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September/October 2020

Improvements in Policies for Promotion and Tenure are Long Overdue

Rick L. Danheiser

How can we improve MIT’s promotion and tenure processes? This has been a priority on my agenda since the beginning of my term as Chair of the Faculty. In the summer of 2019, I began discussing aspects of promotion and tenure with Provost Marty Schmidt, and the consideration of improvements in our procedures has been a focus of discussions at meetings of the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) this past year. Among the questions under discussion are whether improvements might be possible with regard to fairness and the level of transparency in our processes, whether the criteria used in evaluating faculty for promotion are appropriate, and whether our current procedures make the most efficient use of faculty time.

Reviewing the processes involved in promotion and tenure is not a new subject for Faculty Governance. In fact, the Faculty Policy Committee devoted a number of meetings to promotion and tenure in 2007-08 under the leadership of Faculty Chair Bish Sanyal and Associate Chair Melissa Nobles. I was a member of FPC at that time and recall several productive discussions, including one meeting that involved all five School Deans as guests. Bish summarized the aims of this review in a Faculty Newsletter article entitled “Agenda Items: Old and New”. As a result of these discussions, Bish appointed a “Special Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure Processes” in January 2009. This ad hoc committee, consisting of 17 faculty members and chaired by Tom Kochan and Bob Silbey, issued a comprehensive report in June 2010. Professors Kochan and Silbey presented their recommendations to Academic Council at a meeting on October 5 that year and Tom Kochan, who had been elected Chair of the Faculty, then summarized the conclusions of the committee in the November/December issue of the Faculty Newsletter.

One of the aims of the Kochan-Silbey committee was to suggest improvements in the process by which grievances related to promotion and tenure were addressed. Subsequent discussions in Academic Council led to the development of the policy described in a new section of MIT Policies and Procedures (current Section 3.3) on “Review of Decision Not to Promote or Award Tenure.” Unfortunately, however, none of the other recommendations of the Kochan-Silbey committee appear to have received attention in subsequent years. As discussed below, a number of these recommendations are included in the current review undertaken by Faculty Governance in collaboration with the Provost and the Deans’ Group of Academic Council. It should be noted that Associate Provost Tim Jamison has taken the lead in the review of several aspects of promotion and tenure as part of this effort.

Communicating Processes and Expectations to Pre-Tenure Faculty

One of the concerns raised in the Kochan-Silbey report was that the processes and expectations for tenure are not always communicated clearly to new faculty. This problem persists. In the 2020 MIT Quality of Life Survey, 48% of the pre-tenure faculty respondents disagree with the statement “the criteria for tenure are clearly communicated.” That room for improvement exists is consistent with my own experience based on informal conversations with junior colleagues. At the August 2019 orientation for new faculty, I conducted an informal survey as I circulated between tables at the luncheon and was dismayed to find that almost none of the new faculty had received any information on promotion procedures at that point. Subsequently, I made it a point to question junior faculty about this at random faculty dinners (and at the new random faculty lunches) and found that some faculty who had been at MIT for one or two years had received no formal information on promotion and tenure procedures. When asked where they learned of the procedures and expectations for tenure, the most frequent response was “from other junior colleagues in my department.”

This situation reminds me of where children of my generation first learned about sex: “in the schoolyard” (now it’s probably on the internet). Surely we can do better. My suggestion is that each School create a website (perhaps accessible only to MIT faculty) that outlines the expectations, timetable, and process for promotion at each rank. “Expectations” should include the general policy with regard to the relative role of research, teaching, mentoring, and service in evaluations for promotion. The policy with regard to the timetable for promotion to Associate Professor with and without tenure should be discussed, as well as for the promotion to the rank of Full Professor. The role of internal and external letters should be described with an indication of how letter writers are selected. In addition, the website should discuss the various stages of review at the department level and subsequently at the level of the School Council and at the Appointments Subgroup of Academic Council. The creation of these websites should be accompanied by a requirement for meetings of all new faculty with their Department Heads during the first six months of their appointment.

Two Ranks, Three Ranks, or Four Ranks of Faculty?

MIT is almost unique in having four tenure-track professorial ranks: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor without Tenure (AWOT), Associate Professor with Tenure (AWIT), and Full Professor. At MIT, promotion to AWOT, AWIT, and to Full Professor each involves an extensive and rigorous review. The most important component in each review involves “external letters” which are solicited from a number of international leaders who are asked to discuss in detail the candidate’s contributions in research and scholarship. Most of our peers have only three faculty ranks, and at most universities promotion to Associate Professor carries with it the award of tenure. Caltech has only two faculty ranks, having simplified their system about seven years ago to comprise only the rank of Assistant Professor (untenured) and Full Professor (tenured).

