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Soft Science, Hard Facts

FAS hiring should focus on economics and government

By Daniel J. Hemel

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles wants to overturn the law of supply and demand.

Here are the facts: In the social science division of Harvard College, there are roughly 11 concentrators for every faculty member, and the ratios are worse in Harvard’s two largest concentrations, government and economics. In the natural sciences, applied sciences, and engineering, there are approximately five students per professor. In the humanities, there are about four.

Unsurprisingly, this imbalance affects the quality of academic advising. In October, The Crimson published data from surveys administered to outgoing seniors in previous years; consistently, social science concentrators were less satisfied with their advising than their classmates in the hard sciences and the humanities.

Clearly, the supply of social science professors isn’t keeping pace with student demand. So as the Faculty increases its size over the next three years, you might expect that growth would be focused on the social sciences.

That’s not what Dean Knowles has in mind.

In a letter posted online Monday, Knowles writes that “most of the net growth in the next few years…will be in the sciences and engineering.” Harvard will only continue to appoint new social science professors to replace the ones who are departing. Of course, if wealthy donors want to endow professorships in the social sciences, FAS won’t turn them down. But Knowles’ message to the overcrowded, understaffed social science departments was clear: Relief is not on the way.

Yet Knowles acknowledges that the size of department faculties should—at the very least—remotely reflect the size of their student bodies. He writes, “we must obviously be responsive to the pressures of student enrollment, if only to ensure that some groups of colleagues are not much more taxed than others.” This “obvious” point is thenceforth ignored.

Why does Knowles reach such a counterintuitive conclusion? Though a chemist himself, I doubt that our worldly dean is guilty of academic provincialism. Rather, Knowles has conducted a careful statistical comparison—using the wrong set of statistics.

Knowles’ comparisons pit Harvard against peer institutions. At Yale, for example, 39 percent of professors are hard scientists—3 percentage points above the figure for Harvard. (Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley are even more heavily weighted toward the hard-science side.) Meanwhile, just 24 percent of Yale faculty members are social scientists, 10 percentage points below the Harvard figure. (The other three schools’ faculties have even smaller social science contingents.)

But Knowles doesn’t compare the Harvard student body to that of peer institutions. Just 42 percent of Princeton undergrads and 37 percent of Yalies concentrate in the social sciences, well below below Harvard’s 54 percent. Both Stanford and Berkeley boast far fewer (25 and 30 respectively).

In other words, compared to its peer institutions, Harvard has a modestly higher percentage of social science professors—and a vastly higher percentage of social science majors.

Knowles writes that he does “not mean to suggest that we should blithely or blindly follow trends elsewhere.” But if Harvard follows Knowles’ plan, we will be doing exactly that. The plan will bring Harvard more in line with peer institutions—and further out of step with its own students’ needs.

Of course it is hard to disagree with Knowles’ statement that “even if…there was hardly any student interest in physics or philosophy…intellectual life in the FAS would be unacceptably impoverished if it did not include physicists and philosophers.” Student demand should not entirely rule faculty appointments, but it should at least be taken into account, lest the intellectual life of social science concentrators (the majority of students) be “unacceptably impoverished” by their lack of faculty contact.

Social science concentrators will be dismayed by Knowles’ plan—but they won’t be surprised. Economics concentrators know that centralized planning often produces worse results than consumer choice. And government majors have learned that in the absence of accountability, institutions are often not responsive to their constituents’ needs.

Perhaps the best solution is for Dean Knowles to attend a few lectures of Ec 10 or Gov 20. That is, if he can find a seat.

Daniel J. Hemel ’07 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House and was The Crimson’s managing editor from February 2006 until January 2007.

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