Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Memo I Didn't Get

As I prepare to leave Harvard, where I have spent most of my adult life, I have had time to reflect on some of the lessons I've learned here as well as those I've perhaps not learned so well. Today's post builds on some remarks I made on May 7 at the (wonderful) SEAS retirement party.

It seems that when you become a Junior Faculty member, you get a memo telling you how to be successful. It says something like, "Keep your head down; ignore everything except your research and maybe your teaching; and whatever you do, don't question anything. And certainly don't ever disagree with anyone who might be involved in your tenure decision."

Well, it seems that I never got that memo, or perhaps, as my clever colleague Jay Harris suggested, I got the memo, but tore it up.

I started violating that memo before I even knew it! One of the first research projects I undertook at Harvard resulted in what I believe to be one of the first web-based flamewars (yes, there really had to be a first one of those). Now, engaging in a flamewar might not be seen as particularly problematic, but this was: A) a flamewar between a brand new junior faculty member (me) and a rather senior and well respected member of my community, that is, someone who would, undoubtedly be called upon to write letters in my future, B) very public (and those of you who have ever written with me know that I abhor the use of 'very'), and C) is still sometimes used in graduate OS classes as an example of, um, something.

Then there were the seemingly absurd situations I found myself in. Somehow I found myself as the only Junior faculty member in attendance at a meeting where a collection of deans and Sr. faculty were debating what we might pitch to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer for the building that is now Maxwell Dworkin. It seemed that there were two options on the table: a free standing building to replace the Aiken Computation Lab (i.e., Maxwell Dworkin) or an L-shaped connector between two existing buildings. I listened in disbelief as the assembled group seemed to seriously discuss the two options for about forty five minutes.  I finally was unable to stop myself from blurting out that, while I did not know either donor, I was pretty sure that if I were donating money for a computer science building, I'd want an actual building, not a connector. Oops, didn't read the memo. Clearly, someone important thought the connector was a good idea, because as I left, the beloved and highly-regarded Dean of FAS*, Jeremy Knowles, leaned over and quietly said, "Thank you." I will never know who set me up for this, but whoever it was had to know what was going to happen, right?

And then there was the downright terrifying -- standing up on the FAS faculty floor and arguing against the entire Harvard Central and FAS administrations. To fully understand this, you have to have some image in your head about what FAS meetings are like. The meetings are presided over by the President of the University (yes, we have a Dean, but he (and it's always been a he) does not run the meetings of his own faculty). The power (President, Provost, Dean of FAS, Dean of the College, etc) sit at a large round table in the front; the rest of us sit in the gallery. The proceedings are highly orchestrated -- the agenda is largely the same every meeting and means that you have to wade through about thirty minutes (or more) of process before you get to the actual topics for the meeting. If you want to speak, you have to tell someone days in advance (and if there is something controversial, you can be sure that they will figure out which side you're on before the meeting). Most people speak from a written script (i.e., not notes, but the entire statement fully written out). So do not confuse an FAS faculty meeting with a discussion; it is a performance. And here I am speaking against pretty much everyone who will decide my fate at Harvard.

I cannot read from a script. I frequently speak from notes; I sometimes write out my thoughts in more detail, but I do not speak publicly by reading the script. I ad lib, I rephrase, I add things, I leave things out. This is me.

This whole experience is what introduced me to the memo and the dire consequences of it. You see, unless specifically requested, votes in FAS faculty meetings are public (voice vote or hand raise). So, although I, an untenured faculty member, stood up and offered an opinion contrary to the administration (including the person who would, the next year, chair my tenure committee), I had been approached by tenured faculty who said, "I agree with you, but I can't vote against the administration."

This confused me for a long time. Is not the raison d'etre of tenure to allow one to speak one's mind without fear of retaliation? Are our administrators and colleagues not rational adults who can disagree with ideas instead of people? (Note: the aforementioned administrator who would go on to chair my tenure committee gets this as easily as he breathes.) Why do tenured faculty feel that they cannot voice their opinions? And it all comes back to the memo. If you got the memo and spent seven (or more) years following it, you internalize it. So, tenured or not, you learn to stifle your true beliefs and toe the party line.

This is a disaster in all organizations, but a particularly nasty one in an academic setting. After all, we are researchers -- we are supposed to question everything. If one were never to question the status quo, the earth would still be flat, the sun would revolve around the earth, and the earth would sit on the back of a turtle. Now one might argue that our leaders have clearly thought through all such possibilities and therefore, they will always have the right answer, so there is no need to ever disagree with them. I don't buy it. We are human and being human means that we are, in fact, fallible. If a leader or group of leaders cannot entertain the possibility that they are wrong (and create an environment where people feel free to suggest such possibilities without fear), then how can they possibly expect anyone else in the organization to do so?  If my boss is always right, how can I ever go to him/her and say, "I made a mistake."

Thus, living by the memo means that we create organizations without transparency, organizations that hide things from within and without, and maybe even from themselves. This is the hallmark of an organization that cannot move forward and cannot improve. So, unless stagnation is acceptable, we must all tear up the memo.

* FAS = Faculty of Arts and Sciences. If you aren't in academia, this basically includes Harvard College, the graduate school of Arts and Sciences, the School (or Division) of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard Extension School. In other words -- everyone except the professional schools, such as the Law School, Medical School, Business School, etc.