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MIT to review tenure policy

By Katherine Shim

The dismissal on Tuesday of former Associate Professor David F. Noble's suit against MIT in Middlesex Superior Court brought with it assurances of the formation of a committee by Provost Mark S. Wrighton to review MIT tenure policy.

The committee, which has not yet been formed, will receive a critique of MIT's tenure procedures from Noble. Noble hopes that his report will "expose that MIT has a total lack of due process" and bring MIT's tenure policy "into the 20th century."

Noble cited three major deficiencies in current Institute tenure policy: the absence of a comprehensive tenure code, the absence of written appeals procedures, and the absence of consideration of political views in tenure deliberations.

President Charles M. Vest declined to comment on the issue saying discussion of tenure policy was "premature at this date."

Noble will begin his report within the next month and will work with both MIT faculty and the American Association of University Professors in preparing his report, he said.

"What I'm calling for is modest in the extreme," Noble said. "Other universities like Drexel University, where I currently teach, and the University of Michigan, where President Vest comes from, have very elaborate tenure procedures."

"The tenure process at MIT is ad hoc right now," Noble continued. "What I'm asking for is standard procedure at many other universities -- a system of checks and balances in university decision making."

Regardless of Noble's report, the ultimate decision of whether the tenure policy will change will be up to the tenure-review committee, Noble said.

"This only provides an opportunity for MIT to clean up its act," Noble said. "Not only will many professors benefit from due process, but tenure reform might minimize prospects of future litigation if MIT has due process in house."

MIT Faculty Chair Henry D. Jacoby said, "In particular at the Institute, many things are not written down in as a lot of rules." He added, "Though tenure policy is written down in the Policies and Procedures manual, a lot of tenure procedures are case law."

Jacoby did not foresee a need for any changes in current tenure policies.

"I have seen the system work here for 18 years, and I have not seen any place where it fails," he said, "The process works well, and has many safeguards."

Paul L. Penfield Jr '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said, "One issue the committee may consider is whether or not letters of recommendations should be made public or confidential."

Penfield continued, "The argument for confidentiality is that it ensures honest assessments of the candidate. The argument for making letters public is that there's [a] feeling that if you say bad things you should be able to confront your accuser."

Though policy differs slightly from department to department, under the current tenure system, individual departments must bring assistant professors before a tenure review sub-committee before the professor has been on the faculty for eight years, the Policies and Procedures faculty guide states.

The sub-committee will then assemble a file of the professor's "performance, accomplishments, promise, research, teaching and service . . . with letters of recommendations from both inside and outside MIT," Jacoby said.

Upon approval of the sub-committee, the case will go to either the school council or the personnel committee of the school. The school council will then present the case before the Academic Council. From the Academic Council, the case goes before the president who presents the case to the MIT Corporation.

The entire process runs from five to eight months, Jacoby said.

Discussion of tenure policy could affect the case of Gretchen L. Kalonji '80, former associate professor of Materials Science, who filed a discrimination grievance in April 1989, three months after she was denied tenure. A committee was formed within the Institute to review the case, which is still pending, Kalonji said.

"I'd have to look at [the formation of a tenure review committee] in a little more detail, to see what [MIT has] committed [itself to] before I become too jubilant," about the decision, Kalonji said.

Noble said, "The [Kalonji case] brings questions of political discrimination, and how the Institute will evaluate it."