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Jeremy Wolfe's tenure denial -- no surprise, just regret

The word is out. Last week, the Council of Whitaker College handed down the long-dreaded decision denying tenure to Professor Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81. Was it a surprise? Of course not. After all, he did receive the Kiss of Death, also known as the Baker Teaching Award. In truth, our first reaction to the news that Jeremy had won the Baker Award was dismay, because it is well-known MIT lore that if someone is a good enough teacher to earn recognition for it, he/she certainly can't be a good enough researcher to deserve tenure.

First of all, let's look at the assertion that Jeremy is one of the best, if not the best, lecturer at MIT. As long as he has been teaching Introduction to Psychology (9.00), it has been substantially oversubscribed. He has received consistent rave reviews in the Course Evaluation Guide (earning a 6.4 on a scale of 1-7 this year), earning the highest evaluation of any professor for a class that size.

Lest you think that the popularity of 9.00 is based on its being a gut course, think again; 9.00 fulfills the HASS-D requirement, which means it has a minimum of 25 pages of writing (in the form of research papers) assigned, as well as a midterm and a final. He is a brilliant and gifted teacher, who manages to inspire students to enjoy, to care, and to learn. That is no small accomplishment.

Furthermore, Jeremy himself cares about the students. He is on several committees examining student life at MIT, acts as chair for the steering committee on psychology, has provided dozens of students with UROP projects over the years, and serves as both freshman advisor and thesis advisor to dozens of undergraduates. He has an open-door policy toward his students, always making time to help them work out a wrinkle in their schedules. He is genuinely committed to contributing to a healthy learning environment for undergraduates.

"So," you say, "it's clear why he was denied tenure. He spends all his time with students, and doesn't have any decent research to show for himself." That is simply untrue. The tenure process is complicated, but some facts are clear. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is part of Whitaker College. This means that tenure decisions in Course 9 first get voted on by the departmental council, and then move on to be approved by Whitaker council.

The council of Course 9 voted unanimously to grant Jeremy tenure. Such a show of confidence is truly impressive, and only serves to reemphasize how deserving Professor Wolfe is of receiving tenure. His vision research is considered world-class. Nonetheless, Whitaker council denied him tenure.

Recently, MIT has boasted increased efforts to examine the relevance of the human element in science. The ability to understand human interactions is gaining importance for scientists throughout the world. In order to ensure that scientific research will have a positive impact, those conducting the research require a meaningful comprehension of human needs.

In the light of these facts, we find it both surprising and dismaying that many influential members of the MIT community do not feel a stronger commitment to the field of human psychology. The study of human behavior has many applications to our lives. MIT students don't generally aspire to be junior lab technicians; we may hope to be lab directors, or managers, or administrators. It is unwise and unrealistic to discount the value of understanding people.

If Jeremy is not given tenure, we can't expect him to remain at MIT past next year. Perhaps the Institute will claim that they will find someone else to teach 9.00, but those of us who have taken the class with Jeremy will not be satisfied with that response. We can't imagine a comparably talented psychology teacher would dare come to MIT now, given the blatant and antagonistic message that Whitaker has sent down.

We question the priorities and the decision-making criteria of the Whitaker council. We called Professor Kenneth A. Smith '58, the director of Whitaker College, and asked for a list of the council members. His office informed us that they did not have such a list. Somehow, it is hard to believe that the office of the director does not know who is on the council. At no point were we told that we simply could not be given this information. Next, we called the office of the administrator of Whitaker College, and were told that someone would call us back later that day with the list. Later, someone left us a telephone message stating that some other student was discussing this issue with Professor Smith, and that therefore they saw no need to give us the list. The amount of blatant falsehoods and obstruction we encountered is unnerving.

We call on the MIT Academic Council to review this tenure decision. Perhaps the members of Whitaker council are not the individuals best equipped to assess Professors Wolfe's contributions to MIT. Students and faculty should voice their dismay at this decision to the Whitaker council, if they ever come out of hiding.


Rebecca Kaplan is a sophomore in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. A. J. Babineau is a senior in the Department of Humanities majoring in Psychology.