The road to getting tenure at MIT

The road to getting tenure at MIT

Students are probably most familiar with the college admissions process. But a tenure review at MIT is quite different. It’s much more drawn-out and thorough, though it has some of the same elements: an application, recommendation letters, and a hierarchy of reviewers.

Here’s the nitty-gritty: New professors are first hired as assistant professors. After about five years, they are reviewed and must be promoted to associate professor without tenure (AWOT) in order to stay on. About 75 percent of candidates make it past that hurdle, according to the Race and Diversity report that came out this February. Then, two years later, AWOT professors “go up for tenure.” If successful, they are promoted to associate professor with tenure; otherwise, their positions are terminated on a specified date, a date which professors are formally informed of a year before it occurs. Typically, the tenure decision is also delivered a year before this date, and thus professors who do not get tenure have a year to find another job. (Hudson received his decision only six months before he would have to leave due to complications from a lengthy lab construction when he first arrived at MIT.)

A candidate’s application passes through a hierarchy of review committees, which must each give a thumbs-up. It begins within the candidate’s department, where a small committee of tenured professors gathers information about the candidate.

“You end up with a dossier which is a quarter to three eighths of an inch thick,” says Professor Emeritus and former MIT President Paul E. Gray, holding up two fingers to show the thickness. The dossier includes a full biography, a list of all the candidate’s publications, and a collection of recommendation letters.

That group of over twenty recommendation letters is critically important, for reasons explained later. At least in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, roughly twice as many are written by experts from outside MIT who are in the candidate’s field than by professors within MIT, according to Professor Patrick H. Winston, who has helped administer tenure reviews in the department.

So how are the recommenders chosen? According to Winston, the candidate and his or her mentor make a list of people whom the candidate would like as recommenders, as well as a list of people the candidate would not like. But it is up to the committee appointed to research the candidate to choose who to request a recommendation from, and it may choose people from both lists. The candidate never finds out who the recommenders are.

According to Professor Hazel L. Sive, after the smaller committee assembles the candidate’s information, it passes a recommendation to a larger group within the department, which could be all the tenured faculty. There may be up to four levels of review just within a department, but a minimum of two. Ultimately a decision is reached, and the department head defends the department’s decision to his school’s council. (For instance, the head of EECS would take a case to the Engineering Council.) The school council decides, then takes the case to the Academic Council, which passes its recommendation to the MIT Corporation. In reality, most unsuccessful cases stop at the department or school level. Winston says that department heads want to be especially sure about a candidate’s success, since approving a candidate that the school council rejects “makes the whole department look weak.” According to both Gray and Winston, it’s rare to have cases overturned by the Academic Council, and the Corporation basically provides a “rubber stamp.”

Gray says the whole process typically begins in winter and ends in the spring. Professors find out their decisions in May or June.