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Op Eds

Amid COVID-19, Protecting Harvard’s Teaching Faculty is Essential

By Kristine E. Guillaume, Emily Shen, and Jeremy L. Tsai
Kristine E. Guillaume ’20, a former Crimson president, is a History and Literature and African American Studies concentrator in Lowell House. Emily Shen ’20-’21 is a History and Literature and Computer Science concentrator in Adams House. Jeremy L. Tsai ’20 is a History and Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

Coronavirus has disrupted University life in myriad ways, transforming how we learn, conduct research, and foster connections with each other. In recent weeks, classes shifted to remote instruction, libraries closed, and Harvard froze its hiring processes. Many things have changed, but one hasn’t: Harvard has not granted extensions to its non-tenure-track faculty, many of whom will “time out” at the end of the academic year in the midst of a pandemic.

As of Wednesday, Harvard has not responded to a petition signed by over 1300 Harvard affiliates that began to circulate over a month ago. The petition calls on the University to extend appointments for non-tenure track faculty by at least one year. Many faculty who will “time out” at the end of June will lose their income in an uncertain job market and be left without healthcare in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

As students from concentrations that rely on non-tenure-track faculty for instruction, we strongly urge Harvard to respond to this petition with action: extend appointments for non-tenure track faculty by at least one year.

Within a week after we evacuated campus and transitioned to remote instruction, Harvard announced that it would give tenure track faculty the opportunity to extend their current appointments and postpone promotion reviews. In a March email to the faculty, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay wrote that the circumstances of the pandemic would affect faculty’s “time and productivity” in research, teaching, and their advising roles, among other factors.

Faculty includes non-tenure-track faculty. As Gay acknowledged, all faculty were faced with unique burdens with regards to their multiple roles as researchers, teachers, and advisers, but non-tenure-track faculty were left conspicuously unprotected. Harvard did the right thing in extending appointments for tenure-track faculty. But by that logic, non-tenure-track faculty — who in fall 2019 taught more than half of undergraduates — deserve the same support.

Non-tenure-track faculty are essential to the architecture of this school. More than 200 received teaching awards in fall 2018. They have fundamentally shaped our academic experiences at Harvard through thoughtful seminars, senior thesis advising, and valuable mentorship across disciplines such as Mathematics, History & Literature, Social Studies, Environmental Science and Public Policy, Romance Languages and Literatures, and other fields in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Though some individual departments have already extended appointments due to curricular need, it is ultimately the responsibility of the administration to protect all of its faculty.

In addition to the more than 1300 people who signed the Harvard-specific petition, thousands of scholars across academic institutions worldwide have pledged to withhold attendance at speaking engagements, workshops, and conferences at universities that do not extend appointments for non-tenure-track faculty for the 2020-2021 academic year. Among them are prominent legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, philosopher Judith Butler, novelist and creative writing professor Zadie Smith, and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold E. Varmus.

Importantly, extending appointments would provide much-needed continuity and stability for students as well as faculty during a particularly unstable time marked by a distinct lack of access to on-campus resources. Harvard’s academic environment thrives because new scholars come every year to bring new and diverse perspectives to teaching and learning. That said, in the middle of the crisis, we believe both new faculty and students would be better supported with a team of experienced educators on hand to ease the burdens of pandemic teaching. Rising seniors, for example, would have the opportunity to write theses with lecturers and other instructors they know well. Students on the whole will benefit from maintaining the support of their advisers and mentors as Harvard faces an uncertain future.

Undergraduates from different disciplines across the College agree on the importance of protecting non-tenure-track faculty; 107 of them have signed on to this op-ed in support. As students, we believe that ensuring Harvard’s continued academic success amid unprecedented circumstances requires its leadership to extend the appointments of those best prepared to weather the storm. These advisers and instructors have shaped our academic trajectories in college. They have played a critical role in our shift to online learning. They have worked tirelessly to help us complete our final papers and exams. Under these dire circumstances, it is imperative for the University to protect the Harvard community — and that includes the livelihoods of its non-tenure-track faculty.

Kristine E. Guillaume ’20, a former Crimson president, is a History and Literature and African American Studies concentrator in Lowell House. Emily Shen ’20-’21 is a History and Literature and Computer Science concentrator in Adams House. Jeremy L. Tsai ’20 is a History and Literature concentrator in Quincy House.

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