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Denied Tenure, Skocpol Alleged Sexual Discrimination

By Samuel P. Jacobs, Crimson Staff Writer

Standing in front of an early-morning crowd gathered at Appleton Chapel in Harvard Yard this past April, Theda Skocpol used the word “we” 29 times. Her message, one which called for unity among the University’s different communities and factions, struck an appropriate note for the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). But it was odd for someone of whom a colleague once said, “She’s a very divisive person. Wherever she has been there’s always been conflict.”

That paradox—one where Skocpol has both stood inside and outside University circles and scholarly communities—began 25 years ago. Denied tenure from the Sociology Department in 1980, the Harvard-trained sociologist and political scientist filed a grievance against the University for sexual discrimination. But five years later, Skocpol agreed to return as a tenured professor to the same department that she had accused of discrimination. And two decades after that, she assumed the post of GSAS dean.

The University faced a second challenge from another young female professor seeking to gain standing at Harvard within months of Skocpol’s allegation.

Although the number of female tenured Faculty professors has grown sixfold within the last 25 years, unease persists among female scholars at Harvard. Skocpol’s story continues to reverberate at William James Hall, home to the University’s Sociology Department, and throughout academia wherever her former colleagues and students have landed.

“It is not a happy story,” remarks Columbia University sociology professor Harrison C. White, a member of the Harvard Sociology Department from 1963 to 1988. White writes in an e-mail from Toulouse, France where he is conducting research: “As my French colleague says, [the story] sounds more French than American, with the inbreeding—student then junior then senior [professor] all at the one elite place,”


In 1980, Skocpol had completed five years as an associate professor and recently published “States and Social Revolutions,” earning her two major scholarly awards in her field. Skocpol told The Crimson at that time that she had received tenure offers from four other institutions that year.

But by that October, the University’s Sociology Department rejected her bid for tenure.

“At a personal level,” Skocpol told The Crimson soon after the department’s decision, “I am deeply hurt by this unnecessary rejection, coming when the department has several vacancies to fill.”

Skocpol, who is now the Thomas professor of government and sociology, declined repeated requests for comment for this article.

The department had not granted tenure to a junior faculty member in over a decade and also counted no women among its 11 members. One month later, Skocpol filed a grievance for sexual discrimination against the University—the first use of the Faculty’s grievance process—saying she was glad that such a channel was open to her.

Today, former colleagues, students, and teachers praise Skocpol for her scholarship and energy.

“The students were as you could expect quite upset,” recalls Peter Bearman, who was the graduate student coordinator when Skocpol’s petition for tenure was rejected, in an e-mail. He now chairs Columbia’s sociology department.

“Theda is a tremendous talent, a distinguished sociologist, and a great trainer of students. I think we saw that more clearly than many of the then-voting members of the Harvard Sociology department,” Bearman writes.

In fact, many voting members of the department, including Ezra F. Vogel—the same professor who once criticized Skocpol for her divisiveness—did see her talent. Vogel, emeritus Ford researcher professor of social sciences who voted against her, remembers Skocpol for her broad reading and her commitment to her students. Vogel says he gave Skocpol an “A” when she was his graduate student.

“Theda Skocpol is very bright, is dedicated to her work, is a dedicated teacher, and spends a great deal of time working with her students. She raises excellent questions,” Vogel says of his former student, teaching fellow, and colleague.


Despite these considerable qualifications, those professors who voted against Skocpol for tenure contended then and still contend that her gender had nothing to do with her rejection.

“It is absolutely the truth that the department was leaning over backwards and really gave her considerable advantage because she’s a woman,” emeritus Andelot professor of sociology Nathan Keyfitz said then.

Alessandro Pizzorno, former Sociology Department member and a supporter of Skocpol’s tenure, expresses a similar view. Pizzorno writes in an e-mail from Florence where he is a researcher at the European University Institute, “one could say that unexpressed consideration [of gender] influenced the position of some members of the department. I do not think so. Even in personal exchanges, to my knowledge, the question of gender was never mentioned.”

Bearman, Vogel, and White offer various reasons for Skocpol’s rejection. Bearman believes that it was part of a greater trend within the department: “they saw a phenomenal amount of talent in junior people, all of whom in those days were never considered for tenure.”

According to Vogel, senior faculty raised questions about the quality of Skocpol’s scholarship in “States and Social Revolutions.” The book presented case studies of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, but members of the department wondered whether Skocpol’s inability to read original French and Chinese sources compromised her research.

Others question whether Skocpol’s opinions prejudiced her findings.

