A Real D.C. Comic

League of Harvard professors assembles in the capital

It’s a plot ripped from the pages of a comic book. From former president Larry Summers to Kennedy School professor Samantha Power, many of Harvard’s most famous—and infamous—super-professors are flocking to our nation’s capital to join President Obama’s team. Although the tally of professors departing Harvard to serve in the Obama administration seems to increase every day, the attendant holes in Harvard’s faculty are not cause for major concern.

Harvard will experience numerous benefits when professors take a leave in order to work in D.C. It is important to remember that President Obama’s appointments are inherently political, and thus professors serving his administration are expected to return to Harvard in four—or eight—years, if not sooner. Undoubtedly, these professors will return with new knowledge to impart upon their students, or great experiences to share at the very least. As Harvard attempts to successfully prepare its students for the world outside of academia, professors’ real-life experiences as Washington insiders will provide fodder for their courses when they return. Moreover, though many of the departing professors certainly do not need further validation with regard to their accomplishments, their actions in Washington will add to their prestige and thus benefit Harvard when they return to its faculty.

Neither will Harvard languish at all while the professors are gone. The university has a strict tenure policy that often involves passing over junior professors in favor of more established professors from other universities, effectively driving junior professors away to other institutions after a few years at Harvard. Often, the junior professors who are entirely disregarded by the tenure system are among the best teachers Harvard has to offer. With more esteemed professors out of the limelight, young professors will have increased opportunities to showcase their talent. Allowing qualified junior professors to serve in more prestigious positions due to vacancies of senior faculty will, in the end, benefit students. What’s more, every current star we have has needed to rise through the ranks in one way or another—younger professors now have a chance to shine. With an opportunity to shuffle hierarchy, it might be possible to more fully utilize faculty members.

There is another reason that absent faculty members will benefit Harvard in the short term: As demonstrated in November and again at the presidential inauguration, the media and many people in the United States and abroad are simply crazy for anything Obama-related. Although there are numerous reasons for the 29,000 applications to the Class of 2013, Obama’s connection to Harvard—and the increased prevalence of Harvard affiliates in the news as he selects them for his administration—will certainly contribute to increased interest in the university. The more Harvard professors who take their skills to Washington and create policy there, the more positive publicity Harvard will receive.

Finally, the newfound decision-making power of Harvard professors gives them an opportunity to benefit Harvard and the causes we further. Professors understand that funding for education and research, for example, is highly important. Having been on the receiving side of the government’s mercy, they will hopefully use their new positions to advocate for policies that will benefit higher education institutions such as Harvard, such as increased funding for scientific research. Just as professors will bring a fresh perspective back to Harvard upon their return, they will also take a Harvard-influenced perspective as they move to Washington.

As important as it is to have bright minds at Harvard, it is equally important for such intelligence to steer our country in a desirable direction. Both Harvard and the nation as a whole should be excited about Harvard professors leaving Cambridge for Washington.