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Bacow Defends Use of Confidential Committees in Tenure Process Following FAS Review

University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the confidential nature of Harvard's tenure review process in an interview Wednesday.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the confidential nature of Harvard's tenure review process in an interview Wednesday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Jasper G. Goodman and Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writers

Just over a week after a review of Harvard’s tenure process found that the use of secretive ad hoc committees “erodes faculty trust” in the system, University President Lawrence S. Bacow defended the school’s use of the committees as a necessary aspect of deliberations.

The review, commissioned by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, largely upheld the FAS tenure review process, but noted there is uncertainty among junior faculty members around how decisions are made. Bacow said in an interview Wednesday that the secretive nature of Harvard’s process matches procedures at peer universities.

“I don’t know of a single university that conducts final tenure reviews with transparency,” Bacow said, adding that he has been “intimately involved” in tenure processes at three universities: MIT, Tufts University, and Harvard.

In the penultimate stage of Harvard’s tenure review process, the president often commissions a committee of academics from inside and outside the University along with high-ranking administrators to evaluate a candidate’s scholarship behind closed doors. The makeup and deliberations of the ad hoc groups are undisclosed — a factor that has long garnered criticism.

Bacow said Wednesday that Harvard’s confidential process allows for candid deliberations.

“The process is done confidentially as a way of ensuring that we have access to candid opinions expressed by all who participate,” he said. “It’s a process, for those of us who oversee it, that we take extremely seriously. There is no more important thing that we do at the University.”

The FAS tenure audit came following outcry from students and ethnic studies scholars after Harvard denied tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña in 2019. More than 100 faculty members signed onto a call for a review of the process.

“I don’t think — and I don’t think the report said — that the system was broken in any way,” Bacow said. “It said it was, in some cases, not well understood, and it said that people had some frustration with it, in terms of its lack of transparency.”

Bacow defended Harvard’s tenure process in the face of national scrutiny again earlier this year when Cornel R. West ’74 departed after saying the University refused to consider him for tenure due to his political views. West, who was a University professor at Harvard in the early 2000s, now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

“Can it be improved? We’re always looking for ways to try and strengthen it, but I do think it’s a process that has served this institution very well over many, many years,” Bacow said.

The report recommended increasing flexibility for external letter requirements and formalizing measures for assessing a candidate’s teaching, service, and mentorship. It also suggested making the process for promotion to associate professor more rigorous in order to better prepare junior faculty for what to expect during tenure review.

Bacow declined to comment on whether recommendations relating to associate faculty promotions might be implemented, saying the decision would be up to the FAS.

“I think the system, as I said, has served us very well,” Bacow said. “Like any other process — like any other system — that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and we’re always looking at ways to improve.”

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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