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Premiere Issue - June 1990 FOCUS: Labor and Tenure   
Untenable Positions
Up for Tenure at Harvard
By Andrew Bowers

IT'S SAID THAT when Harvard president Derek Bok presides over faculty tenuring committees, his instructions are always the same. I want the best, he tells them, and quite often Bok gets his wish.

To the junior faculty of the Harvard English department, however, recent events have made it abundantly clear that Harvard's notion of the "best" has no room for them.

They've read the writing on the wall, and the message there, according to one untenured professor, is "the sooner you get out, the better."

That message was, as it were, hand delivered by the President himself. At a meeting with junior faculty last year, Bok was "quite frank about his lack of interest in promoting junior faculty," according to assistant professor Jeffrey Knapp, who attend ed the meeting. "He said, 'Why shouldn't I just go out and get the best people I can from other school?'" Knapp, who will leave to become an assistant professor at Berkeley this fall, says, "The junior faculty just can't feel themselves strongly invested in a university in which they have no future.... It's just a turning of the junior faculty into temps. Anybody in their right mind can see the problem with that."

The fruits of this policy may soon become apparent -- and public. "Up to Five Junior Faculty May Leave English by Fall," cried a Harvard Crimson headline in February. One of the five was scheduled to leave this spring anyway, but the other fou r have time remaining at Harvard and have chosen to look elsewhere.

At a time when academic "stars" are the objects of bidding wars not dissimilar to those in professional sports, Harvard is not the only place where junior faculty feel undervalued. Still, Harvard does seem institutionally indifferent to an extraordina ry degree. For example, the history department has tenured but a single junior faculty member in 19 years. Young historian are also exposed to a number of "ritual humiliations," according to a former assistant professor, such as being expected to walk o ut of faculty meetings whenever the senior professors have real business to discuss. and the English department has elevated only one among its junior ranks, James Engell, to full professorship since 1968.

If only for young English profs, there was a time when things were different, when the unassuming yellow clapboard of Warren House -- the English and American Literature and Language department's headquarters -- signalled the promise of a career at har vard. Until the late 1960s, the English department had a reputation for nurturing its own -- indeed, for being extremely inbred. According to professor Marjorie Garber, who came to Harvard in 1981 after teaching at Haverford and Yale, "Many [professors] has been students of one another. So there was a kind of homogeneity based upon being all in the same place at the same time, and having the same presumptions and same notions of what were the best teachers, what were the best books, what was the right way to go about this study."

By the early 1980s, the Harvard English department found itself overshadowed. Yale's English department had ridden the wave of deconstructionism to national prominence, even preeminence, and at other universities, feminist and Marxist theoreticians we re (with much attendant publicity) dissecting and revising the literary canon. In the midst of all this vitality, a visiting committee of outside scholars concluded in 1983 that Harvard's department regarded new trends with "dismissive defensiveness," an d it expressed "grave concern" about the situation.

Clearly, change was required, and with more than half of the department's 21 senior professors slated to retire during the '80s, it seemed inevitable. But Harvard's traditionalists would prove stubbornly resistant to the rebuilding process and especia lly to the junior faculty members who hoped to be part of it.

One difficulty was the emergence of a new guard within the new department that challenged the traditional critical orientation of the old inner circle. The department's policy of outside recruiting had brought in a handful of younger theoreticians, an d former department chair Joel Porte, who now teaches at Cornell, recalls the conflicts that sprang up between "the avant-garde and the rear guard." This turf war, says Porte, paralyzed hiring in the early and mid '80s. "[The younger faculty's] desire t o bring in people of the newer persuasions was running up against the desire of the older people, the people who had been at Harvard since the flood, to perpetuate the Harvard tradition of historical criticism."

Also frustrating the renewal of the department was an antiquated quota system governing tenure known as the Graustein charts, which limited departments to a fixed number of new appointment according to a timetable -- say, one every two years. Over the decades, many a promising junior faculty member was told tenure was out of the question because no "Graustein slot" was available. But with such a large number of retirements imminent, the Graustein formula would prove unworkable.

Then there was Harvard's infamous version of the faculty-selection instrument known as the 'ad hoc committee.' Ad hocs operate in secrecy, but their basic workings and strongly political nature are well known. After a department votes in favor of a c andidate for tenure, the administration gathers a committee composed of at least three scholars in the candidate's fields from outside the university, two Harvard professors from a related but separate department, and the dean of faculty. Also present at every ad hoc is President Bok himself, who has the final word on every appointment. The committee -- as much as several months after the department vote -- reviews the candidate's work and receives the testimony of witnesses. The president and the dean are said to rely heavily on the committee's recommendation.


