Twist on Harvard's Gender Battles

January 18, 2007

An adjunct professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University who resigned Friday in a letter decrying the Graduate School of Design’s gender inequities -- including the landscape architecture department’s utter lack of a female tenure hire in its 106-year existence -- rescinded her resignation after the school’s dean and Harvard’s interim president, Derek C. Bok, convinced her to stay.

The incident is the latest development in the gender wars at Harvard, where an internal report released by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in October found that just 20 percent of individuals who accepted tenure-track offers at the university's main undergraduate college last year were women, a decline from 40 percent in 2004-5. The report followed on now infamous remarks by the former president, Lawrence H. Summers, who said in a 2005 speech that “issues of intrinsic aptitude” may help explain why there are relatively few women in top science positions. Summers' words seemingly hastened the demise of his presidency, while serving to elevate the visibility of issues of gender equity in higher education at Harvard and elsewhere.

“When I was a student [in Harvard's landscape architecture program] in 1977, half the students were women, 50 percent. Now it’s 70 percent,” said Martha Schwartz, the Harvard adjunct and architect whose firm, Martha Schwartz Partners, is based both in Cambridge and London. Yet the department today has six full tenured professors, all men, and 11 other non-visiting faculty members, four of whom are female (including Schwartz).

“The sexism is entrenched,” said Schwartz. “What conclusions can you draw? The Larry Summers one would be that maybe women are not predispositioned to be landscape architects. Or if you reject that one, what are the factors? But I can’t really find any real reason.”

Back in 1992, Schwartz almost became the landscape architecture department's first tenured female hire, but she declined the position because she didn't want to abandon her professional practice. She then began teaching at Harvard as an adjunct alongside two male colleagues. After Harvard created the "professor in practice" position – a more flexible tenured position that allows practicing architects to maintain and advance their professional commitments – she watched those two male adjuncts climb into the new tenured spots.

Then, in 2004, after a two-year search to fill another professor in practice position for which Schwartz interviewed, she said the school’s former dean called off the search without hiring anyone. “It was humiliating,” said Schwartz. “I’m not saying I’m the only one who could do it, but at that point, I’d been teaching for 10 years, and I had a practice. There was something strange about it and there was absolutely no place to turn. There were no women who could support me or guide me or mentor me through the process. We’re on our own.”

Loath to subject herself to an upcoming tenure review process again, and saddled with professional obligations, Schwartz resigned last week and sent a copy of her letter of resignation, replete with her analysis of the gender imbalance, to The Harvard Crimson, which first reported the news. Alan Altshuler, the current graduate school dean, and President Bok quickly contacted her. Schwartz has since retracted her resignation.

Altshuler wrote in an e-mail that while the design school may have proven to be unfriendly territory for the advancement of female faculty in the past, things have changed since the early 1990s.

“Over the past dozen years,” Altshuler wrote, “six of the fourteen full professor appointments at the GSD have been of women. During this period there have been only two such appointments in landscape, both men. On my own watch as dean since July 2004, all three professor [appointments] -- two in architecture, one in urban planning -- have been of women, and we are at an advanced stage of considering Martha Schwartz for tenure right now.”

Altshuler said Schwartz is being considered for a tenured professor in practice position in a non-competitive search that doesn’t include any other candidates, and that the department expects to complete that process within the next several months. The landscape architecture department has also initiated a competitive search for up to two tenured full professor positions, and two of the five finalists in that search are women, he said.

Schwartz, who said word of her letter was warmly welcomed by her female colleagues at Harvard, plans to proceed with the tenure review. But she said it’s conceivable that her transatlantic professional practice has expanded to the point that she won't be able to fulfill the responsibilities of a tenured position at this point. Among the recent professional commitments highlighted in her faculty profile are the redesign of 26 Federal Plaza in New York City, the HUD Plaza in Washington and the United States Courthouse Plaza in Minneapolis.

“The time for me to have gotten this has kind of passed,” she said Wednesday, adding, however, that she believes there still might be an arrangement for a tenured spot that would be mutually beneficial for both parties.

Schwartz said that there seems to be good will toward reaching greater gender parity in the faculty of Harvard’s design school, and that she feels as though both Altshuler and Bok have extended strong support. But the relative lack of female faculty in the graduate school, she said, is a longstanding problem that may take a long time to fix. “There are other women who will come after me who will be deserving,” she said. “But it will be a long time until they find a woman who is senior enough to be a peer to the rest of the tenured faculty.”

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