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MIT Should Overhaul Its Badly Broken Tenure Process

Column by Anders Hove
Columnist

Of all the factors affecting what education people receive when they go to college, the tenure system ranks among the most secretive and insidious. The tenure process, hidden though it may be, plays the paramount role in determining the character of MIT's faculty and, by extension, the nature of the educational product students receive here. In spite of its critical importance, the tenure system has remained untouched by critical discussion either by students or administrators.

The tenure system is badly broken. It is broken in that it does not go far enough toward delivering the educational product demanded by students. Nothing could do more to improve the character of an MIT education than to totally rethink the way we recruit, promote, and grant tenure to prospective faculty.

The road toward tenure begins in earnest with the hiring of junior faculty. The primary method for recruiting junior faculty is the job talk: A candidate flies into town for a couple of days, gives a presentation of his or her research, fields some questions, and hobnobs with departmental bigwigs. After a day or two of superficial contact, the candidate jets off to the next school for more of the same.

The job talk serves one primary function - it allows the selection committee to minimally determine how well a candidate's research will mesh with the research currently being done by the faculty.

The job talk is geared toward the research interests of the faculty. It is said that teaching experience looks good, and certainly a candidate's personal presentation plays a role in the process, but these are secondary considerations. The role a prospective faculty member might play in the community is completely ignored.

Once hired, junior faculty members have a few years to show their stuff before going up for tenure. This is a critical time in the organization's recruitment process. The new member has committed himself or herself to the institution but is not fully accepted within its ranks. The new member will thus look for cues as to what behavior will lead to promotion. There is also the opportunity for junior faculty to explore their community and their fields of study - to hone their teaching skills, become involved on campus, and to interact with students and colleagues.

The current tenure process essentially precludes the period of study and exploration by placing extremely high demands on the junior faculty member's time. By far the most important consideration is the quality of the candidate's research. One measure of quality, of course, is quantity - the more papers and books the better. Another measure of quality is citation. Is the author's work being cited in the current literature? Is the candidate's work widely discussed within the field? These things take time. When they're not flying around the world pumping up interest in their work, junior faculty must administer and conduct their research and write it up for publication.

While some teaching experience is considered mandatory, the quality of the candidate's teaching plays a peripheral role in his or her consideration. While the importance of teaching certainly varies by department, it is a often the case that teaching can play only a negative role in a candidate's selection. In other words, bad teaching can indeed hurt a candidate, but the difference between average and exceptional teaching may pass entirely unnoticed.

Given this process, it is not surprising that teaching and community involvement usually fall by the wayside. MIT's Lewis Committee recognized this in 1949 when it wrote, "Institute standards of professional competence are so high that the outstanding specialists who are sought for faculty posts must work exceedingly hard to maintain and enhance their standing among their professional colleagues in the highly professional world. Necessarily they have little time for other interests. In many ways these situations are the root of the problem of general education at the Institute."

The Lewis Committee was optimistic that top-notch researchers could be found who would also be good mentors, teachers, and community leaders. And MIT does have such people, just as we did 50 years ago. That we do, it seems, is more by fortuitous coincidence than by intent. In spite of the Lewis report's recommendation, nothing has been done to recruit a "super-faculty" of people who "find time for the nonprofessional civic and cultural interests which characterize the ideal teacher."

Why haven't things changed? By perceived necessity, the tenure system is still run by MIT's schools and departments. Departments themselves face the overwhelming constraint of supporting themselves financially. The fundamental question for a department is whether a candidate can contribute to the department's research output, not its educational output. Where education and quality research coincide, fine. But so often good teachers and community leaders are passed over for those who, in the end, will contribute far less to the quality of an MIT education than they will to the immediate financial needs of their department.

The problems with tenure are so systemic and pervasive than nothing short of a complete overhaul will cure them. The stakes may be high, but the potential gains to the quality of an MIT education may be immense.