At MIT, mysteries of the tenure game

About half of professors don’t make it. What does it take to get tenure?

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article contained an editing error that referred to Charles C. Mills as a "former student." Mills is a former student of Hudson's. Mills is a junior.

A version of this story was originally published on June 11. To find out where Hudson is now, see the epilogue.

Eric Hudson is a known star in the classroom. His popularity as instructor of 8.02 was confirmed in 2008, when he received the Baker Award for teaching, which is given only to a couple professors every year and is based solely on student nominations.

Charles C. Mills ’12, a former student of Hudson’s, recalled being astonished by Hudson’s dedication to teaching. “I got e-mails [responses to questions] from him last year at two in the morning, three in the morning, and I was like, ‘What are you doing awake?’”

This spring, sixty-two students rated Hudson an average of 6.6 out of 7 in the Spring 2010 course evaluations for 8.02, the second-highest among the term’s eight instructors.

Perhaps his rating could have been higher, had he been in class more often. But Hudson spent a good chunk of this spring jet-setting. He was looking for a job, because he found out in December that he was not getting tenure.

“I think I’ve been gone five of the last seven weeks or something,” he said earlier this spring, with a light chuckle. He seemed awed at that fraction himself. “It’s really been terrible.”

In those weeks away from MIT, he had been to England, Sweden, and the state of Georgia interviewing for a new post as professor, since he’d been informed he would have to leave his position in the Department of Physics this July. (See epilogue.)

Plenty of professors don’t get tenure. According to The Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, which was released this January, 53 percent of all assistant professors from 1991-2004 did not get tenure.

What distinguishes the tenured forty-seven percent? These days, when the value of tenure itself is being debated (for instance, an essay titled “The End of Tenure?” appeared in the New York Times less than two weeks ago), it’s useful to learn about the process. How do you get tenure at MIT?

What does it take?

At MIT, the Baker Teaching Award is colloquially known as the “kiss of death” — it’s thought that professors who spend too much time in the classroom perhaps aren’t spending enough time in the lab.

That’s a myth, says former MIT president and professor emeritus Paul E. Gray. Professor Hazel L. Sive, associate dean of science, agrees. “Competent teaching is required for promotion,” says Sive.

But the emphasis is still on research. It’s assumed that teaching is something professors can slowly get better at. “Extreme excellence [in research] can compensate somewhat for less excellent teaching skills,” Sive says.

Sive sums up MIT’s tenure criteria in two words: excellence and visibility. Part of excellence, she says, “is that you are either the top investigator in your field, or one of the very tiny handful of top investigators in your field, in the world.” Professor Patrick H. Winston offers a slightly different angle. It’s crucial “that a person will improve the reputation of the institution,” he says.

So, the tenure process places heavy emphasis on outside recommendation letters written by international experts in the candidate’s field, since positive letters indicate that a candidate will boost MIT’s standing. Letters from within the Institute, on the other hand, are assumed to be somewhat biased by personal contact with the candidate, and while still considered, are “not an indication of outside reputation.”

How do professors, especially young ones, earn that elusive international reputation? Winston acknowledges that tenure decisions are based on “short-term reputations” and recommends junior professors tackle “the sorts of things that can end up producing results in a small number of years,” rather than large problems that require “ten years” before a paper can be produced. “Tenure is never about promise,” he stated. “It’s about accomplishment.”

Because worldwide reputation is hard to gauge, professors’ peers at MIT may not always be able to provide the most accurate feedback. “It’s a little tricky because the [recommendation] letters are coming from outside people, partially from people who are in your specific field, and there’s no one else here who does exactly what I do,” explained Hudson. “I think that often you don’t really have a good feeling [about your tenure case], or your feelings can be mistaken.”

Hudson says there’s no formula for fame. “Part of it is, you write great papers that everyone reads and then references and so you get famous, you go to conferences and give great talks,” said Hudson. “But I think it’s more than that. Somehow you have to sway the community to think that what you’re doing is important — and [...] there’s not a prescription for that.”

The MIT way

Each college approaches tenure with a distinct style. For MIT, that style is a tradition of growing its talent from the ground up.

That means MIT only hires professors that it believes can be successful, according to both Sive and Professor Thomas A. Kochan, the current Chair of the Faculty. “We are not in a mode like some universities historically have been, where you hire x number of people but you only expect x-minus-some to be successful at tenure,” said Kochan. This attitude is reflected by a policy of “no required attrition,” says Sive. When an Assistant Professor is hired at MIT, there is a corresponding, unique tenure position waiting for that person. A math nerd might say that there is a bijection between Assistant Professors and tenure positions.

Furthermore, MIT likes to hire people who are unestablished but promising, rather than poach superstars from other universities, says Kochan. (Though it does court superstars, relatively rarely, he adds.) “Then we do everything we can to help those individuals be successful. Not everyone makes it, that’s the reality. But we are committed to hiring people that we believe have the capability to be successful and then working as hard as we can, and that’s the way we want to grow our faculty.”

