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Against Stifling Professional Service

It is taken for granted at Harvard that, despite being employed at an educational institution, professors are not always committed to spending significant time educating and advising undergraduates. As a result, we support the sentiment behind the University’s efforts to try and emphasize undergraduate education and student-teacher relationships. However, we cannot endorse the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ new policy limiting the amount of time professors may dedicate to public service work outside the University.

The policy, which was recently approved by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, limits professors’ public service work to 20 percent of their “total professional effort.” Professors who exceed this limit must take a maximum of two years leave. In addition, the policy prevents professors from engaging in service that might shift their “primary professional loyalty” away from the University.

In large part, a Harvard education is as powerful as it is because professors provide knowledge that exceeds what can be learned in a textbook or online. Professors at the University teach not only from pedagogy, but also from experience and time spent in the field. Just as creative writing students relish the opportunity to study under published authors and business students look up to professors who practice entrepreneurship in real life, students of the social sciences and other related fields stand to gain the most from professors who apply their research in the real world of public service.

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Furthermore, professors come to Harvard not merely to research and teach but to contribute to the world beyond Cambridge. By limiting the amount of time professors are allowed to allot to public service, Harvard limits the amount to which research can be extended to promote real societal change.

Consider the case of Professor of History and African and African American Studies Caroline M. Elkins. While a professor at Harvard, she not only performed groundbreaking research on the atrocities committed by the British against the Mau Mau people of Kenya, but then went on to contribute as an expert witness in a lawsuit filed against the British government on behalf of elderly Kenyans. In part because she was able to secure tenure at Harvard, she was able to not only research the plight of the Mau Mau but also contribute to the proceeding that would help ensure justice for them so many years later.

Elkins is not alone. History Professor Nancy F. Cott’s instrumental role in the legal proceedings that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 is a another case of critical public service work that might have been impeded by the new policy.

It does not help that the terms of the policy seem somewhat arbitrary. Utilizing 20 percent of one’s “total professional effort” as a standard by which to judge a faculty member seems unhelpful. While we understand that the policy is meant to leave room for the consideration of different circumstances and contingencies that might affect individual cases, we believe that the 20 percent threshold renders the policy vague. Thus, while the policy should not exist, a more individualized threshold would be a better method by which to assess whether a faculty member’s “primary professional loyalty” is to Harvard.

While we, of course, want professors to remain involved in the Harvard community, we also recognize that the best professors—both as educators and as public intellectuals—are those who think actively about how their research can be used to make the world a better place.

Harvard should stand behind these professors taking pride in the experiential wisdom they bring to our campus and the commitment to service they carry beyond it.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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