THIS SEEMINGLY OBJECTIVE system of outside consultation has numerous detractors among the faculty, who charge that the selection of ad hoc members is highly politics and that the committees themselves are dominated by a handful of kin gmakers. Some say Bok, a former dean at the Harvard Law School, has molded the committee deliberations into virtual trials, forcing departments to defend their nominees before a jury of outsiders. Walter Jackson Bate, who retired form the English depart ment in 1988, describes the problem this way: "The irony is, in order to judge who is worthy of a Harvard appointment, you depend not on those who have been worthy of the Harvard appointment, but... [on] people who have been judged not worthy."

And the "unworthy" have long memories. Bate, for years the most eminent and influential member of the department, says, "I've gone into an ad hoc committee to speak and found former assistant professors who had been let go and have a lasting grudge ag ainst the department, and here they are asked to pass [judgment].... And some of them have been known to go back to thir own universities and boast that they've overturned [a Harvard appointment] single-handedly."

Joel Porte notes that the secrecy of ad hocs also makes them the perfect place for faculty members to wage covert internecine warfare: despite unanimous faculty votes in favor of some candidates, detractors would voice their real opinions in the ad hoc session. "Those were paper unanimities," he recalls, "not political ones. When you get before the ad hoc committee, you're speaking before the star chamber. At least in theory, it's perfectly confidential, and so it's possible to say things differnet from what you've said in a letter to the dean."

Associate professor Robert Watson appears to have been a casualty of this process. After winning unanimous approval from the faculty in 1986, Watson's promising tenrue bid died in committee, According to fellow junior faculty member Joseph A. Boone, W atson's connection to the old guard earned him detractos among the new guard. "Rob was typecast as an 'old boy,' because certain of the old-boy network were avidly supporting him, perhaps too avidly. That doesn't mean as a scholar he was [one of them], but ... you get identified by who supports you, which seems to happen here all too frequently."

By 1987, the hiring impasse had become so severe, and the threat of vacancies in the senior ranks so ominous, that then-chair Porte went to the administration to ask for help. "We convinced the dean and the president that the Harvard English departmen t really was in dire straits and needed immediately some five or six appointments to keep itself at full strength and modernize itself and so forth." It was agreed that a larger, semi-oermanent committee, to be called a 'rolling' or 'standing' ad hoc, wo uld be brought in to help break the logjam. Members would visit Cambridghe on a regular basis and consult with the English faculty at every step of the tenuring process, from identifying departmental needs to selecting final candidates. The standing com mittee would then serve as each nominee's ad hoc panel; in theory, the committee was unlikely to reject candidtes it helped to develop. The administration also agreed to drop the English Department's Graustein quota and approve at least five new tenured positions.

When the unprecedented standing committee was assembled in late 1987, hopes were high. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences A. Michael Spence told the Crimson, "I hope by early fall [1988] there will be as many as six appointments waiting f or Bok's approval." The committee itself was truly stellar, including chairman Richard Poirier of Rutgers, Frank Kermode of Cambridge, Stephen Greenblatt and Ralph Rade of U.C. Berkeley and Thomas McFarland and Elaine Showalter of Princeton. (McFarland later stepped aside after Princeton suspended him for alleged sexual harrassment of a student.) Also on the committee were two associate deans and Harvard German professor Judith L. Ryan. According to McFarland, the committee's mission was straightforwa rd: "They told us they wanted the best, and that was the mandate. And it was taken very seriously."


BUT WHERE DID Harvard's own junior people fit into this ambitious renovation? Had any thought been given to them? In April 1988 they went directly to the ad hoc members for answers -- and found none. As one professor recalls, "We a sked for and got a lunch with the standing committee early in the process to voice our concerns and ask, What is your responsibility to us? And they didn't know." Possibly; but Judith Ryan later told the Crimson, "The six new appointments do not preclud e the appointment of junior faculty to tenure, though obviously one has to consider how much room there is."

By the end of 1988, the standing committee and the faculty had come up with short lists of acceptable outside scholars, the department had voted in favor of four candidates, and the committee and Bok had approved them. Interesting, even audacious offers were made to some unconventional thinkers: Elaine Scarry, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of The Body in Pain; the Afro-American Lit scholar Arnold Rampersad from Columbia; Leopold Damrosch, an 18th-century specialist (with books on Blake and Pope) from the University of Maryland; and Stephen Greenblatt, the insurgent new historicist and Renaissance specialist from U.C. Berkeley -- who was also a member of the standing committee. (Greenblatt disqualified himself from the consider ations of his own case.) In early 1989, a fifth offer was made, to Berkeley professor D. A. Miller, an innovative 19th-century novel specialist and, like Greenblatt, a contributor to the trendy cultural studies journal Representations.

