The future of a junior prof's career is often decided around this table by a carefully chosen ad hoc committee, although the president has the final word.
The future of a junior prof's career is often decided around this table by a carefully chosen ad hoc committee, although the president has the final word.

Navigating Tenure

When Peter Berkowitz graduated from Yale with a Ph.D. in political science, he knew exactly what he didn’t want to
By Asli A. Bashir

When Peter Berkowitz graduated from Yale with a Ph.D. in political science, he knew exactly what he didn’t want to do: plunge into an academic lifestyle. He instead opted to go to law school, but in his second year at Yale Law, academia came calling in the form of an irresistible suitor: Harvard.

“I had high expectations about teaching Harvard graduate and undergraduate students, and felt that it was a great opportunity for one in my field,” says Berkowitz. At the time, he was excited for the experience and had no expectations for a future tenure bid. “Everybody who had eyes saw there were very very high standards for tenure and knew that their chances were remote,” he says.

But six years later, Berkowitz found himself in a more favorable position. By that point he had written two books, was regularly published in political journals, and had been part of the Harvard community for most of the nineties. Now he was in his penultimate year, and tenure was the only viable way to stay. “By that time, taking all of the circumstances into account I considered myself competitive,” he says. “Although I still thought, as any sensible person would, that the odds were against me.” Berkowitz’s department nominated him and a colleague, Bonnie Honig, for tenure review in fall of 1996. In April 1997, both professors were informed that then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine had denied them tenure, despite the Government department’s endorsement.

“When I received the decision my first reaction was ‘came close, too bad.’” says Berkowitz, who later claimed that misconduct had occurred during his tenure review. With the advice and support of Weld Professor of Law Charles R. Nesson, Berkowitz appealed using Harvard’s internal grievance procedures. In a formal grievance to Dean Knowles and the elected members of the Docket Committee in early 1999, Berkowitz alleged that four of the five members of the ad hoc committee assembled to advise Rudenstine “showed bias, conflict of interest, or lack of expertise.” Later that year, however, a Harvard investigation found Berkowitz’s allegations “clearly without merit.” Berkowitz spent over a year wrangling with the grievance process., which he felt was also compromised. In March of 2000, Berkowitz sued Harvard for breach of contract. His petition was ultimately denied, but not before the case reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

“A [junior faculty] member isn’t entitled to tenure, but a process consistent with Harvard’s rules and regulations,” says Berkowitz, who is now a professor at George Mason University School of Law. “One question worth asking is whether Harvard has struck the right balance between two separate goods in the tenure process: transparency and accountability on the one hand,” he says, “and confidentiality on the other.”


Ten years after Rudenstine’s decision, the issue of tenure remains a hot topic among junior faculty. In 2004 then-University President Lawrence H. Summers’ refusal to tenure Marcyliena Morgan—the resident hip-hop scholar of Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department—led to her departure as well as that of her renowned sociologist husband, Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies Lawrence D. Bobo. After interim President Derek C. Bok approved a tenure offer for Morgan last spring, University President Drew G. Faust wooed the couple back, bringing the the two luminaries back into the fold.

But Morgan is only one of the many losers in Harvard’s historically complicated, secretive, and highly selective tenure process, one that has often been criticized for favoring an aging faculty and shutting out promising junior professors, women, and minorities. Recently, the University has taken steps to address the problem, but the question of whether Harvard really is on its way to striking the balance between transparency, accountability, and confidentiality is yet to be answered.


While associate professor status certainly bodes well for job prospects elsewhere, the irony of being a junior professor here is that experience teaching at Harvard doesn’t impress anyone within its own gates.

While many schools look at tenure as a logical step in the trajectory of a satisfactory career at an institution, Harvard makes a point of not favoring its own faculty in tenure decisions. "When someone is up for tenure, the standard and procedure is exactly the same as it is when the department is searching for senior scholars elsewhere,” says Brian W. Casey, associate dean for faculty affairs in FAS.

The senior scholar search is a process in which departments canvas scholars and experts in a field. The objective of the search is to find luminaries outside of Harvard capable of satisfying the University’s high expectations for tenure, which are described in the University-issued faculty handbook as an honor “reserved for scholars of the first order of eminence who have demonstrated excellence in teaching and research and who have the capacity to make significant contributions to the departments proposing the appointment.”

When departments weigh possible candidates, junior professors are considered alongside these senior scholars, who often have a head start: they’ve been in the field longer and often already have tenure at other universities. The timing of tenure review can also be problematic for junior faculty in terms of their personal lives. “For the intellectual vitality of the University, I think it’s very good to recruit young faculty,” says Lisa L. Martin, senior advisor to the dean of FAS. At 34, Martin was one of the youngest women to be offered tenure at Harvard in 1996. “But I think that it does have potentially negative consequences for women in particular because about seven or eight years after women get their Ph.D. is when they want to start a family. It’s also when they’re reviewed for tenure.”

