Forty Percent of Surveyed Faculty Say Harvard’s Standing in Higher Ed Has Fallen


Over 40 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s survey of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences said they believe the University’s standing within higher education has fallen during the past decade.

In addition, nearly 70 percent of faculty respondents said that grade inflation is a “prevalent” issue within their departments, with 34 percent “strongly” agreeing.

The Crimson distributed its faculty survey to more than 1,180 members of the FAS in late February, polling Harvard’s flagship faculty on key University policy decisions, challenges they face as academics, and pressing issues on campus — including the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty all received the survey.

The 94-question survey obtained more than 300 responses, though not all respondents answered each question. The anonymous survey, a link to which was emailed to nearly every member of the FAS, was open from Feb. 26 to March 5. The Crimson did not adjust the data for possible selection bias.


The first, second, third, and fourth installments of The Crimson’s 2021 faculty survey series explored faculty perspectives on tenure procedures, campus divestment movements, the climate and culture of the FAS, and the response to pandemic, respectively. This fifth installment examines how faculty view the University’s governance and standing within higher education.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment for this story.

University and FAS Governance

University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s approval rating from faculty respondents increased between 2020 and 2021, from 39 to 48 percent. The proportion of respondents who said they believed Bacow has represented their interests well also rose slightly, from 25 to 31 percent.

Faculty opinions of FAS Dean Claudine Gay — consistently more favorable than Bacow — also marginally improved between 2020 and 2021. Her approval rating rose from 47 to 56 percent, and the proportion of respondents who believe she has represented their interests well grew from 39 to 44 percent.

A substantial majority — 69 percent — of respondents said they do not believe monthly faculty meetings are an effective forum for FAS faculty to express their interests. When prompted with a write-in question, several respondents described the meetings as “too impersonal,” “formulaic,” “too scripted,” and “largely ceremonial,” as well as poorly attended by members of the Sciences Division and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Roughly 52 percent of respondents said the authority of the faculty has diminished over the past several years. Just 4 percent said faculty authority increased, with the other 44 percent responding that it has stayed the same. Approximately 67 percent of respondents believed the faculty should have more authority in FAS and University governance.

Common responses to a write-in question about what Bacow and Gay should prioritize during the rest of their terms included increasing support for non-ladder faculty, reforming the tenure review system, addressing climate change through fossil fuel divestment, retaining faculty of color, and maintaining academic freedom. One respondent said Bacow and Gay should prioritize the implementation of “more visionary initiatives,” as opposed to “maintenance of the status quo.”

Learning at Harvard

Asked how they believe the University’s standing within higher education has changed over the past decade, 41 percent said it has fallen and 53 percent said it is unchanged. Only 6 percent said it has risen.

Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they believe grade inflation is a “prevalent” issue within their departments, with 34 percent agreeing “strongly.”

In a 2013 faculty meeting, then-Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said that the median grade at the College is an A-, and the most commonly awarded grade is an A.

However, attitudes towards the prevalence of grade inflation varied based on discipline.

Just 50 percent of faculty at SEAS believed grade inflation is pervasive in their department, compared to 74 percent in the Sciences, 68 percent in the Social Sciences, and 69 percent in the Arts and Humanities.

Very few faculty respondents indicated they had students in the last year who required disciplinary action at the College or the University level; 9 percent said they referred a student to the Honor Council and 6 percent said they referred a student to the Administrative Board in the past year.

Harvard’s Treatment of Its Workers

Roughly 50 percent of survey-takers indicated satisfaction with Harvard’s treatment of staff members during the pandemic, while 18 percent expressed “some” dissatisfaction and 9 percent expressed “extreme” dissatisfaction.

After transitioning to remote operations in March 2020, the University guaranteed full pay and benefits for all employees whose jobs had been idled by the pandemic.

However, starting in January 2021, the University ended pay and benefits for idled contract workers and reduced pay for directly-employed staff to 70 percent. Following the announcement, more than 1,100 Harvard affiliates signed a petition urging the University to extend employment protections for contract workers.

Asked how the University should maintain pay and benefits for idled workers, 78 percent of surveyed faculty indicated support for directly-employed staff and 63 percent indicated support for contract workers.

Facing significant budget deficits, 56 percent of respondents “strongly” agreed that the Harvard Corporation should draw more heavily on the University’s $41.9 billion endowment to support the FAS budget during the pandemic. Another 23 percent “somewhat” agreed.

In its 2020 annual report, the FAS projected a $111.7 million deficit in fiscal year 2021, following a $22 million deficit in fiscal year 2020.

In fiscal year 2020, 53 percent of the operating revenue of the FAS came from the endowment, a proportion only exceeded by the Divinity School and the Radcliffe Institute.

Though Gay initially announced last June that the FAS would furlough some “fully or partially idled” workers as part of cost-cutting measures to balance its budget, the proposed furloughs were ultimately not enacted. During an interview with The Crimson last month, Gay declined to comment on specific cost-cutting measures the FAS is currently pursuing.

During a faculty meeting last fall, FAS Dean for Administration and Finance Leslie A. Kirwan ’79 said that making up the budget deficit may require major, long-term “structural” changes.


For its 2021 Faculty Survey, The Crimson collected electronic responses through Qualtrics, an online survey platform, from Feb. 26 to March 5, 2021. A link to the anonymous survey was sent to 1,182 FAS and SEAS faculty members through emails sourced in February 2021 from Harvard directory information. The pool included individuals on Harvard’s Connections database with FAS affiliations, including tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty.

Of those faculty, 315 accessed the link to the survey. A total of 309 participants answered at least one question, while 235 participants completed every question in the survey.

To prevent participants from accidentally taking the survey more than once, The Crimson enabled Qualtrics’ browser cookie functionality to register unique survey sessions on each device. This device data is controlled by Qualtrics, and The Crimson does not retain information that could identify devices accessing the survey with anonymous responses.

In an effort to check for response bias, The Crimson compared respondent demographics with publicly available information on faculty demographics provided by the University — information regarding gender, minority background, SEAS affiliation, and ladder versus non-ladder status. Overall, respondent demographics tracked with faculty demographics.

Of survey respondents, 38 percent identified themselves as women and 19 percent identified themselves as minorities. Based on data in the 2020 FAS Dean’s Annual report, women and minorities make up 32 percent and 25 percent of FAS ladder faculty, respectively.

According to the report, 41 percent of the FAS were non-ladder faculty — a term synonymous with non-tenure-track faculty. Similarly, 39 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s survey identified themselves as non-ladder faculty.

Of faculty who were sent the link to the survey, 106 — or 9 percent — are affiliated with SEAS. In comparison, of respondents who indicated their divisional affiliation on the survey, 6 percent reported an affiliation with SEAS.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at

This is the fifth installment in a six-part series analyzing the results of The Crimson’s survey of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s flagship faculty. Read the first installment here, the second installment here, the third installment here, and the fourth installment here.