‘A Black Box’: Harvard Affiliates Debate the University’s Tenure System

A review of FAS's tenure promotion system has prompted conversations about how universities increase the range of identities represented in the research they produce and the courses they offer — and also bolster the diversity of the historically white, male, and upper-class academy itself.
During Junior Parents Weekend, students protested on the steps of Widener Library, demanding that Harvard creates an Ethnic Studies department and multicultural center.By Allison G. Lee
By Kevin R. Chen

For junior faculty hopefuls, the University’s tenure process begins with years of managing a rigorous teaching schedule, wrangling students in advising, and making strides in research — a quest to prove they are “scholars of the first order of eminence,” boasting a “capacity to make significant and lasting contributions” to Harvard, per the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ handbook on the process.

“The foremost criteria for appointment are scholarly achievement and impact on the field, evidence of intellectual leadership and creative accomplishment, potential for future accomplishments, teaching and advising effectiveness in a variety of settings with both undergraduate and graduate students, and potential contributions to the University and broader scholarly communities,” the handbook explains.

After seven to eight grueling years of such undertakings — and several rounds of evaluation from their peers — FAS tenure cases ultimately end in the hands of an ad hoc committee, whose composition is secret, chaired by the University president or provost. At the final stage, the president has the sole authority to decide whether a candidate receives tenure and provides no explanation of the decision to the candidate or the candidate’s department.

But Harvard’s November decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña — who studies race and ethnicity — prompted many students and faculty to question the integrity of that process.

Students and scholars inside and outside Harvard protested the denial, staging a sit-in at University Hall, writing letters to administrators, and organizing rallies in Harvard Yard.

More than 100 faculty members, meanwhile, called for a review of Harvard’s tenure procedures “with an eye toward better aligning them with the University’s stated commitments to diversity, inclusion, and belonging” in a December letter addressed to FAS Dean Claudine Gay.

A few days later, Gay agreed to launch a review of the FAS’s tenure promotion system in the fall of 2020, the first such review since the FAS formalized its tenure track in 2005.

Harvard affiliates have since raised many concerns about the tenure process, including the use of confidential ad hoc committees and the lack of accountability in the final decision.

However, the FAS’s review will not examine these aspects of Harvard’s tenure system. Since the review takes place at the level of the FAS, it cannot examine University-wide procedures such as the use of ad hoc committees.

In connection with García Peña’s prominent tenure denial, the review has also prompted conversations about how universities increase the range of identities represented in the research they produce and the courses they offer — and also bolster the diversity of the historically white, male, and upper-class academy itself.

Responding to whether she will examine the impacts that gender and race may have on tenure outcomes, Gay said in March that such traits are not bases for evaluation in the tenure process.

Calls for Greater Transparency

Harvard goes to great lengths to protect confidentiality in its tenure process. The University keeps the composition and proceedings of ad hoc committees secret, provides no feedback to candidates or their departments, and asks faculty to pen private letters about candidates to the dean.

Several faculty said in interviews with The Crimson that secrecy is necessary to ensure candidates receive honest evaluations during the tenure process. At the same time, many said they think the process should be more transparent so candidates and their departments can receive feedback — especially given their heavy investment in the process.

“Given the sensitive nature of the process, where honest opinions are often solicited worldwide, there has to be a certain amount of confidentiality in the proceedings,” Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Peter Der Manuelian ’81 said.

“That said, there could always be more transparency, and one hopes that the outcome of the review process allows the Administration to continue protecting the delicate nature of tenure review while also providing more stakeholders with information along the way,” he added. “This is particularly true in scenarios where what appeared to be a very strong tenure case did not go forward.”

By Emily H. Nguyen

Specifically, Romance Languages and Literatures professor Virginie Greene said a chain of recent tenure denials — including that of García Peña — is “truly hard to understand and hard to bear.” Given the lack of transparency in the final phase of the tenure process, the unexpected denials have broken her trust in the system, she said.

“I myself am not sure how I will be able to be part of any search or review committee for tenure track colleagues in the coming years, knowing that the large amount of time my colleagues and I may spend working on mentoring and on the dossier may just be completely ignored at the end,” she said.

FAS and University spokespeople declined to comment for this article.

History professor Andrew D. Gordon ’74, who previously served on the FAS’s Committee on Appointment and Promotions, said he has been “generally impressed at the rigor and fairness” of the University’s tenure process since joining the faculty in 1995. But over the past few years, he has become more concerned about the process.

“In the past 2-3 years, there have been an increasing number of cases where colleagues I know well and respect found the negative outcome inexplicable and unjustified,” he wrote.

