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Discord in Harvard’s education school

Protesters want more focus on social issues

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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The recent denial of tenure to a prominent Harvard scholar whose work focuses on grass-roots organizing has sparked student protests over the direction of one of the nation’s most influential education schools.

More than 50 doctoral students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are demanding that the 91-year-old school redirect its mission. Over the last decade, they say, it has veered away from social justice issues in education toward more results-driven management and policy concerns. The students, who are groomed to be national leaders in education, said they fear the shift will hamper their professional development and tarnish the school’s reputation.

“There is a lot of talk about diversity and wanting to support social change, but recent decisions on tenure have sent very clear signals to the student body and the rest of the junior faculty about where the future of the school lies,’’ said Keith Catone, a fifth-year doctoral student in the community, culture, and education program. “That’s not a direc tion that will help Harvard lead a broad movement for educational improvement.’’

Since 2003, the school of education has lost a half-dozen professors who specialized in diversity and community involvement because they were denied tenure or recruited by other universities.

The students’ concerns, voiced this month during two protests outside faculty meetings, prompted the dean of the education school, Kathleen McCartney, to issue a letter Wednesday reaffirming the university’s commitment to social justice research and to a method of study called qualitative research, which emphasizes the personal experience of students and their families.

Over recent years, the balance among senior faculty has tilted toward quantitative research, which relies more on data such as test scores.

“I respectfully disagree with the view, voiced by some students and others, that the school is not committed to equity, diversity, and social justice as objects of inquiry,’’ McCartney said.

Among the school’s highest-profile losses are Gary Orfield, founder of the Civil Rights Project, who left for the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2007, and Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco, both of whom study immigration and now teach at New York University. All three were wooed away by the other universities. Orfield, whose research is widely cited, is a leader in studying equal opportunity for minority groups.

And then, this month, Mark Warren, a sociologist studying community organizing in school reform, was rejected for tenure, the third professor focused on equity issues to be denied tenure in the last three years.

However, McCartney said that on her watch four faculty members whose research specializes in educational equity have been hired, including two with tenure. In addition, at least three other education professors focus on equity, immigration, and race or social class issues as they relate to educational opportunity.

McCartney said she agrees with students who feel the school does not have enough senior faculty using qualitative methods of research and vowed to recruit a scholar who conducts such work. The search will begin in the fall, and she said she has already generated a list of potential recruits.

“It is an area we need to strengthen,’’ she said in an interview. “But, just to be clear, there are so many areas we need to strengthen,’’ including programs on international education and technology in education.

McCartney said she is doing additional outreach to junior faculty members to see how she can better support their work.

The education school currently has 75 full-time faculty members, 25 of whom are tenured. Of its 900 students, 294 are enrolled in the doctoral program.

McCartney said she is unable to address Warren’s tenure case, which is confidential, but senior professors who voted on whether his case should move forward to the next level of approval emphasized the notorious difficulty of getting tenure at Harvard.

Reached by e-mail, Warren, who once led the dean’s advisory committee on equity and diversity, expressed disappointment at the result of his tenure case.

“The work I do on community organizing has an essential contribution to make to addressing the problems facing our public education system and I am disappointed to see that it does not have a place at Harvard,’’ he said.

In the Graduate School of Education, only about 20 percent of faculty receive tenure, a figure the school is trying to improve through better mentoring, said Bridget Terry Long, a Harvard economist who studies inequality in college access.

“I certainly understand the students being alarmed, and there’s no question the school’s got to do better in getting more qualitative researchers here,’’ Long said. “But the tenure process is difficult, and I wish it had turned out differently. But it has nothing to do with the lack of respect for the type of work that Mark does.’’

Long said she is concerned Warren’s tenure denial will make it more difficult for Harvard to recruit scholars in his field.

“It’s vitally important that we’re going to have to take this seriously,’’ Long said. “I’m sure someone’s thinking: ‘Why would I go to that place? It’s clear they don’t value that kind of work.’ There’s the reality of what we care about as a school, and then there’s the perception.’’

Students said they will continue their protests until graduation next month if necessary. They will hand out fliers and hold up signs and banners saying things like: “What does this say about what’s dispensable?’’

They assert that it is just as important for education school graduates to understand what is happening at the ground level in families and communities as it is for them to understand the perspectives of voices at the top when it comes to topics such as charter schools, the small schools movement, and vouchers.

“Without this knowledge, we aren’t adequately prepared to go out and lead education reform,’’ said Meredith Mira, a fifth-year doctoral student. She said she came to Harvard hoping to study with at least four professors in the cultures, communities, and education program, three of whom are now either gone or in the process of leaving the school.

“It’s incredibly demoralizing,’’ Mira said. “The ed school can take their agenda where they want it to go, but it becomes misleading for students in concentrations like cultures, communities, and education to get there and the people they want to study with are slipping away.’’

Orfield said his move was prompted by several reasons, including UCLA’s promise of substantial support for the Civil Rights Project, such as free space and a “good group of colleagues’’ for him to work with. Harvard, by contrast, did not provide financial support, he said.

Orfield said he is watching with great interest the protests.

“I do think Harvard needs to make some appointments in that area, and of course they have pledged for a long time they were going to do that, but there has not been very much success,’’ Orfield said. “If they get a reputation for treating people who do this kind of thing badly, then that creates a great obstacle.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.