A recent survey conducted by the American Association of Universities (AAUP) based on 2005 data showed that Harvard had the lowest percentage of tenure-track Professors in the Ivy League, at 56.6 percent. Without a tenured position, associate and assistant professors’ time at Harvard is capped at eight years. Review is usually only offered in the penultimate year of a tenure-track professor’s term. Even with the possibility of tenure review ahead, the long process and lack of a guarantee can lead restless professors to hop off the faculty roster early.

Another school may hasten the departure of a promising young professor by offering a great deal such as an associate tenured position. “Harvard is probably the ripest place to pick scholars from,” says Casey.

Martin says it can be tough to keep professors in this case. “It’s often very hard for us to respond [to outside offers of tenure] if they’ve only been here for four or five years given the way our process works.”

Perhaps more bitter than a premature departure is when the tenure application of a popular professor is denied. Last year, two star junior professors—Sociology Professor Jason A. Kaufman ’93 and Associate Professor of Japanese History Mikael S. Adolphson—were both denied tenure after being nominated by their respective departments. Both will have to leave soon and find teaching jobs elsewhere, after spending years at Harvard.


Given the eagerness of talented junior faculty to remain at Harvard, the senior search seems almost counterintuitive, especially in light of its grueling and time-consuming nature.

“The time from when you start a search to a person showing up in a classroom can be about three years,” says Casey. “For a small department to conduct a senior search the process can be extraordinarily arduous and take an enormous amount of time. There’s a limit to the capacity of a faculty to search.” And the time spent recruiting faculty may take away from the academic pursuits of the members of search committees.

Richard P. Chait, professor of higher education at the Graduate School of Education, notes that opting for senior scholars rather than junior faculty for tenured positions can potentially lower morale among the younger set. “ If you tenure from outside,” he says, “from the vantage point of junior faculty it can feel as if someone is cutting in line ahead of you.”

But Chait adds that the benefits of bringing in preeminent scholars are invaluable to the growth of a department. “There’s less risk involved [when you bring in senior scholars] because you’re taking someone with a longer track record of productivity and success who can help to make dramatic leaps in quality, whereas it may take junior faculty 10 to 15 years to blossom.”

And the search is considered a worthwhile investment in the quality of the FAS faculty. By making the first step as even as possible for those outside and inside the system, FAS allows itself to search freely for those best fit to fill gaps in the curriculum. Harvard is willing to go to great lengths to claim great minds, and some of the University’s most prized luminaries—including Stephen Pinker, Homi Bhabha, and Stephen Greenblatt—have entered the gates through this process.

By making the first step as even as possible for those outside and inside the system, FAS allows itself to search freely for those best fit to fill gaps in the curriculum.


The tenure process begins for a junior professor when a department decides to nominate her for a coveted full professorship. However, regardless of the zeal with which the department endorses their choice nominees, this step in the process is only the beginning of the long winding road to the final decision.

Next, the candidate must compile a detailed dossier with 23 different elements. The professor must include in the dossier a copy of every academic work she’s ever authored, including those that have yet to see a publisher. Dossiers often include books and other very long works and can be 1,000 pages or longer. Theoretically, everyone who reviews the dossier reads the entire collection.

The department then drafts search letters that list the candidate’s name along with four or five comparable professors. After a review from the Office of Academic Affairs, the letters are sent to prominent tenured scholars in the field of the candidate who are asked to rank the names in order of perceived accomplishment and potential. These letters can often be “blind,” lacking any indication of which contender Harvard is actually considering.

The dossier eventually finds itself propped in front of an ad hoc committee convened solely to review the application. The committee usually consists of three experts in the field from other universities, two experts from Harvard (ordinarily from within FAS), the Dean of the Faculty, the divisional dean, and the President. For each candidate it typically takes at least two or three weeks to assemble a committee, after which the committee is given more time to review the dossier.

The divisional dean then arranges for several departmental “witnesses” familiar with the nominee’s work to come before the committee individually. Although the committee questions the witnesses and assesses the value of the nominee’s field, a peculiar aspect of this ad hoc committee is that no votes are taken throughout the process. The committee is essentially just an advisory group to the President, who alone makes the final decision.

This entire process occurs in a shroud of secrecy. Outside professors entering at the tenure level may not even know that they are being considered for a position. Regardless, Casey notes that professors who are eminent enough to be seriously considered generally have an idea that Harvard is looking at them before they receive an offer. “At that level,” he says, “it’s difficult not to know.”


The task of selecting Harvard’s faculty is considered to be a paramount responsibility. So it follows that tenure, which entails a lifetime appointment, is a vote of confidence Harvard does not make lightly. Harvard’s highest official is alone endowed with the power to bestow a full professorship, the sole tenured position at Harvard. “The most important aspect of President Faust’s job,” says Casey, “Is that she chooses the future faculty of Harvard.”

Tenure also implies that professors are given much more professional freedom, because they can only be fired in extreme circumstances. “There’s always a concern that tenure in some cases shields faculty from performance accountability, and in the worst case enables faculty to perform at unacceptable levels with little or no consequences,” says Chait, noting that one can think of any number of cases where tenured professors have said controversial things they might not have otherwise.

