Harvard is a place of hierarchies. Below its president and trustees lobbying Washington, below its many deans who wield the levers of the university’s budgets and policies, below its tenured professors with their job security budgets and research, and below its faculty of celebrities like West with easy access to public platforms, lies a vast but often invisible stratum of professors and preceptors, the recent PhDs who do much of the work of Teaching Harvard Undergraduates.
I teach in the Harvard Writing Program, where for 150 years students were required to go through a small, discussion-based seminar, submitting drafts and essay reviews for detailed feedback. Tenure-track professors would never teach such courses; doing so while maintaining their research profiles would be impossible. Each year, my colleagues and I each have hundreds of one-on-one meetings with our students and write a commentary book on their papers—more in a year than many ladder teachers have written in a decade, I bet. Thus, we improve the writing of first-year students while preserving the research time of professors. Elsewhere at Harvard, preceptors lead language classes and labs, and lecturers teach small tutorials and required sections in concentrations such as history, literature, and social studies.
Despite the crucial nature of this work, Harvard considers us totally disposable. After at most eight years, we are unceremoniously forbidden to continue teaching. In the past, most preceptors and lecturers moved after a few years to their own chairs at other institutions. But after the 2008 recession and then the pandemic — and with shrinking college-age cohorts on the horizon — the college labor market crashed and is unlikely to ever recover. During our end-of-year celebrations, the writing program toasts our departing colleagues. In recent years, they are forced to leave but have nowhere to go. They are left behind, without health insurance or any other benefits, to build a course program in Boston’s auxiliary market or start a whole new career. Not the best context to celebrate their years of hard work.
When it became clear how badly the pandemic would affect academia, Harvard extended the contracts of most ladder professors for a year. Asked by more than a thousand people to offer the same extension to teacher-researchers, whose lives and careers have also been turned upside down, the administration has not deigned to respond.
Every year I have to explain to my students, when they ask for letters of recommendation, that no one at Harvard cares about my opinion. I’m happy to support them and do it when I’m their best option because they have so few opportunities to interact with teachers in large classes, but my word carries little weight. Every year, I have to explain to my students, when they invite me to dinner, that unlike their professors, I cannot have a career at Harvard. Eight years feels like an eternity for a new student, but I’ll still have decades of groceries to buy and mortgage payments to make after my appointment expires.
Rather than identifying which professors are excellent enough to be retained or even promoted, Harvard spends significant resources each year to find and train their replacements. He replaces not only the few people who manage to find teaching positions elsewhere, not only those who have a proven track record, but also those whom his own Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning has awarded prizes, those who , despite their grueling teaching responsibilities, have published award-winning books, and even those that department and program heads have identified as irreplaceable. By the end of the cycle, Harvard will have invested heavily in new professors who, at best, will finally resemble those they replaced – only to abandon them too, rather than use their fully developed talents.
Is Harvard so obsessed with selective appearance that it will do anything lest its teaching faculty be mistaken for tenured professors?
Why does Harvard want to eliminate us so badly? The reasons he provides are so specious and inconsistent that I can only speculate. Is Harvard so petty, despite its vast endowments, despite the misery it pays us relative to tenured professors, that it constantly wants to redefine faculty salaries? As proof, I would note that it earns us much less than Princeton and Stanford, which have similar writing programs.
Or is it these hierarchies? Is Harvard so obsessed with selective appearance that it will do anything lest its teaching faculty be mistaken for tenured professors, the chosen few deemed worthy of making a living in the institution? Harvard didn’t even want to keep West long enough to do so, and he denied the tenure to Lorgia García Peña. Some infamous departments almost never hire their own junior recruits. All that turnover leaves Harvard less functional, because students don’t have stable mentors.
Harvard is sometimes said to be really a hedge fund that happens to maintain an educational wing. But even the education wing does not value teaching, as evidenced by its disrespectful treatment of the professors it hires specifically for their educational promise. Harvard asserts that “many positions held by non-graded faculty are very demanding and require regeneration”. He almost admits that he is exploiting us, burning up our teaching energy and goodwill, because he can throw us out, replacing us with the next generation of enthusiastic new PhD students who will make it work.