If you had a sharp eye out, you would have been struck last week by the full-page advertisements in the front section of The New York Times burnishing the reputation of the
Why the timing? Well, it was just after the May 1 deadline for undergraduate acceptances. And it was just before the May 15 deadline for the acceptance of offers of faculty appointments. With tax revenues falling, the state of
Senior faculty offers are one way the most famous and best-heeled departments build strength – a little like the trading system in major league sports. UCLA, which last year was threatened by mass defections, did better this year. Chairman Gary Hansen reported six new hires, one of them senior (Adriana Lleras-Muney, a health economist, from
The the really big news of this recruiting season came from Harvard University, where president Drew Faust earlier this month overrode the recommendation of the economics department and vetoed an offer to Mrs. Romer, an economic historian and macroeconomist.
By any measure, Mrs. Romer is one of the most distinguished women in economics, co-director of the National Bureau of Economic Research program in monetary economics, a member of its business cycle dating committee, former vice president of the American Economic Association (and, probably, a future president), Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and winner of the Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award.
The Harvard offer to her, and a
Given the difficulty Harvard has had hiring female professors – its treatment of women was a proximate cause for the resignation of president Lawrence Summers in 2006 – the decision to reject the offer came as a shock. Mrs. Romer was to have replaced retiring economic historian Jeffrey Williamson. Is the Harvard department, generally considered to be the best in the world, stupid for having voted its offer? Is the profession foolish for having elevated Mrs. Romer to its upper ranks? Faust’s decision is completely unexplained. Nor is it likely to be, at least by her.
Even more so than at other leading universities, Harvard’s appointment process is cloaked in secrecy. Once the department votes, as many as twenty letters are written, asking outside authorities to evaluate half a dozen possible candidates, among them, presumably inconspicuously, the target of the offer. The package is forwarded to the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who then asks department members to write privately to evaluate the offer and consults with the various academic deans in University Hall. An ad hoc committee is appointed to advise the president, consisting of two or three outside experts, plus the divisional dean and the dean of the faculty.
The day of the ad hoc meeting arrives: various witnesses are called serially before the committee, including those in the department who may have opposed the appointment. In the privacy of the Perkins Room, as the president’s conference room in Massachusetts Hall is known, a minority can advance arguments which in the department’s meeting had failed to carry the day. Often the university president presides; sometimes the provost. The emphasis is on privacy and discretion, but the aim is establish the true merits of each claim. In the end, the decision is the president’s alone.
A decision to overrule an appointment after an ad hoc proceeding isn’t unheard of, Harvard veterans say; it’s part of the president’s job (or at least it used to be: one rumor has it that Faust has sought to end the traditional presidential involvement in all ad hocs; it is possible she delegated the decision). But neither does it happen often, for such decisions inevitably are embarrassing to all concerned. Their after-effects linger for many years. Initial efforts uncovered no one in
They? “You will not extract any more details from me.”
A Harvard professor shed at little more light: “the debacle — and it truly was a disaster — reflects the dysfunctionality of Harvard University, not on Christy Romer.”
Inevitably, details will begin to leak out. For instance, Mrs. Romer is known to have been a member of a 2002 visiting committee that criticized the Harvard economics department for its treatment of women faculty and graduate students. There will be many calls on Faust, Harvard’s first female president, to explain. The episode is likely to be seen as being profoundly embarrassing to Harvard – a red flag to those who consider it a haven for misogynists, and a warning to precisely those outsiders whom it says it is eager to attract. “It just makes every other recruitment that much harder,” said a veteran of the appointment process.