Whitaker Denies Wolfe Tenure
By Linda D'Angelo
After a second review of the tenure case of Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81, the council of the Whitaker College of Health, Sciences, and Technology broke with the unanimous departmental recommendation and voted to deny the popular lecturer tenure.
The second review was the result of a request by Provost John M. Deutch '61, who offered to create a new BCS faculty seat and provide the necessary resources if Wolfe were granted tenure.
Deutch made the offer at the urging of many faculty and administrators in "recognition of the service and teaching commitment that Dr. Wolfe has made" to MIT undergraduate education, according to BCS Department Head Emilio Bizzi.
While Deutch's offer freed the case from "budgetary and financial concerns" and led BCS to unanimously approve Wolfe, it did not convince the Whitaker council to reverse its previous decision.
The council's decision to deny Wolfe tenure has been criticized by students and faculty for sending the "message to junior faculty plain and clear, to do your research, do a lot of it, do it well, and do only what you have to with teaching and service," said Associate Dean for Student Affairs Travis R. Merritt, who heads the Undergraduate Academic Support Office.
Some have also charged that Wolfe was punished for being an exciting lecturer and a popular teacher. Specifically, some students and faculty claim that his research received greater scrutiny because of perceptions that efforts he made to be a good teacher took time away from his research.
"The stereotype is there, but whether or not it influences decisions" is not clear, Wolfe said in an interview yesterday.
Smith, while holding that the tenure process is based equally on research, teaching and service, admitted it is "much easier to measure research than other elements." While this leads to a "tendency" to give research more weight, Smith said, "there is not any intent to ignore teaching."
A career of commitment
to MIT undergraduates
Wolfe won the Baker Foundation Teaching Award for untenured faculty members last year. The award is frequently referred to as "the kiss of death," because its recipients are often denied tenure.
His undergraduate class, Introduction to Psychology (9.00), has an enrollment of over 400. Twenty percent of this year's freshman class was enrolled in the subject, which has been oversubscribed in recent years, Merritt noted.
Wolfe is "radically generous with his time, thought and energy," Merritt said, "immediately willing to volunteer for service on committees." A member of the IAP Policy Committee, Wolfe has taught a freshman advisor seminar for the past three years, often gives a lecture for freshmen during Residence/Orientation Week and was a speaker at the Institute Colloquium on "How to be Different" last year.
Wolfe estimated that he devotes 50 percent of his time to undergraduate education, and noted that he teaches "more undergraduates than the rest of my department put together."
After watching the psychology department in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences be restructured into the brain and cognitive sciences department in 1986, Wolfe helped develop a minor program in psychology in the Department of Humanities.
Wolfe said he has been at MIT "for all of my adult life." He received his doctorate from MIT in 1981, at which time he became a lecturer. He has "been on the tenure track since 1983."
Merritt spoke "with assurance about [Wolfe's] quality as a teacher." He "is inspiring," Merritt explained. "He is able to take a large classroom full of students and shrink it down to a discussion-size class." Wolfe is "a natural-born, brilliant teacher."
Wolfe was not completely surprised by the committee's decision not to grant him tenure. "I went into this with my eyes open," he said. "I am not a poor, naive victim."
Three years ago when Wolfe came up for promotion to associate professor he underwent a "mini-tenure process," he said. At that time, Bizzi gave him "a very clear indication that I had already gotten all the points I needed in service and teaching, [and] that I should now be devoted to research," Wolfe explained.
At that point, Wolfe "made a conscious decision that if they were going to tenure me, it would be because I'm a good professor."
The tenure process
Like other schools, MIT cannot keep faculty indefinitely without tenure. Before junior faculty members have served eight years or reached age 35, whichever comes later, the Institute must make a tenure decision.
The process, which has not undergone any major revision since its beginnings in 1940, involves five steps. The first and most important step is approval by the department which, in BCS, means the vote of all tenured faculty members.
If the department recommends the candidate for tenure, the case must still be approved by the school council, the Academic Council, and the president. The final step is the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, which legally confers tenure.
The case can be rejected at any level, but if one level does not approve the case, the head of that level may bring the case to the next level himself.
"Every tenured faculty member in the department had the opportunity to discuss and vote," in the Wolfe tenure case, Associate Provost and Vice President of Research Kenneth A. Smith '58 said.
Smith -- who as director of Whitaker heads the college's council -- said the Wolfe case was judged by "service, teaching and research."
BCS initially voted to approve Wolfe's position as a tenured faculty member, but not by a strong majority. Nonetheless, Bizzi felt that there were "broader MIT interests" apart from departmental ones which needed to be considered, and so he brought the case before the Whitaker council.
As often happens when the tenure candidate has not received the unanimous approval of his department, according to Smith, the Whitaker council voted to deny Wolfe tenure.
The process did not stop there, however, as BCS faculty and academic administrators joined together to forge an appeal. Wolfe, who was away when the appeal was made, was impressed by the efforts of his colleagues.
"People who knew about the case were very much in favor of it . . . in the sense of working hard on it," he said. Wolfe also noted the efforts of Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences Ann F. Friedlaender PhD '64, and Merritt, who "went out of their way, quite on their own initiative," to push for his tenure.
In response to the efforts of this group, Deutch created the new position "specifically directed at Dr. Wolfe, but contingent on the approval of the department and Whitaker school," Bizzi said.
Deutch said he was "pleased that the Office of the Provost intervened in this matter, in a way which demonstrates the value we place at MIT on undergraduate education."
This offer led to a significant change in the BCS judgment of the case, switching from a small majority in favor to unanimous approval of Wolfe. Bizzi attributed this marked change to the fact that "the standard rules were suspended, giving specific recognition to him as a teacher."
The case was "treated as an exception," Bizzi explained. "Essentially we said MIT obviously wants to recognize and make a specific position for a teacher who has a significant role in the department and the School of Humanities."
The "first time around, research and teaching was evaluated, but the second time was specifically in recognition of teaching," Bizzi said.
Smith refused to explain why Whitaker council denied Wolfe tenure the second time. "For everyone in the room it was different. . . . It is a mistake to imply that there was a critical aspect" of consensus, he said.
While Smith said the council reviewed the case "de nova" each time, he did admit that "there was a bit of a bias." When a department head chooses to bring a case forward despite the negative conclusion of the department, or the case is resubmitted to the council as an exception, "it gets extra scrutiny," he noted.
Smith said that while the option was open to him to take the case to the Academic Council despite the negative decision, he would not do so. He would "run against the advice of the council only if I strongly disagreed with its advice, and I do not," he said.
Smith confirmed that he did have "an informal discussion" with the Academic Council, the next level up in the tenure process. However, he did this only to inform the council of his decision, not to solicit the members' opinions on whether the case should be brought before them, he said.
"Basically," Smith said, it is "the end of it." It is "unlikely that there will be intervention [since] the provost said to me that he felt it was closed."
Wolfe agreed that his chance of receiving tenure at MIT "is essentially dead."