On the other hand, some faculty said they do not think it is possible to provide feedback while maintaining confidentiality.

History of Science professor David S. Jones ’92 said that while it is “immensely frustrating” for departments to put forward wonderful candidates only for them to be denied at the last stage without explanation, he thinks that in any official feedback, candidates could easily determine the origin of different pieces of praise or criticism — thus breaching the confidentiality of the tenure process.

“For instance, if a report came out of the ad hoc committee saying, ‘We liked everything, but your teaching wasn’t adequate,’ the candidate would say, ‘Clearly, my colleagues don’t like my teaching,’” Jones said.

He added in an email that while he believes a change to the secretive nature of the tenure system is unlikely, he thinks a review at the presidential level may reassure faculty of the integrity of the process.

“I don’t think any force of nature will get the President to reconsider the secrecy policy,” Jones wrote. “But I do think that a review, assuming that the President and Provost cooperate and are forthcoming (if not about details of individual cases, then at least with generalities about the factors that influence their decisions), might provide reassurance to departments and faculty that the current processes, despite their secrecy, are robust and appropriate.”

Divinity School lecturer Daniel P. McKanan ’89 said, however, that the University’s existing ad hoc system places control of the tenure process largely out of the faculty’s hands. McKanan — who chairs the American Studies program at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — said that such was the case for García Peña, with whom many of his graduate students and faculty colleagues worked.

“We control it in the sense that faculty can prevent someone from being tenured,” he said. “There’s an initial stage, controlled by the department if it’s an FAS person, or the school if it’s someone at one of the professional schools. But even if that process is overwhelmingly positive, as was the case for Lorgia, it can be completely overruled at the ad hoc level.”

“It was interesting to read online chat lists after that case was publicized because people who were inclined to defend Harvard’s decision often couched their defense as, ‘We commentators on the Internet don’t really have the authority to judge scholarship; it’s the faculty of Harvard who should be able to judge the scholarship.’ But the reality was the judgment of the faculty of Harvard didn’t count,” McKanan added.

Faculty also expressed mixed opinions on Harvard’s practice of soliciting private letters from faculty in the candidate’s department. According to multiple faculty, many universities do not use the practice — relying instead on a departmental vote and external letters, which Harvard also solicits.

Anthropology professor Gary Urton said he thinks the use of both private letters and a departmental vote reflects a lack of trust in faculty to express honest critiques of candidates.

“Whether a faculty member gets tenure or not can cause dissension within the faculty, so the idea is everybody votes for tenure for everybody, but then some of the faculty might send letters to express a different opinion,” he said. “Some faculty say we should stop private letters, and that’s fine, but then you have to create a culture of trust so that faculty can express disquiet and uncertainty.”

Jones said that while he sees a potential for faculty to abuse the private letter system to express personal grievances, he ultimately thinks the letters are a “useful solution to a perceived problem”: that departmental votes stifle unpopular negative opinions.

“The perceived problem was that if there is a minority who is opposed to a case, they could get bullied or badgered into voting ‘yes’ by pressure from their colleagues. I can certainly imagine that could possibly happen,” he said. “The private letter system is designed to allow that person to make a safe mechanism to say what they really say.”

Concerns of Inequity Behind Closed Doors

Gay wrote in her email agreeing to the FAS tenure procedures review that the FAS’s tenure track has improved since its establishment.

“It is meaningful that our promotion rates have risen significantly; that the FAS has achieved near-parity in its offers to ladder-faculty men and women; and that the FAS is stronger intellectually because of these developments,” Gay wrote. “Nonetheless, there is more we can do to make our system even better.”

More than 100 faculty members signed a letter in December to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that prompted Gay to initiate a review of the FAS tenure promotion system.
More than 100 faculty members signed a letter in December to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that prompted Gay to initiate a review of the FAS tenure promotion system. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

Still, many Harvard affiliates and outside scholars said they are more concerned about the final stage of the tenure process than the FAS’s own procedures. They said they believe that structurally, the lack of transparency in ad hoc committees and final tenure decisions could allow prejudice against academics who study certain fields or scholars of color to occur without accountability.

While serving as an outside expert for one of Harvard’s ad hoc committees, Indiana University religious studies professor Edward E. Curtis IV said he witnessed a candidate of color being “unfairly judged” based on “the racial dynamics of the room.”

The candidate was ultimately granted tenure, Curtis said, but he wondered what might have happened if he had not challenged the “dominant racist, sexist narrative” he said other members of the ad hoc committee used when discussing the candidate’s scholarship and personality.