“There was also a question of whether she had developed a certain point of view and ignored other evidence that came out after the Cultural Revolution before she wrote her book,” writes Vogel, “therefore giving a one-sided point of view while ignoring other viewpoints. The question was whether a tenured faculty should not give a balanced view, making use of all the evidence instead of selecting only information to fit one’s theory.”

Others, according to White, thought that she had published too little to be tenured: “Some seniors supported her, one or two were hostile to it as I remember, and I suspect the bulk, like me, voted on the grounds that it was premature without further work.”


“The Skocpol affair more expressed tensions than caused them, I think. This was an era of charged political atmosphere,” recalls White.

Indeed, the Sociology Department was not the only one to be accused of discrimination. In the spring of 1981, Josephine P. Wright, a former assistant professor of African and African-American studies, was denied tenure and then was refused a one-year extension of her contract. Wright, who is an African-American woman, filed a grievance with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that her request for a contract extension was turned down on the basis of race and sex.

Wright dropped her suit after she was offered a position at the W.E.B. Dubois Institute for African and African American Reseach in the fall of 1981.

Contacted at the College of Wooster, where she is a professor of music and chair of the college’s Africana studies department, Wright denied a request for an interview. Responding instead by e-mail, Wright writes, “At this point in my life I would prefer to ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’”

She adds that “while the events of 1981 were traumatic for me, and admittedly one of the lowest points in my professional career, I’ve moved on and established a national reputation for myself in the field of American music. Harvard now is just a distant, though very unpleasant, memory for me.”


At the same time Wright filed her grievance with the EEOC, Skocpol learned that then-dean of the Faculty, Henry Rosovsky, would assemble an ad hoc committee to investigate her charge.

The committee—made up of historian Stanley H. Hoffman, historian of science Barbara G. Rosenkrantz, and economist Hendrik S. Houthakker—found, in a 2-1 decision, that sexual discrimination influenced the department’s refusal to tenure Skocpol.

In August 1981, when Skocpol had already taken a one-year position at the Princeton-affiliated Institute for Advanced Study, then-University president Derek C. Bok announced that he would oversee a three-year review of Skocpol’s work before considering extending her an offer of tenure. Skocpol assumed a tenured position at the University of Chicago beginning in 1983.

Completing its review, the University extended an offer of tenure to Skocpol in December of 1985. Accepting the offer, Skocpol told The Crimson that “people don’t have to be close personal friends to cooperate professionally.”

Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters told The Crimson last year that when Skocpol returned to the department, “It was very hard for her. The people who had voted against her still here weren’t very nice or friendly.”

Being the only woman in the department, Skocpol “had to really establish herself,” said Waters, a former chair of the department, who did not return requests for comment for this article.


The Skocpol affair stands as a reminder of a tense period for female scholars at Harvard. In the 1979-1980 academic year, only 12 out of 356 tenured faculty were women. In his recent letter to the Faculty, outgoing Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby reports that 23.7 percent of senior and junior Faculty members are women, 166 of 698 professors, and 18.6 percent of tenured professors, 90 of 483, are women.

“Harvard has fewer tenured women than many other universities,” Waters writes in e-mail, “and I think that makes it less welcoming than other institutions.”

According to Waters, who at a time was the only tenured female professor in her department, academia in general is a “relatively comfortable place for women” but “I have certainly heard many horror stories about the treatment of women in this university over the last twenty years that I have been here,” Waters writes. “I also see subtle discrimination against women myself very often.”

Skocpol, it seems, does not believe women have gained much support or security in the intervening 25 years. She told The Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2004 that the status of women today “has a very early-’70s feel, like stuff we thought we had overcome.”

“I feel like I’m in a time warp,” Skocpol told the Chronicle.

This comment came one month before University President Lawrence H. Summers told the National Bureau of Economic Research that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” might explain the dearth of female scientists at Harvard and throughout higher education.

Summers’ comments, which Skocpol called “the presidential speech heard around the world” in her April comments to Appleton Chapel, triggered the well-known firestorm of criticism. Soon after, Skocpol built a reputation as one of Summers’ most vociferous critics.

“When things do not go well, the president always seeks to blame and humiliate others,” Skocpol said at a Faculty meeting, exacerbating the contretemps last winter. Later softening her words, Skocpol was appointed dean of GSAS by Kirby last spring.

Since the “unnecessary rejection” in 1980, Skocpol has risen to the top of the ivory tower. Before serving as dean of GSAS, she was elected president of the 14,000-member American Political Science Association. She has authored eight books since the publication of “States and Social Revolutions” and advised President Bill Clinton while he was in office. Her name has surfaced among potential candidates for dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences.

When asked to explain how his department rejected a scholar who has had such success, White responds, “If you have a crystal ball that can foretell how a young academic will turn out, by all means make it available and charge a high fee.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at

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