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Faculty members awaiting tenure decisions

By Lauren Seeley


Senior faculty members at MIT are now judging the merits of many of their junior colleagues. By June 30, they will have decided if those colleagues will receive tenure or if they must look for work elsewhere.

The outcome of these tenure cases affects students at MIT, but many students are ignorant about the purpose of tenure and how it works.

Tenure serves two major functions. The first is to guarantee freedom in teaching, research and extramural activities. The secondary purpose, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), is to provide sufficient economic security for the teaching profession to attract qualified people.

In practice this means that MIT cannot dismiss faculty members for their political views, according to Vice President Constantine B. Simonides. But MIT can dismiss a tenured professor for "gross misconduct, criminal acts, or serious disregard of duties," according to the MIT promotion and tenure policy.

Simonides was unsure whether MIT has ever dismissed a tenured professor. Harvard University recently fired a professor for harassment of a female student.

Tenure is "indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society," according to the AAUP.

Like other schools, MIT cannot keep faculty indefinitely without tenure. Before junior faculty members have served seven years or reached age 35, whichever comes later, MIT must make a tenure decision.

The decision rests most heavily on the judgment by a candidate's peers, but each tenure case must pass five "hurdles" before final approval, Simonides said.

The first and most important hurdle is approval by the department. Three or four senior faculty members ask national and international experts in the field to judge the candidate's work in addition to judging the work themselves.

Although the department considers teaching skills and public service, "scholarship is by far the most important quality and the easiest to measure," Simonides said.

The department measures teaching ability in part by the number of thesis students a candidate works with, and occasionally through solicited student recommendations. This is the sole student input in a tenure case.

If the department recommends the candidate for tenure, the case must still meet four other requirements, ensuring that the candidate's qualifications meet with Institute standards. A tenure case is rarely rejected after the department has approved it, Simonides said.

The four remaining criteria involve approval by the following committees: the School Council, made up of the dean of the school and department heads; the Academic Council, made up of deans of schools and the provost; the president; and finally the Executive Committee of the Corporation, which legally confers tenure.

Tenure policy at MIT does not differ significantly from policies at other schools around the country. However, one distinguishing feature is the emphasis MIT places on tenuring only outstanding people in the field. As Professor Michael Artin of the Department of Mathematics put it, the peer review letters for a candidate have to be "raving."

Professor Alvin Kibel, head of the Department of Literature, said that to get tenure a person must have a "national, or even international, reputation in the field and have made a major contribution."

Simonides stressed that candidates for tenure must not only be excellent in their fields now, but must also show promise that they will "continue to grow" and continue to contribute to the field.

Tenure policy has remained more or less unchanged since its beginnings at MIT in the l94Os. Tenure is an agreement to keep professors until age 7O, at which time they may be released. However, a recently passed state law makes it illegal to require anyone to retire solely on the basis of age.

The law makes an exception for tenured faculty at private universities, thereby allowing MIT to continue to retire tenured professors at age 7O. Nevertheless, the MIT administration, spurred on by this state law, is planning an Institute-wide discussion of tenure policy for the fall of l985.

The goal of this discussion, as stated at a Feb. 7 meeting of the faculty-administration committee and department heads, is to create a tenure policy that is "responsive to the times and to individual as well as institutional interests." In the meantime, tenure policy at MIT will remain unaltered.