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Without Tenure, Wolfe Leaves

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

Few parts of the MIT administrative system are as mysterious to students as the tenure process. Like every aspect of MIT life, it has faced its share of controversies, as very year some associate professors get tenure while others are rejected. There is rarely a year in which the decisions do not meet with some disagreement.

The tenure process goes through several stages, said J. David Litster PhD '65, vice president and dean for research and dean for graduate education. Litster regularly chairs the tenure committee for MIT's Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology.

The department first forms an ad-hoc committee; on the basis of what that committee says, all those involved in the department meet together to decide what to do, Litster said.

If the candidate gets the approval of the department committee, the issue "goes on to the school council" - that is is, a council formed by the MIT school to which the department belongs, Litster said. If the candidate passes this stage, his or her case finally goes before the entire academic council, which alone has the power to approve tenure, Litster said. It's an "extremely rigorous process," he said.

Six years ago, it was the turn of then-associate professor of brain and cognitive science Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81 to be considered for tenure. He was rejected.

While tenure rejections occur frequently, the circumstances surrounding the decision on Wolfe were anything but normal. Wolfe was known as a distinguished researcher and had an Institute-wide reputation as an excellent teacher. In 1989, Wolfe received the coveted Baker Teaching Award - the only Institute award whose recipients are nominated by undergraduates.

The award has since acquired a reputation as the kiss of death for professors seeking tenure. Conventional wisdom is that professors strong in teaching are perceived as weak on research - the more important of the two as far as tenure is concerned - and are therefore denied.

Wolfe's main class - Introduction to Psychology (9.00) - had attendance of roughly 300 and "was regularly oversubscribed by 100 to 150 students," Wolfe said. The students in the fall 1994 9.00 class gave Wolfe an overall rating of 6.5 out of a possible 7.0 in the Course Evaluation Guide.

Wolfe was clearly admired by his colleagues in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; he was unanimously nominated for tenure by his department's committee.

The department, which is now part of the School of Science, at the time fell under the jurisdiction of the Whitaker College. It was this college whose council made the final, unexpected decision to deny Wolfe tenure.

Wolfe leaves for Harvard

In 1991, Wolfe left MIT to accept a post at Harvard as an associate professor of opthalmology; he is currently a researcher at Harvard Medical School's Center for Clinical Cataract Research. Although he left for Harvard, Wolfe continued to teach 9.00 at MITas a visiting associate professor.

Wolfe said he is fairly content in his new role at Harvard. "It's a little odd to be a psychologist in the opthalmology department, but I have the resources and the computers to do my own particular research," he said. "Being in Boston in my particular field is very good because I can get together with other people [in my field], and we chat regularly."

The one aspect of his former life that Wolfe misses most is the lecturing and interaction with students. "I'm perfectly happy to be doing research, but it's a little like leaving out one of five courses out of a five-course meal," Wolfe said.

He calls it a "cheap irony" that "there are lots of people who would love to have a post and excellent research facilities and not have to talk to undergraduates at all. Which is exactly what I'm doing, except that I'm actually interested in teaching."

Still no explanation for decision

The central unanswered question is why Wolfe was denied tenure.

Professor of Chemical Engineering Kenneth A. Smith '58, who chaired the Whitaker committee that gave Wolfe the final thumbs-down, refused to give an explanation, saying only that "in retrospect I'd say there are cases where we've gone on to regret our decision."

"Overall, the tenure process works pretty well," Smith said. "I think it's probably a mistake to speak about individual cases," he added.

Over the years, and especially in light of Wolfe's denial, people have charged that the tenure decision process tends to reward world-class researchers and not great teachers.

Litster conceded there is some truth to this. "In general, research is more important" in the decision process, he said. "But if you look back 20 years ago, research was a lot more important than it is now" in comparison to teaching ability.

"It's gotten tougher because I think the teaching standards have been raised while research standards have remained the same," Litster said.

Smith agreed. "There's a little truth in that. It's certainly fair to say that it's easier to measure research experience than teaching experience," he said. But "over the last 15 years, the weight given to teaching has been steadily increasing," he said.

Even Wolfe waxed philosophical about the tenure process. "Tenure processes are always going to be a bit strange," he said. "I'm not thrilled with the way mine worked out, but it's not clear that the whole system is crying out for revision."

Wolfe won't teach regular 9.00

Last semester was Wolfe's last as the professor for the mainstream 9.00 lecture - but not by his own choice. "All else being equal, I like to teach, and I like to teach 9.00, so I'm sorry to be leaving," Wolfe said.

Wolfe will be replaced by Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Steven Pinker. Emilio Bizzi, who chairs the department, explained that it was inappropriate for someone not in the faculty to be teaching such a large course. He said the change came only now because "it took a while for Pinker to get ready" for the switch.

Wolfe will now teach 9.00 for the Concourse program. He said that his new class will have an enrollment of 30-40 students.

"I'm a very slow learner. It's not clear how many times the folks from MIT will have to tell me to leave before I get the hint," he joked.