Calls to reduce the complexity of the MIT system have been heard for decades. Many of the criticisms of our current system center around our requirement for external letters at three different stages of promotion, promotions which sometimes take place only a year or two apart. Letter writers often express irritation at being asked to submit another letter not long after having written one, and they frequently submit a perfunctory letter or one essentially identical to their prior letter. Some letter writers are confused by our unusual system and whether or not the promotion represents the granting of tenure. A very significant problem is that it has become more and more difficult to obtain sufficient letters, especially for the AWIT promotions that require 12-15 letters from outside experts in the candidate’s field. It should also be noted that the administrative burden in conducting these searches is not trivial and requires a substantial investment of faculty time.

One obstacle to reducing the complexity of our system is a lack of agreement on where the system might be simplified. Although having a full-scale review for promotion to Associate Professor without Tenure is highly unusual, most MIT faculty agree that this step is important and should be retained. Typically coming two-to-three years prior to the promotion to tenure, this review can provide the basis for valuable feedback to the candidate with regard to the strengths and weaknesses of their program, thus providing guidance for the further development of their research. In cases where the outside letters suggest that promotion to tenure will not be likely, it allows the junior faculty member to consider moving to another institution, a step that might later be more difficult if it carried the stigma of having been denied tenure at MIT.

The Kochan-Silbey report suggested that the promotion from Associate with Tenure to Full Professor be conducted without the need for outside letters. Promotion from tenured Associate Professor to Full Professor requires continued demonstration of world-class excellence in research and scholarship, as well as an outstanding record of teaching and service. In the case of promotion to Full Professor, service contributions at the Institute level are generally expected, which is not typically the case for the two earlier promotions. 

Changes along these lines are currently under discussion at meetings of the Deans Group of Academic Council. Proponents of eliminating external letters for this promotion argue that evaluation of continued excellence in scholarship can be made on the basis of a set of “internal letters” from MIT faculty, who obviously can also comment on the candidate’s teaching and service contributions at MIT. It has been noted that it is extremely rare that promotion to Full Professor is denied after an external review because of weak outside letters. This is due to the fact that undertaking a promotion to Full Professor is typically delayed by the department if there is any doubt about the outcome of an external review.

Opponents of eliminating external letters for the promotion to Full Professor feel that a review by outside authorities is essential and the importance of retaining this review outweighs the effort and drawbacks associated with soliciting an adequate number of letters. One point of agreement is that consistency at the level of each School is essential and that consistency in policy across the Institute may even be advisable, especially in view of the increasing number of dual appointments at MIT.

Mentoring of Pre-Tenure Faculty

The Kochan-Silbey committee found the state of mentoring across Schools and departments at MIT to be “a significant concern” and recommended that guidelines for mentoring be created and made more uniform throughout the Institute. At the very least it would be worthwhile to review the arrangements for mentoring pre-tenure faculty in each department with the aim of sharing best practices across the Institute and perhaps achieving greater uniformity. This review is currently underway under the leadership of Associate Provost Tim Jamison.

Criteria and Standards for Promotion

Section 3.2 of MIT Policies and Procedures lays out the criteria for tenure at MIT:

Persons awarded tenure must be judged by distinguished members of their discipline to be of first rank among scholars and to show promise of continued contribution to scholarship. Tenured members of the Faculty must also demonstrate outstanding teaching and university service; however, teaching and service are not a sufficient basis for awarding tenure.

A single standard for tenure applies across the Institute, for all Schools and disciplines and for all modes of inquiry. Although the single standard requires that all candidates be of exceptional quality as confirmed by distinguished members of their disciplines, it may be appropriate, based on the culture of the discipline or the modes of inquiry, to look at different factors as evidence of significant scholarly achievement.

It is obvious that there are differences in the nature of research in different disciplines and it is natural that the details of how scholarly contributions are evaluated will differ among Schools. However, it is less clear that this needs to be the case in areas other than research. In particular, the way in which mentoring, teaching, service, and related contributions are currently evaluated and how they factor into decisions on promotion and tenure also varies among Schools, and the Institute may wish to define certain standards that would apply across the Institute. Should letters from students, including current and former research group members, be solicited as part of the evaluation process? Is our current system equitable and consistent with our values with regard to diversity and inclusion? To provide a foundation for changes in these areas, two ad hoc committees are currently being appointed: an Ad Hoc Committee on Teaching and Learning Assessment (by myself, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and TLL Director Janet Rankin), and an Ad Hoc Committee on a Strategic Plan for Graduate Advising and Mentoring (by myself, Associate Provost Tim Jamison, and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz).

MIT Faculty Newsletter Vol. XXXIII No. 1 September/October 2020