However Chait, whose 2002 book “The Question of Tenure” explores both sides of the issue, is quick to add that tenure has its benefits. “That isn’t to say that the baby needs to be thrown out with the bath water,” he says. “It also allows people to do controversial research on DNA, genetic engineering, research on the ill effects of tobacco, and a whole line of valuable inquiry that people find politically offensive.”

Harvard’s attitude toward tenure is not uncommon in the Ivy league. In a 2004 article exploring tenure systems in the Ivies, the Journal of Higher Education pegged Harvard, Princeton and Yale as schools with the toughest tenure policies. Since then, Harvard and Yale have both undergone changes in their respective systems. For example, Yale recently rid itself of the “open search,“ a policy analogous to the senior search still followed at Harvard.

However, Yale remains one of few schools without tenure-track positions, a system under which professors do not know if they will be considered for tenure in advance. Until very recently, Harvard was the same. “If someone came into a junior position there was no guarantee that they would be considered for tenure at the end of their time here,” says Martin.

During his four years as dean of FAS, William C. Kirby oversaw measures intended to improve tenure prospects for junior faculty and mitigate the complicated, detailed, and immensely time-consuming series of hurdles involved in the tenure process. In February 2005 Kirby announced that Harvard would begin to advertise assistant professorships as tenure-track.

The measure was intended to help assuage the worries of a strained junior faculty. "Now when people are hired at the junior level, they’re on a path that guarantees at couldn’t recruit the strongest junior faculty if it was widely thought that they had no chance for tenure,” says Casey, although he adds that “now we’re much more overt about it.”

FAS has also introduced several measures to respond to the worries of tenure-track faculty. Martin notes that they’ve instituted mentorship programs between senior and junior faculty members to give them an edge in the process. “We’re really pushing to make sure that departments understand that they’re responsible for the career development of their faculty,” she says, “so that [junior professors] can be realistically considered for tenure. We’re also making sure that in junior level searches they’re hiring people who can eventually be serious candidates for tenure down the road.”


Perhaps the most widely criticized flaw in Harvard’s tenure system is the obvious lack of diversity among tenured professors, particularly with regard to gender. This became a more urgent issue when the percentage of full professorships offered to women dipped from 19 percent in the ’02-’03 term to 13 percent in ’03-’04 school year.

The following year, in the wake of an infamous suggestion that innate differences may hinder women in science and math careers, the beleaguered Summers launched the Task Forces on Women Faculty and on Women in Science and Engineering with current University President Drew G. Faust and Provost Steven E. Hymen.

“I have long been aware of the many challenges women face in pursuing academic careers,” Summers told the Harvard Gazette at the time. “But in the past several weeks the nature and extent of these challenges have been made particularly vivid to me.”

The subsequent reports of this committee led to the establishment of the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development & Diversity (FD&D), chaired by Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies Evelynn M. Hammonds. In this position, Hammonds is in charge of hiring and development in the University, and maintains a close relationship with the President and Provost.

FD&D’s main charge is to foster faculty development across the University and push for recruitment of women and minorities. The office’s website encourages schools within the University to submit applications for pilot funds that aim to “improve Harvard’s performance in developing scholars at all stages of the academic career ladder.” Jonathan Colburn, communications coordinator for the FD&D, notes that the fund is intended to promote the development of all faculty, regardless of previous representation. “Certainly all manner of faculty have applied for our pilot programs,” he says.

But do these “funds” really promote development and diversity? Colburn says it’s too early to tell. “Since we’re dealing with a relatively small population now we can’t make sweeping conclusions, but we do feel that they’re addressing needs of those involved.”

Even with new measures in place, the growth in diversity of tenure-track professors has been slow. In 2006 only 21 percent of the professors who accepted tenure-track offers from Harvard were female, and tenured male professors outnumbered tenured female professors nearly four to one, 391 to 96.


According to Martin, who chairs the Standing Committee on Women, the problem lies in the nature of the process at hand. “I think that it’s inevitable that you can’t grow really fast in very short period of time,” she says. “In FAS we probably don’t have more than about 20 searches in a given year. Unless there’s some dramatic growth in size over a short period of time, there isn’t room to make rapid change in composition.”

Casey notes that with recent changes in those top positions—including the President, Dean of the College, and Dean of FAS—a bit of a lull should be expected. But despite the potential for a temporary drop in new appointments, the University’s newest officials appear excited to improve the basic tenets of the system.

Faust says that she believes more focus on teaching, as well as dossier-size, is needed when considering someone for tenure. “I think we do have to make sure that we provide teaching support for people who are great researchers to bring them up to the bar as good teachers,” says Faust, adding that it is also important that she “have sufficient information and ask the right questions about individuals who are presented to me for tenure through the ad hoc system.”

Dean of FAS Michael D. Smith writes in an e-mail that the measures in place have been somewhat successful, but by no means enough. “We need to continue to focus on issues of diversity, measure how we’re doing, and actively take steps to make further improvements,” says Smith. “We’re not done.”