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Preceptors Disappointed With FAS Review That Reaffirms Appointment Cap System

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UPDATED: March 16, 2021 at 5:40 p.m.

A committee charged with reviewing the role of preceptors and senior preceptors within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences released a report early this month reaffirming its stance on time-capping appointments for the non-tenured positions, prompting disappointment among preceptors in various departments.

Convened by FAS Dean Claudine Gay in fall 2019, the committee concluded its work and submitted its report to Gay in May 2020, though the findings were only shared with preceptors this month. The report includes several recommendations, such as standardizing course loads for preceptors, as well as affirmations of existing policies, such as maintaining the term caps that have drawn criticism from preceptors in the past.

The FAS hires preceptors with a time cap of three, five, or eight years, after which the faculty are required to leave Harvard no matter the quality of their performance. Senior preceptors, however, are not subject to the time caps.

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Expository Writing preceptor Margaret Doherty said she objected to the report’s framing of preceptors and senior preceptors as “just teaching positions.”

“It’s important to recognize that even though this report frames preceptors as teachers, and I see myself as a teacher in a really fundamental way, I don’t really think you can separate teaching and scholarship and writing in the way that the report tries to do,” Doherty said. “That really cuts against what Harvard says about its intellectual environment, which is that all of these things — teaching, research, writing — all inform each other, all go hand in hand.”

Salma A. Ayyash, a preceptor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, wrote in an emailed statement that she “questioned” the administration’s commitment to increasing professional development for preceptors, which the committee report presented as a task to be facilitated through the Bok Center.

“One of my major concerns is that professional development and pedagogical support is kind of an optional path during the preceptor journey,” Ayyash wrote. “Putting that heavy lifting on the Bok Center is expecting too much of one center with limited staff to address an important aspect of the preceptor role.”

The committee — headed by Romance Languages and Literatures professor Diana Sorensen — included faculty members from across the divisions of the FAS, along with SEAS. Notably, however, the committee did not contain any preceptors or senior preceptors.

In an emailed statement, Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser wrote the committee had planned outreach meetings “with units across the FAS,” including departments chairs for areas with high numbers of preceptors and senior preceptors, as well as with preceptors and senior preceptors themselves.

While an in-person meeting was initially scheduled by the committee for March 2020 to solicit feedback from preceptors, this meeting had to be cancelled due to Covid-19 and was replaced with an online survey.

Michaela J. Thompson, a preceptor in Environmental Science and Public Policy, said the report appears to consider preceptors “almost as an afterthought.”

“That’s clearly not a substitute for an actual face-to-face meeting where you hear grievances and suggestions from a category of people about whom you are going to make incredibly significant decisions,” Thompson said. “It doesn't seem like we’re in the report at all.”

Zipser wrote the committee’s recommendations intend “to standardize the teaching load” and ensure “preceptors’ duties are equitable.” One of the report’s proposed changes includes a new requirement for all preceptors and senior preceptors to teach four to five courses or course equivalents per year.

In an interview with The Crimson earlier this month, Gay declined to comment on specific questions about the report. She noted, however, that Faculty Affairs will implement the proposed changes over the coming year.

Sara M. Feldman, a preceptor in Yiddish, said she is “pretty skeptical” whether the report’s implementation will lead to substantial changes that resolve long-standing areas of contention between administrators and non-tenure track faculty, given that the report reaffirms the existing term caps on preceptors and senior preceptors.

“Really there’s nothing specific in here besides reaffirming the way things already are,” Feldman said.

CORRECTION: March 16, 2021

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the report recommends all preceptors and senior preceptors be required to teach four to five courses or course equivalents per semester. In fact, the recommendation is to require teaching four to five courses or course equivalents per year.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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