MIT’s tenure style stands out from that of its neighbor down the street. “Harvard has a reputation of tenuring almost nobody” said Winston. Gray added that Harvard, in contrast to MIT, will often dip into the already-tenured staff at other colleges. So Harvard gets great people, he says, but it doesn’t contribute to their career development. “It seems to me that if you bring in bright young people, treat ‘em well, be critical in your tenure review, you’re contributing to the larger dimension of education than just your institution,” he says. “And the thing that is problematic about it, is that when Harvard goes outside to hire a world-class person of high level, in many cases the first place they look is right here.”

For example, two years ago, Harvard had offers out to three senior MIT faculty in economics, a rather significant number in that small department. Gray thought that was “indecent.” “I can tell you we won all three,” he said, smiling. “They stayed.”

“Tremendous goodwill” toward junior faculty

Part of the reason for MIT’s warmth toward tenure candidates is that it is in departments’ interests for them to succeed. For one, the recruitment process requires time and resources, and it’s often costly to support new junior faculty. They require lab space, some need a couple million dollars for lab equipment and help with funding before securing outside grants, and there may also be relocation costs for the faculty and their families. “It’s expensive to hire a junior faculty member, amongst anything else, so we want to make sure that the investment in the junior faculty member is repaid, and the repayment is that they stay on as a senior faculty member,” says Sive.

But the departments’ friendliness toward new untenured faculty extend beyond financial reasons. “I tell the junior faculty that they are really the most important faculty at MIT because in twenty years’ time they’re going to be running the Institute... So there is tremendous, tremendous goodwill on the part of the senior faculty to help the junior faculty succeed,” says Sive.

Hudson felt the wholehearted support of the Physics Department. “The department is really amazingly friendly,” he says. “For some reason I think there’s this perception from the outside that because it’s hard to get tenure here that it’s somehow mean, and it is not at all like that.”

The generosity of his senior colleagues went beyond any of his expectations. When Hudson first arrived at MIT, he was assigned lab space in Building 24 (where his lab is now), but because of construction, there was no room for him to work for the time being. So, a couple of professors offered up their own facilities to him. “That would never happen anywhere else,” exclaimed Hudson brightly. “They gave up their lab to me for like six months! That was like, ‘Welcome to MIT’!”

Imperfect, but still “a good thing”

Tenure is not infallible. “It’s a process that works pretty well,” said Winston. “But it’s a process that can make mistakes both ways.” Some deserving individuals are not tenured, and sometimes tenured individuals “aren’t suited to helping the long-term reputation of the institution, or their problem is not of long-term interest.”

Tenure decisions are also susceptible to the bias of contemporary academic interest. Winston recalls that for a period of time, “string theorist couldn’t get jobs” in physics departments. In a later era, “you couldn’t get a job unless you were a string theorist.”

Deserving or not, tenured professors become diamonds with fine print. Their positions are secure for the rest of their lifetimes — barring “adequate cause.” But that cause has to be “pretty egregious,” according to Gray. Asked just what a professor would have to do get his tenure revoked, Gray paused a moment to think. “Cheating on your research. Cookin’ the books. Producing data you didn’t really take.” And even that might not be egregious enough.

Gray tried years ago, as Chancellor in the 1970’s, to relieve a tenured professor who had been accused of passing off work of other faculty in his department as his own, and lying on his resume, claiming to have a doctorate he did not have. A committee of disinterested faculty reviewed the case and agreed with the charges, but they didn’t think it warranted taking away tenure. That was the only attempt in his nine years as Chancellor and ten years as President. Part of the reason for the low number, he says, is that “the tenure process is thorough, and usually the people who get through are great people.”

Despite the rare deviants, tenure serves an important purpose. It was established in the early twentieth century to protect professors from being fired for having views that college administrators disagreed with. Tenure “guaranteed you freedom of speech,” said Gray.

Gray also sees value in evaluating professors early on in their careers, both for the universities and professors. It prevents universities from “making big mistakes that [they]’ll regret later on” and does so while professors are young enough to seek employment elsewhere. “You know, you’re not supposed to discriminate against people on the basis of age, but you don’t find very many 55-year-olds who think it works that way,” he said.

Hudson also agrees that tenure is a valuable institution, and although he disagrees with his tenure decision, accepts it as one that was arrived at honestly. “I think the tenure process is a good thing,” he said. “The reason MIT is a fantastic place is because they’ve gotten rid of all the people who aren’t fantastic, right?” he said lightheartedly with a laugh.

But he also wishes there could be a slight modification to the current tenure criteria. “The problem is that there are always exceptions to the rule,” he said. “An administrator in the physics department, her comment was, ‘It would really be nice if once every ten years MIT would say, “Expletive the letters, we know this guy is just good to have around and we’re going to keep him.”’ And I think it would be nice if departments had that flexibility. And probably that’s the right time scale too. Because if you start doing that... the problem is, we really like everybody, and so we’d never fire anyone and then we wouldn’t be number one anymore.”

“So it’s good to say... you’re great, but you’re not MIT material,” he says. “But it would be nice if there were occasionally another option.”

Looking forward

So the tenure process sounds great in theory. But how well is the process actually being carried out?

