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Harvard’s Teaching Faculty Are Not Disposable

By Alex W. Corey, Thomas A. Dichter, and Michaela J. Thompson
Alex W. Corey is a Lecturer on History and Literature. Michaela J. Thompson is a Preceptor in Environmental Science and Public Policy. Thomas A. Dichter ’08 is a Lecturer on English and on History and Literature.

Shopping week has come and gone and students have registered for classes. But some undergraduates may be disappointed that a class they’d planned to take this term is no longer offered. Perhaps they’d wanted to take a particular instructor’s seminar, only to discover that the faculty member left campus in May and never came back. These students are paying the price for Harvard’s counterproductive habit of automatically firing valued instructors. Every year, the University terminates many of its best teachers based on arbitrary time limits set by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Non-tenure-track faculty (lecturers, preceptors, and other instructors) are essential to a Harvard education. We provide all instruction in Expos, offer introductory Math and classes in the School for Applied Sciences and Engineering, run the tutorials for History and Literature and Social Studies, coordinate enormous lecture courses in the Life Sciences, and teach languages from Amharic to Yiddish. Our students clearly value our contributions to undergraduate education (more than 200 of us won awards last semester based on our Q evaluations). But each year, some of Harvard College’s roughly 400 non-tenure-track faculty are kicked out when our “clock” runs out after three to eight years.

Because the administration treats these faculty as disposable, Harvard students lose seasoned teachers every year. For example, Ikue Shingu, a preceptor in Japanese, is scheduled to “time out” this year despite the fact that she has won the Derek Bok Center Certificate of Excellence every semester since the spring of 2013. And back in 2017, Expos said goodbye to Preceptor Kevin Birmingham, who had just one year earlier been awarded the prestigious Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. Harvard also loses skilled faculty when they leave for more stable positions — such as when History and Literature Lecturer Terry Park left Harvard after just one year to take a non-tenure-track job without time limits at the University of Maryland.

Why does the Faculty of Arts and Sciences summarily dismiss its non-tenure-track faculty, regardless of merit? It’s hard to say. Administrators have offered different rationales over the years. This spring, after 63 teaching award winners signed an open letter asking not to be fired, the administration explained why they purge the ranks of non-tenure track faculty after a set term. They suggested that hiring fresh replacements is the only way to meet changing student interests and offer “novel pedagogical techniques.”

Ten years ago, a faculty committee met to reconsider the time caps. Their final report argued that many non-tenure-track teaching positions “are highly demanding and require regeneration.” The implication is that Harvard demands so much of its lecturers and preceptors that we must be relieved of our duties before we burn out completely. (The committee did not consult any lecturers or preceptors in preparing its report.) We believe that “regeneration” among our ranks should come in the form of increased investment in the excellent faculty who are already here, rather than firing and replacing us. For example, standardized research funding, better parental leave policies, or a pay raise that would match the salaries of our counterparts at Boston University would all be effective ways to support and sustain our teaching.

Another faculty committee met in 2018 and reaffirmed the time cap policy for lecturers. But it was only this spring that we were informed of this committee’s existence. The membership and report of this 2018 committee have not been made available to the lecturers affected, let alone the broader Harvard community. Why is the administration afraid of transparency when it comes to non-tenure-track faculty policies? And why does it exclude us from discussions that determine our fate at this university?

Beyond the College, other parts of Harvard have already realized that they need to treat non-tenure-track instructors better. For instance, this spring, the directors of Harvard’s International Studies Centers jointly recommended that FAS “create a job ladder for talented language teachers, with the goal of ensuring that they can stay at Harvard for the long haul.” Meanwhile, the Kennedy School doesn’t automatically let non-tenure-track faculty go — they offer a path to promotion instead.

Harvard needs to do better by its non-tenure-track faculty. The administration commonly calls our summary dismissal “timing out,” but to us, losing our salary and benefits looks a lot like being fired. And dismissing us from our jobs actively harms the College’s education mission. Undergraduates lose excellent faculty just as soon as those faculty find their footing at this institution. Departments pour money and time into hiring searches to replace teachers whom students don’t want to lose in the first place. Why not invest instead in the experienced and skilled faculty Harvard already has? Dismissing us and shutting out our voices helps no one. Our students deserve better — and so do we.

Alex W. Corey is a Lecturer on History and Literature. Thomas A. Dichter ’08 is a Lecturer on English and on History and Literature. Michaela J. Thompson is a Preceptor in Environmental Science and Public Policy.

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