Harvard Prez Left Blushing Crimson

Harvard hasn’t been shy about trumpeting its connections to the new Obama administration, from Kennedy School prof and presidential science adviser John Holdren to National Economic Council director Larry Summers, the university’s once-shunned former president. But there’s one appointee Harvard would prefer not to discuss: Christina Romer, the UC Berkeley economist tapped to head Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. That’s because last May, Romer was up for a tenured position in Harvard’s vaunted economics department—and to the anger of many, president Drew Gilpin Faust shot her down.

Faust never divulged why she rejected Romer, and the episode resulted in the first critical press of her presidency. But if it wasn’t bad enough that the university’s first female president had vetoed a highly regarded female professor up for tenure in a department infamously hostile to women, Obama’s selection of Romer turned the incident into a full-scale PR debacle. "Harvard’s Loss Becomes Obama Administration’s Gain," sniped the Globe. "CEA Chief Was Denied Tenure," added the Crimson. Still, Faust’s motives remained secret. Perhaps because the true story of what happened, according to numerous professors familiar with the case, may be even less flattering to Faust than what’s been reported.

The Harvard tenure process is both long and complicated. When a department has an opening, it creates a search committee to find candidates. Eventually, all the tenured members of the department gather to discuss the finalist and vote yea or nay. If the department votes strongly yes, the nomination is forwarded to the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Those deans then ask the professors to explain their votes in writing. Letters evaluating the finalist are also solicited from outside experts.

Next, the deans move the nomination to the president’s office for an ad hoc meeting, where the candidate’s fate is determined. Wielding a power likely unique among university heads, the Harvard president has final say over FAS tenure decisions. Present at the ad hoc are generally Faust, the university provost, two Harvard professors from a different department, and three non-Harvard experts in the field. The candidate does not attend.

For Romer, the process started smoothly. Tenured at Berkeley since 1993, she is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on New Deal economics. The Harvard econ department’s vote for her was near unanimous. "There wasn’t a competitor," says one Harvard economist. But trouble was brewing, with multiple sources naming macroeconomist Robert Barro (who did not respond to repeated requests for comment) as one of Romer’s most active opponents. The sources suggest that "five or six" other professors, after supporting her in public, later damned Romer with faint praise in the confidential letters they submitted to explain their votes. "The department played this game of ‘we vote for something, and then we write nasty letters afterward,’" says a source.

Among the causes of the duplicity, according to Romer supporters, were departmental politics, concerns that her specialty was insufficiently rigorous, and perhaps sexism. As one economist argues, these weren’t voiced in public for a simple reason: They "wouldn’t bear public scrutiny."

According to two people familiar with the process, unexpectedly negative letters from the non-Harvard economic historians were equally "petty."

Several sources say that this one-two punch of criticism caused Faust to reject Romer. Barro and company reputedly had gambled that Faust would take their objections at face value, and it worked: Not only did she reject Romer, but she also took the blame for the move, unable to discuss her rationale because of the process’s confidentiality. Faust was "basically fooled by a superficial controversy without taking the time to understand where the criticism was coming from," says a Harvard economist. According to one veteran of tenure fights, "The first thing you should do when you get those letters is find someone you trust in the department and ask, ‘What’s the story behind this?’"

Faust’s office has declined comment, but some think the president, who has a reputation for being conflict-averse, didn’t want to pick a fight. And that’s not a good sign for Harvard. Because while Romer has moved on quite nicely, and the economics department, though embarrassed, will survive, the university’s head remains a cipher for many concerned campus observers. Faust clearly knows how to get along with the faculty—that’s how she succeeded Larry Summers. The question is whether she’s tough enough to stand up to them.