Choices at Harvard

Summers critic who once challenged Harvard on sex bias named graduate dean; alumni want president to stay.
June 6, 2005

This weekend saw signs of change at Harvard University -- and evidence for why the president may well survive the controversy over his statements about women and science.

On Friday, the university named Theda Skocpol as the next dean of its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, is a notable choice for several reasons. She has been a harsh critic of Lawrence H. Summers, the university's president, on a number of issues, including his management style and Harvard's treatment of women. And Skocpol is one of the few Harvard professors ever to win tenure and prominence at the university after first being denied tenure and having to go through a messy and sometimes public grievance process.

If Skocpol's appointment is a sign that Harvard's leaders are reaching out to faculty critics, Summers also received welcome news Saturday with the release of a poll of Harvard alumni indicating that most want him to stay on as president -- even if they disagree with what he said about women.

New Leader for Graduate Education

As graduate dean, Skocpol will have a key role in the training of future professors nationwide, given that so many Harvard Ph.D. programs rank among the best in the country. Her position will have her supervising graduate education for all programs that are not part of one of Harvard's professional schools.

In a telephone interview Saturday from her summer home in Mount Desert, Maine, Skocpol discussed her appointment and her goals for graduate education (while noting that her normal schedule of spending the summer in Maine was about to end).

She acknowledged that her appointment comes at a difficult time for the university. "This has been a searing semester for everybody at Harvard. I think probably everybody is learning some lessons," she said. Asked if Summers has turned a corner in his relations with professors, she said, "It's a little early to tell whether we are all working effectively together, but there are signs of change."

Skocpol's appointment was made by William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and she said that she was not interviewed by Summers prior to her appointment (although she had a meeting with him after she accepted the job). "I don't anticipate having any problems working with him," she said.

While she made "very explicit remarks" in faculty meetings about her concerns about the president, she said that "my remarks were meant to clarify problems for the institution to tackle."

Skocpol's new position will give her a seat on a council of deans that reviews tenure recommendations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Tenure reviews at Harvard are a subject Skocpol knows a lot about. Throughout the early 1980s, her tenure bid was the subject of debate. She filed a grievance charging sex bias over her consideration, and then-president Derek Bok offered her a tenured position after she had already been working for several years at the University of Chicago. (And whatever concerns some scholars may once have had about her, Skocpol's career as a scholar has been stellar, publishing numerous books -- she just finished three separate projects -- leading scholarly groups, and winning top fellowships.)

"We've come a long way since my case unfolded," she said. "But we still have to work hard in mentoring young women faculty and making sure that our searches are inclusive. We have experienced a dip in recent years [of tenured positions going to women] and we all have to concentrate on that."

Skocpol was quick to add that "my concern about mentoring and training of graduate students and young faculty is one that relates to men and women alike. I don't see this as something only one gender needs."

In terms of graduate education, Skocpol outlined three "major challenges" she planned to address:

  • Money for graduate students. "We need to continue to find the resources to support graduate students during their time in Ph.D. programs," she said, adding that while Harvard has "a good system in place," it needs to make sure it has the resources to stay that way.
  • Curricular change. Harvard is currently rethinking its undergraduate curriculum, and Skocpol said that when that review is done, it will be appropriate to "rethink" the role graduate students play teaching Harvard undergraduates. Skocpol said that role was important both to train graduate students to be teachers, and to provide them with money.
  • Interdisciplinary work. Harvard has established an increasing number of joint Ph.D. programs between arts and sciences departments and professional schools, and Skocpol said she wanted to promote more focus on how such programs are structured. More broadly, she said she agreed with the criticism of graduate education that it tends to focus too narrowly on single disciplines. "There is no question that a lot of the hottest areas of research cross disciplinary boundaries, and graduate students are often the very first to notice that and to help forge things in that direction," she said. "I want to make sure that our programs are structured in a way that maximizes the flexibility of faculty and grad students to pursue interests even when they cross boundaries."

  Poll With Good News for Summers

The poll (free registration required) on Summers was released in the debut issue of 02138, a new magazine covering Harvard and named for the university's zip code. The poll found that most Harvard alumni approve of the job Summers has been doing and want him to stay on, although -- not surprisingly -- he has a gender gap in his levels of support. (The poll was based on a sample of 402 alumni by an outside research group. The magazine said that the margin of error was 4.9 percent, with larger margins possible for subgroups.)

Among the poll results:

  • Asked to evaluate the job Summers is doing, 51 percent said excellent or good, 32 percent said fair or poor, and the rest didn't offer an answer. But the percentage saying he is doing an excellent or good job drops among women (31 percent) and those who have graduated since 1985 (39 percent).
  • Asked whether Summers should resign, only 19 percent said Yes. But the figures were higher among women (33 percent) and those who have graduated since 1985 (24 percent).
  • A small majority (52 percent) of alumni believe Summers is a "victim of political correctness." Among men, 59 percent of alumni agree.
  • And, in perhaps the clincher for those wondering about Summers' future, very few alumni said that the controversy about him would have any impact on their donations. Five percent said that they would be more likely to give, 11 percent less likely, and 83 percent said it would make no difference.


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