.

"I think old patterns are repeating themselves here—finding one chair and building a group of people around that person rather than finding the committee first," said the professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The same professor also said that "there's been a failure of the administration to implement the substance of the report."

The University is "buying an undergrad concentration on the cheap without committing appropriate resources," the professor said.

But Hall, who chaired the review committee, disagreed. “Things are proceeding as they should,” Hall said. “The precondition for implementing the recommendations was always to find a new chair. I think it’s appropriate that that should happen first and that the new chair should be heavily involved in finding a core group of senior faculty members."

Hall did agree with his colleague that Social Studies has yet to be funded appropriately.

“If the University wants to ensure that more of the teaching in Social Studies is done by tenure-track faculty members, they will most certainly have to reduce the size of the concentration. Otherwise, that is an extremely expensive proposition,” said Hall.


With a student-to-faculty ratio more than three times the size of the average Harvard social science department, Social Studies’ most acute weaknesses is the lack of senior faculty members teaching in the program, the report states.

The vast majority of the teaching load in Social Studies is placed on visiting professors, lecturers, and junior faculty who have joint appointments with other departments.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, only nine of the 32 junior seminars were taught by tenure-track Faculty of Arts and Sciences members, including just three that were led by full professors. No tenure-track members led any of the 17 sophomore tutorial seminars.

And next year, 13 of the 32 junior seminars will be taught by tenure-track faculty members, and only one will be taught by a full professor, according to the department’s director of studies, Anya Bernstein. Two sophomore tutorials will be led by tenure-track faculty, Bernstein said.

Social Studies needs to build a “critical mass of senior scholars,” according to the report.

Faculty cannot receive tenure in Social Studies, which is categorized as an undergraduate degree program—not a full department. A serious concern is that this forces faculty members within the concentration to divide their commitments between Social Studies and another department.

Exacerbating this concern is the fact that until 2004, no one teaching in Social Studies had received tenure in another department since its founding in 1960. The report called the failure of faculty members within the department to gain tenure “the Social Studies equivalent of the ‘curse of the Bambino.’”

“For a number of years, Social Studies was seen as a place where one didn’t have good scholars, although not recently,” observed Cutler, who praised Ekiert for attracting junior faculty to the department. “The quality of the people we hired got better and what happened to them got better. Many of the junior faculty will get tenure, if not [at Harvard], then at another excellent place.”

Professor of History Peter E. Gordon received tenure last year and Professor of Government Michael J. Hiscox was tenured this spring.


The review committee’s report presents Social Studies at a crossroads, writing that its “intellectual mission...needs to be reconsidered and rejuvenated.”

Though the authors said that the theory-based Social Studies 10—notorious for its demanding reading list of Marx, Weber, and Foucault—was “Harvard at its best,” the report recommends that the sophomore curriculum be revised to include more empirical and contemporary works.

The authors also state that the lack of structure in the final two years of the program needs to be remedied.

“We would like to see the junior tutorials provide a more effective transition to disciplinary-based knowledge in the social sciences,” the report states.

Tuck said that “everyone concerned with Social Studies now wants to give it a bit more structure than it has at the moment.”

Nonetheless, Hall emphasized that “one of the final views of the [review] committee” was “that Social Studies is one of the jewels in Harvard’s crown.”


Two of the report’s major recommendations—moving the department out of the Quad, where it is currently located, and shrinking the number of Social Studies concentrators—were unlikely to occur, said Bernstein.

The report’s authors state that they “have concerns about whether a concentration that is built on the small-group instruction can function well with such a large number of concentrators.”

The concentration has grown from 282 in 2001 to 320 students next year, making Social Studies the fifth largest undergraduate concentration.

Bernstein said that next year’s class of concentrators will be 140 sophomores—around the same size as the last three classes.

“All of the departments in the social sciences are struggling with how to deal with a situation where what you do is so immensely popular that it places strains on the resources of the department,” said Cutler.

Bernstein, Cutler, and Tuck said that the size of the department may decrease in the coming years as the introduction of secondary fields and delayed concentration declaration alter students’ academic choices.

Explaining his reasons for accepting the post, Tuck celebrated the department’s concentrators.

“The program famously has the cleverest undergrads in the college,” said Tuck, who came to Harvard in 1995 from the other Cambridge, where the Brit had spent his entire academic career.

-Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at

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