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Assistant Professor Sues MIT Over Tenure

By Lauren E. LeBon


Former Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics Maurice Van Putten has filed a civil lawsuit against MIT for over $25,000, plus damages. He claims that his application for promotion to associate professor did not receive “fair and objective promotional evaluation.”

The defendants in the suit, Robert J. Silbey, Dean of the School of Science; David A. Vogan Jr., Head of the Department of Mathematics; and Professor of Applied Mathematics Alar Toomre, are accused of “malicious interference with advantageous relations,” according to the plaintiff’s complaint, filed on July 25.

Van Putten is suing for $25,000 in lost wages, plus additional monetary damages “as the Court deems appropriate.”

MIT, in an answer filed on Oct. 4, has firmly denied all allegations. The defendants have declined to comment on the suit for this story.

A court date has not yet been set.

Van Putten expected tenure

In April of 1996, Van Putten accepted an Assistant Professor position from MIT. The original offer specified a three-year term, which was extended two more years in 1999 and for another year in 2001. In 2002, Van Putten did not receive a promotion to Associate Professor.

In his complaint, filed by Frank J. Teague Esq. of McCullough, Stievater & Polvere, LLP, Van Putten states that he was informed by professors in the Mathematics department that his career at MIT was on track for tenure.

Defendants accused of tampering

In late 2001, Van Putten submitted an application to advance to the position of Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics. In the application, he provided a list of twelve contacts for letters of recommendation.

Van Putten said in his complaint that Toomre removed four of the twelve names on this list, in addition to a page with a list of people who Van Putten felt should not be contacted.

Also, Van Putten said that four letters of recommendation submitted to Silbey were not forwarded to the Science Council for review.

Van Putten alleges that Vogan prevented a review of his promotion by the Applied Mathematics committee.

In March of 2002, Van Putten learned that he did not receive the promotion because Silbey believed his letters of recommendation were “below threshold.”

“The acts of Defendants Vogan, Silbey, and Toomre described ... were calculated to prevent [Van Putten] from receiving a fair and objective evaluation of this suitability for promotion to Associate Professor by the Science Council and in fact did prevent such a fair and objective evaluation,” said Van Putten in his complaint.

MIT denies all allegations

MIT denies all of Van Putten’s accusations and maintains that its procedures for faculty promotion are clearly outlined in MIT Policies and Procedures.

“You don’t want to be standing in judgement of other people. It creates a bad atmosphere,” said Professor of Applied Mathematics Daniel J. Kleitman. Kleitman is a former head of the Department of Mathematics.

Student evaluations of professors are also a factor in the promotion decision. However, Kleitman said that it is a professor’s effort to improve his teaching that is most recognized.

“Teaching tends to be something that’s correctable,” he added.

Kleitman said that disputes and even lawsuits over faculty promotion have arisen in the past.

“People don’t talk about these things at great length,” said Kleitman.