The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I did everything that Fred (Astaire) did, only backwards and in high heels."... ...Ginger Rogers.

Commentary of the Day - May 16, 2001:  Now This IS Your Father's Harvard!

A while back The Irascible Professor published an article on grade inflation (This Is Not Your Father's Harvard!) that raised a few eyebrows.  In the article we commented on how far that august institution had strayed from its tradition of academic excellence.  However, this week we learned that there are some traditions that haven't changed much at the oldest institution of higher learning in the country.  Namely, Harvard still discriminates against women in its appointments to its tenured faculty.

According to a recent article by Scott Smallwood in The Chronicle of Higher Education, world-renowned astronomer Margaret J. Geller has resigned from the Harvard faculty because the university has refused to give her a tenured faculty position.

This is far from the usual tenure case.  Professor Geller is an astronomer with an outstanding reputation.  For many years she held a joint appointment at both Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution, which operates the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She is a woman of no small accomplishment.  For example, she has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (a rarity for a woman), and she was awarded one of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants (an even rarer accolade).

In addition, Geller has risen through the faculty ranks at Harvard from her initial appointment as an Assistant Professor in 1980 to her promotion to Full Professor in 1988.  In fact, according to the Chronicle article, she was offered an endowed chair in 1997 -- the prestigious Mallinckrodt Chair, which is held by a very small number of science and medical school faculty members at Harvard.  There is a catch, however.  Even though Harvard bestowed these well deserved honors upon Professor Geller, they did not award her tenure.  If it seems strange to you that Harvard would promote a person to the rank of Full Professor without also granting the person tenure, also think about the fact that all the other holders of Mallinckrodt Chairs do have tenure.

The Irascible Professor can imagine that something like the following discussion must have gone on in those hallowed halls of Harvard University when the issue of tenure for Geller was being discussed:

Professor X:  Well her research record is pretty good - 127 published articles since 1982, and that MacArthur Foundation grant certainly was a feather in her cap.  I think we ought to give her tenure.

Professor Y:  And we've already promoted her to Full Professor, shouldn't we make it official by granting her tenure.

Professor Z:  But she isn't exactly one of the "old boys".  I don't know if she would fit in over at the faculty club.  And, besides, there is just no evidence that she is able to walk on water.

It looks like there are still some things that just haven't changed in those hoary halls of ivy on the banks of the Charles.
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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.