From The Faculty Chair
MIT Promotion and Tenure Processes
In spring 2009, my predecessor Bish Sanyal asked Bob Silbey and me to co-chair a special faculty committee on MIT’s Promotion and Tenure Processes. A brief summary of our report follows, along with some thoughts on several longer run challenges facing our profession at MIT and in our peer institutions. The full report of our all-star committee is available at: web.mit.edu/faculty/reports/pdf/promotionandtenure.pdf.
Our charge was to review the full range of processes used in promotion and tenure decisions. Note, however, we were not asked to reconsider the intellectual and educational standard for making these decisions. Our committee reviewed the hiring, mentoring, and promotion/tenure decision-making processes followed in different MIT departments and Schools, examined the recent Faculty Quality of Life Survey data relevant to these processes, reviewed practices at peer institutions, and discussed drafts of the report with department and School Councils and with the Academic Council. We also reviewed the appeals processes available to candidates who believe MIT processes have been violated in their case.
The committee found considerable variation in processes across the departments and Schools. Some of this is natural and needs to be preserved, given differences in disciplines and department size.
The variations observed, however, also helped identify several common problems and a number of benchmark practices that other departments might consider adopting. For example:
Mentoring. We found wide variations in the methods and effectiveness of junior faculty mentoring and generally low rates of faculty satisfaction with their formal mentoring experiences. At the same time, we identified a number of very good mentoring policies from which we derived the following recommendations:
Given the clear need for improvement in mentoring, Associate Provosts Wesley Harris and Barbara Liskov and I have brought together some of our best and most experienced faculty mentors to learn from their experiences and to develop a new faculty mentoring guide that will be disseminated across the faculty. I hope that we see significant improvements in the quality and uniformity of mentoring.
Letters. The number, gender differences, and use of letters generated considerable discussion and the following recommendations:
Review Process. The process for reviewing a promotion or tenure decision as spelled out in Section 9.6 of MIT Policies and Procedures was found to be too general and was not well understood. With the able assistance of the General Counsel’s office, we therefore developed a more detailed statement of the practice that has been in place for such reviews and discussed it with School and departmental leaders, the Faculty Policy Committee, and the Academic Council. It has now been adopted and has become Section 3.3 of MIT Policies and Procedures. We hope this makes the process clear, transparent, and accessible in the event it is needed in the future.
I encourage you to read the full report to learn more about these and several other issues covered such as recommendations for shortening the increasingly lengthy personal statements written by candidates and eliminating use of candidate pictures (based on considerable social science evidence on their potential biasing effects). In the end, the fairness of our decisions depends on how diligent we are in following the professional standards and Institute and department-level policies guiding promotion and tenure processes.
Broader, Long Run Questions for Thought
Looking beyond these process issues I see at least two important strategic concerns that warrant further discussion among MIT faculty and in the profession at large. The first is the aging of the faculty and the increasing challenges associated with that euphemism we have called “faculty renewal,” aka encouraging faculty to retire at a reasonable age. We all share the goal of opening up opportunities for new faculty hires. There is no better way to refresh our departments and to forge into the newest intellectual territories being explored by the best of the next generation’s scholars. But the accompanying chart illustrates the growing challenge we face. The MIT faculty is aging and more faculty members appear to be postponing retirement to a later age. Thirty percent of us are 60 years or older; 7 percent are 70 or older. These numbers are up considerably from a decade ago.
What, if anything, should we do about this? Faculty in several departments have fostered a norm of retiring at or around age 70, specifically to open opportunities for new hires. An Institute-wide retirement incentive program has been in place for several years. Other strategies could be considered. I encourage dialogue and comments on this issue.
A second and more general issue relates to the attractiveness of our profession to young talented students, and particularly to women and underrepresented minorities. Just consider the hypothetical question: Would you recommend your daughter pursue a faculty career at one of our peer institutions knowing that it will require five or more years of PhD study followed by three to five years of post-doc employment, followed by seven to eight years pursuing tenure? Add up the years, the uncertainty of success in gaining tenure at our best universities, and the family life sacrifices required. Then compare these against her options outside of the academy. Given the opportunity costs involved, it is not surprising that we lose significant numbers of talented women and men at different stages of the pipeline, but particularly at the post-doc stage. Perhaps we need to rethink how we structure academic careers and the way we bring people into the academy.