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107 Faculty Called for Review of Tenure Procedures in Letter to Dean Gay

More than 100 faculty members signed a letter to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that led Gay to begin a review of the FAS tenure promotion system.
More than 100 faculty members signed a letter to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that led Gay to begin a review of the FAS tenure promotion system. By Sanjana S. Ramrajvel
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

More than 100 faculty members signed a Dec. 11 letter to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that prompted Gay to initiate a review of the FAS tenure promotion system.

The 107 signatories — which included faculty from both FAS and the Divinity School — called for a “comprehensive review” of the FAS tenure procedures with the principles of diversity, inclusion, and belonging in mind. In her Dec. 17 reply, Gay agreed, writing that she plans to convene a faculty advisory committee to assist with the effort during the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Nearly fifteen years after the creation of Harvard’s tenure track system in 2005 — and in the wake of several devastating and unexpected tenure denials in the past two years — we, the undersigned faculty, call for a comprehensive review of the tenure procedures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, with an eye toward better aligning them with the University’s stated commitments to diversity, inclusion, and belonging,” the faculty members’ letter reads.

The faculty wrote that though the University has improved significantly since it instituted a tenure promotion system, the tenure track is “harrowing” for those on it.

“[J]unior faculty can do everything right … and still be denied tenure,” the letter reads, citing the recent tenure denials of Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña — whose scholarship engages with race and ethnicity — and Germanic Languages and Literature associate professor Racha Kirakosian. García Peña’s tenure denial in particular sparked protests at the end of the fall semester, including one that disrupted a faculty meeting.

The faculty wrote that the University does not provide justification for its tenure decisions to candidates and demanded greater transparency about the rationale behind tenure decisions to both candidates and their home departments. They added that learning why a colleague was denied tenure can help senior faculty better mentor tenure-track faculty in the future.

“The final stage, often yet not always featuring an ad-hoc committee whose composition is secret and chosen at the Provost’s discretion, is a black box. From that black box emerges a yes or a no. And nothing else,” the letter reads.

English department chair Nicholas J. Watson — who signed the letter — wrote in an email that he signed because he was “shocked as well as surprised” by some recent tenure decisions at the University.

“Whatever you think of our tenure system, it should not produce surprises for those involved in the process, who have access to all the materials,” Watson wrote.

Watson wrote that when professors are unable to anticipate the outcome of their tenure decision, they are more likely to leave Harvard for other universities.

“Surprises lead to a failure of trust in the process, and that is inherently damaging,” Watson wrote. “At a moment when FAS is rightly emphasizing diversity, inclusion, and belonging, it is especially damaging.”

East Asian Languages and Civilizations chair David L. Howell said that his colleagues’ surprise regarding recent tenure decisions may underscore the need to improve “lines of communication” throughout the tenure process.

Howell — who taught at Princeton University for 17 years, including five where he served as a department chair — said that at Princeton, if the committee on appointments spotted any issues with the tenure case, the department chair would be invited to speak to the committee and the President.

“The final decision is still the President’s, but at least in that case, in the one case where I was called in to the committee, if the answer had been no, at least I would have had a pretty good idea why it was no,” Howell said. “Whereas I think if the same case had been at Harvard, and it'd been a no, I might not have had any idea.”

Howell said he understands the need to maintain confidentiality to allow outside experts to be frank in their assessments of a case, but added that he believes feedback is important nonetheless.

“If it’s a no, you know, it’s really gnawing, what was it that sank the case,” he said.

In addition to examining the procedures for final-decision making, Howell said he hopes the review will evaluate the requirement that 12 to 15 outside experts send letters in support of an applicant for tenure. He said the review should examine whether a “one size fits all” approach is appropriate for small or emerging fields, which may not include a sizable pool of people who can speak with authority on a tenure case.

Classics Department Chair Kathleen M. Coleman said she signed the letter because tenure procedures have remained largely stagnant in recent years.

“It’s a very good idea for institutions to periodically revisit their procedures and see whether it's time, you know, for any alteration, or whether the procedures are working well,” Coleman said. “It’s now many years since we instituted the formal tenure track procedure.”

Coleman and Howell both said the review should also examine another unusual aspect of Harvard’s tenure procedures: Associate professorships — which the University typically grants in the fourth year — do not come with tenure, meaning a professor cannot earn tenure until their seventh year.

“Tenure comes only with full professor — that's crucial thing, that's where Harvard is different from most other places,” Coleman said.

By the time the faculty members sent their letter to Gay, hundreds of students and ethnic studies scholars within and outside Harvard had signed onto other letters condemning the University’s decision to deny tenure to García Peña.

The University’s decision prompted a surge in activism lobbying for the development of an ethnic studies program, including a sit-in at University Hall and the December faculty meeting protest. Harvard affiliates have pushed for an ethnic studies program for nearly five decades.

In the wake of the protests, Gay declared an “institutional commitment” to ethnic studies and has said she is “hopeful” faculty spearhead developing a formal program in the field.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at kevin.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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