As of now, Rampersad has rejected his offer; Greenblatt has yet to decide, Damrosch and Scarry have accepted, as has Miller. Another professor, the noted deconstructionist Barbara Johnson, transferred from Harvard's Romance Languages department to the Eng lish department during the same period. This spurt of departmental energy and activity left Harvard a bit short of the six appointments Spence had envisioned, but given the department's somnolent recent history, it also seemed just short of miraculous. The junior faculty, however, was underwhelmed. They focused on the cases of two among their own ranks, Joe Boone and Deborah Nord.

Both were well regarded and well qualified, so they were considered serious tests of Harvard's commitment to its own 'rank-and-file'. Boone's case came before the department in November. At 36, he was a feminist scholar who studied the 19th- and 20th -century novel (a field the department was looking to strengthen). He was a popular teacher, had written one book on the portrayal of love in fiction, and was at work on a second. Nonetheless, Boone never even made it to the ad hoc; when the senior facu lty vote came, he lost decisively.

At the time, some professors attributed the rejection to Boone's narrow specialty. But Marjorie Garber, a supporter, says he was a victim of the administration's real priority -- to rebuild quickly the power and prestige of the English department. Ex plains Garber, "What was said at the time was that junior promotions would be handled in such a way that they wouldn't be sabotaged or pushed aside by external [appointments].... In practice it didn't exactly work out that way, because the search that eve ntuated in [Berkeley's D. A.] Miller was the same search in which Joe Boone's credentials were considered." Boone will be a tenured associate professor at USC this fall.

The next test case, that of associate professor Deborah Nord, came up soon after the Boone decision. Nord, a feminist Victorian scholar whose first book was on Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb, didn't think her case would go beyond the department either, b ut the senior faculty voted to offer her tenure in February 1989. Pleased and surprised, she nonetheless cautioned, in the Crimson, "This is not the end of the process ... we'll just have to wait and see what happens." The standing committee conv ened to consider her tenure bid less than two weeks later, even though ad hoc panels usually take two months to review a case. And despite the fact that the standing committee had been designed specifically to produce candidates acceptable at the ad hoc level, Nord was rejected. She may have been hurt by most committee members' unfamiliarity with her field (traditional ad hocs consist of scholars from the same field), or her work may simply have been judged inadequate. But one junior faculty member say s Nord's case was just another example of departmental infighting poisoning the deliberations of the ad hoc star chamber. Nord has already left for a tenured position at Princeton.

The new senior appointments (including, most recently, that of Lawrence Buell of Oberlin) may ultimately help the English department rejuvenate itself, but, in addition to the departures of Boone and Nord, two other untenured professors will definitely be leaving this fall. More defections could be on the horizon. A junior professor who will still be around this fall says, "It seems that the longer you stay around and then decide to leave, the less good it might look to other institutions. If you're getting out early, it's clear this is on your own terms....I always look at the job list when it comes out."

Ironically, a fifth junior professor who went looking for greener pastures, medievalist Daniel Donoghue, may become only the second internal tenuring since 1968. Donoghue received an associate offer, with tenure, from the University of Virginia in the sp ring and was brought up for promotion to full professor at Harvard three years early (the university has no tenured associate professor rank -- another complaint of the junior faculty). His case is awaiting decision by the ad hoc, but even if he receiv es tenure, according to some of his colleagues, it will represent not a policy change but a token gesture -- easy to make in the insular, uncontroversial discipline of medieval studies.

Many senior faculty, old and new guard alike, worry about Harvard's ability to attract and keep talented junior people if the chances of promotion do not improve. They know the job market has loosened considerably in recent years, and word of Harvard's t enure policy has spread among potential junior professors. Also, Dean Spence has announced that he will leave Harvard in September to take over Stanford's business school. For six years Spence has been the junior faculty's most vocal supporter in an adm inistration not known for its attention to their problems.

According to the Johns Hopkins English professor Mary Poovey, "Harvard is a particularly painful case of what's a more general symptom throughout the profession, which is a tendency not to value people who have put in service at whatever rank, as opposed to valuing people who are at the level of stars." Yet even when it comes to recruiting stars, Harvard has trouble competing. Increasingly, other universities are proving more aggressive in the pursuit of big-name academics. They offer more money, more departmental power, and even faculty jobs for nonstellar spouses.

If Harvard has lost its competitive edge in the academic marketplace, it has also proved unwilling to provide the incentives and structure required to nurture homegrown talent. It has fallen victim, it would seem, to its own self-image. Says Joel Porte: "Although the old story is that Harvard gathers to itself only those worthy to stand on Mount Olympus with the Olympians who are already in place, the truth of the matter is, that doesn't happen. Harvard no longer has the drawing power so that they can snap their fingers at the best scholars in the country or the world, and have them come running."

Andrew Bowers is a reporter for WBUR Radio Boston, and frequently for National Public Radio.


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