“I was very upset and passionate about how the person was being unfairly judged because of a particular point of view on law enforcement that very much reflected a white social position, when really all this person of color was doing in their scholarship was reflecting a very commonly held perception of law enforcement among people of color,” he said. “So it was crystal clear that the racial dynamics of the room were biasing the room against the candidate.”

“In addition, there were comments about the candidate’s personality, which were so typically made about people of color, as hard to get along with. I left thinking very much that the process was unfair to people of color,” he added.

University of California, Los Angeles Asian American Studies professor Renee E. Tajima-Peña ’80 said she thinks Garcia Peña’s tenure denial in particular reflects a broader “pattern” at Harvard.

“Harvard’s just really weak on tenuring women and faculty of color, women of color getting the double whammy,” she said.

In late January, Harvard University's Warren Center for Studies in American History hosted a symposium on the work of Lorgia García Peña, discussing Peña's work and scholarly legacy.
In late January, Harvard University's Warren Center for Studies in American History hosted a symposium on the work of Lorgia García Peña, discussing Peña's work and scholarly legacy. By Allison G. Lee

Tajima-Peña said that in cases when the department approves of the candidate, she thinks the president’s final decision-making opportunity can serve to overrule faculty opinion based on what scholarly disciplines the president most wants to promote. She said that as a result, ethnic studies candidates may be warier of pursuing tenure at Harvard.

“For the brightest lights in the field of ethnic studies, why would they go to Harvard?” she said. “You would have to be crazy to go to Harvard.”

Shirley Verónica Cardona ’06, co-president of the Harvard Latino Alumni Alliance, wrote in an email that HLAA believes the FAS tenure review must examine how “inherent biases” may rear their heads in ad hoc committees.

“Prof. García Peña’s tenure denial raises concerns about the challenges faculty of color face in getting through the tenure process, especially the ad hoc process, which other universities have eliminated,” she wrote. “While the tenure procedure review will not examine individual cases, any real review must include a review by President Bacow of the merits of an ad hoc process and seek to identify any inherent biases that may exist.”

“As Harvard seeks to attract faculty from under-represented backgrounds to design and execute a world-class ethnic studies program, it is of critical importance for candidates to have trust in the tenure review process,” she added.

Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library in early December after the University’s decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña.
Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library in early December after the University’s decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan

Jeannie Park ’83, a founding board member of the alumni group Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, expressed similar concerns.

“We hope the FAS review will explore what disadvantages faculty of color and women and ethnic studies scholars may face in the tenure process,” she wrote. “If Harvard truly wants to diversify its faculty and create an ethnic studies program, there can’t be a one-size-fits-all process.”

“There must be a review of the President and Provost’s mysterious ad hoc process, which can reverse a tenure recommendation by FAS. A review of FAS tenure won’t have impact without further transparency and examination of what happens in the final stages of tenure approval,” Park added.

A Long Timeline in a Competitive Job Market

Many faculty said Harvard loses promising faculty because its peer institutions offer professors tenure a year or two before the University can.

While Harvard only tenures faculty at the full professor level, many other universities tenure professors at the associate professor level.

“When I served as department chair, it was immensely frustrating that we would have faculty who were on the Harvard tenure track, and we had great confidence that they probably would get tenure, but when an offer with tenure would come from another well-regarded, high-ranking institution, we would lose that faculty member,” Urton said.

During Junior Parents Weekend, students protested on the steps of Widener Library, demanding that Harvard creates an Ethnic Studies department and multicultural center.
During Junior Parents Weekend, students protested on the steps of Widener Library, demanding that Harvard creates an Ethnic Studies department and multicultural center. By Allison G. Lee

On the other hand, Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 said he thinks the significance of earning tenure warrants a lengthy process, despite concerns about remaining competitive with peer institutions.

“The longer timeframe seems to me perfectly reasonable, given the gravity of what it means,” he said. “The only disadvantage that I am aware of is perhaps a competitive one where institutions will give someone tenure at the associate professor level, and they try to hurry us up so Harvard will make its decision. In a competitive marketplace, there may be a disadvantage, but in terms of the real institutional interest, that part of the system makes sense.”

English chair Nicholas J. Watson said he thinks Harvard’s tenure procedures should take into account the competitiveness of the current academic job market.

“Over the last fifteen years, it has become more and more difficult for those denied tenure in many disciplines to find a new position, as the number of academic jobs advertised at the associate professor level has gone down,” he said. “This means that the consequences of being denied tenure have become more and more drastic — it can, and in some cases now does, require a change of career.”

“We need to face up to this reality and think about how we are going to respond to it, if we believe not just in academic excellence, but in the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging which have rightly been professed by the University in recent years,” he added.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales contributed reporting.

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

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