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Noble Withdraws Lawsuit Against MIT: 5: 5

By Brian Rosenberg
Editor in Chief
____David F. Noble withdrew his $1.5 million dollar suit against MIT in February after a four-year struggle to bring the case to court. Under the terms of an out-of-court settlement he made with MIT, nearly all documents relating to the case have been made available to the public, and MIT will conduct a formal review of its tenure practices.

Noble, now a professor in the department of history at Drexel University, was denied tenure in MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society in February 1984. Then an associate professor in STS, Noble filed a $1.5 million lawsuit charging that MIT had denied him tenure on political, not academic grounds.

A Middlesex County judge later dismissed eight of the nine charges Noble brought against MIT, allowing only a charge of breach of contract.

Noble received no money from the agreement. "My objective has never been monetary," he said.

Both Noble and MIT claimed victory in the case. "In a nutshell, we have opened university decision-making up to public scrutiny, as we believe it should be. That's a great gain," Noble said.

Noble "waged a five-year campaign to impugn the integrity of the tenure process [at MIT], then admitted failure. He was unable to prove that MIT violated its contract with him or did anything improper. Nobody in the real world should mistake this for anything but a defeat" for Noble, said Michael N. Sheetz, then an attorney with the firm of Palmer and Dodge, which represented MIT in the case.

The agreement specified that documents from the tenure review and the subsequent case would be made public. Authors of letters of evaluation used during the tenure process were given the opportunity to explain why their letter should remain confidential.

Charged with contempt

When Noble released many case documents in early April, MIT charged him with contempt of court. The charge stemmed from a disagreement over the exact wording of the court order authorizing the documents' release. Noble alleged that MIT changed the date on which documents could be released from 30 days after the settlement to 30 days after evaluators had been notified.

Noble said this week that the contempt charge had been dismissed.

The agreement also stipulated that MIT conduct a review of its tenure policy, though no change in policy was mandated. A committee to review "promotion and tenure processes" will be formed shortly, Provost Mark S. Wrighton said this week. Sheila E. Widnall '60 will lead the committee as part of her new responsibilities as associate provost.

Noble prepared a critique of MIT's tenure procedure for review by the committee. He 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.

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

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