The Report of the Special Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure Processes seeks to answer that question. It is expected to be released in the fall, according to Kochan, who co-chairs this Special Faculty Committee. According to him, the report investigates the management and transparency of the tenure process at MIT, and highlights the need for improvement across several fronts, including appeals, diversity, and mentoring.

Kochan expressed the need for a clearer tenure appeals process. Currently, it’s one paragraph in a larger section on grievance procedures in the official MIT Policies and Procedures, and begins, “if the complaint is not successfully resolved within the academic lines of supervision in the relevant department and School, the aggrieved faculty member may write to the Provost requesting further review of the process that led to the decision.” The report will recommend breaking the appeals process into its own section and expanding it to be clearer and more detailed.

Knowledge of the appeals process seems varied. Hudson was not aware of an appeals process. Winston and Gray admitted some uncertainty but recommended a letter to the provost. Sive said that there are many points of entry to file an appeal — through the head of the department, the Dean, or the Provost — and “there is a process by which appeals are organized by the Provost, but such appeals are very rare.”

Second, the Race and Diversity report argues for a more diverse faculty at MIT, and this new report echoes that conclusion. “It’s imperative for MIT to increase the number of underrepresented minorities on the faculty and to help them be successful,” says Kochan. “I see that as one of the key goals of my time as Faculty Chair.” So in recruitment for tenured positions, he says, MIT needs to be more proactive in broadening the scope of their search.

There’s also a need to handle an increasing diversity in research interests, as more professors engage in interdisciplinary work. That creates a problem when it comes time to find outside recommendations for a tenure candidate. “It’s difficult to identify who are the right experts,” says Kochan. “We still need to go to the best experts in the fields that the person is working in, but the knowledge of who those people are and the right mix may require a bit more work.”

Finally, the mentoring that junior professors receive is “highly variable” among and within different departments. For instance, some departments have an entire committee that advises junior faculty, whereas others have individuals as mentors. The report identifies best practices in this area and recommends that MIT “reward the people who are doing a good job for mentoring by giving them a little more credit for what they are doing — more visibility, more recognition,” says Kochan.

If these sound like big issues to address, they are. “There’s a lot to do,” said Kochan. “This is not a one year, or a three year, or even a five year process.”

A move, a reflection

While Kochan looks forward to revitalizing the tenure process, Hudson looks toward his next step. First, he has to tie up matters at MIT.

Because Hudson is relocating, the graduate students in his lab have to decide whether to leave with him or to find another mentor. Fortunately, Hudson recently graduated his first round of graduate students, and the two students he has now are first- and second-year, not too far into their projects. For them, “it’s a disappointment but it’s not a huge loss,” says Hudson.

As of the end of May, Hudson had not decided where he’s headed next. He wants to stay in academia, though, as he’s drawn to the feeling of discovery in research, calling it “pure joy.”

It’s certainly not an easy path. The challenge of working for tenure extends beyond research and can consume one’s personal life. “There is definitely a feeling, of [...] ‘Look, getting tenure here is hard, you should just do research, and just forget about everything else,’” says Hudson. Everything else, including teaching, family, fun.

For Hudson, that wasn’t the way to go. “I chose just to just ignore that advice. Maybe that was bad on my part,” he laughed. “But I have a family. I have three young kids [...] so I would go home in the evenings at not too unreasonable an hour, and I would stay home on the weekends and spend some time with them. And maybe to some extent my work suffered because of that. But if it did, so be it — I wouldn’t trade the family life for even getting tenure. And with teaching it’s the same thing.”

Even though he’s leaving, Hudson has already left a mark on MIT. He’s worked to increase minority and women enrollment in the Physics Department, serving as the department minority adviser and working on several diversity panels in the School of Science and the Institute.

He’s also helped develop the 8.02 TEAL curriculum, having been staff since the first term the system became standardized, Spring 2003. He’s worked to make the curriculum “much more demanding” compared to the 80’s and 90’s, and hopes “that TEAL will stay around long after my departure and be sort of, uh, ‘Eric Hudson — he made that slide,’ or ‘He’s the reason that we’re doing these stupid back-of-the-envelope calculations,’” he joked.

Hudson has also gained from his years at MIT, doing research in a rich intellectual environment of both faculty and students. On the teaching front, TEAL changed his view of how students learn, he said. “I used to be happy to stand in front of a class, and I’ll never do that again.”

Hudson will soon be one among the many professors who pass through MIT for a few wondrous years. Afterward, though, these professors go on to find positions in academia elsewhere, go into industry, or even start their own businesses. “The fact is that MIT faculty who are doing really well [...] get offers all the time,” said Gray. There are also non-tenured teaching positions at MIT, such as lectureships, which also offer job security, says Gray, and rarely, someone who doesn’t get a tenured appointment takes one of these non-tenure track positions.

No matter where people go or what jobs they do, the key to success, perhaps, is staying motivated despite obstacles. And it’s clear Hudson has found his motivation. “Every time a student comes into [my] office, and says, ‘I just didn’t understand that but then you explained it and now I get it.’ You know? That is so... happy!” His eyes were bright, and he beamed. “Every time I get an email from a student who says that, that just keeps me going for another year.”


In fact, Hudson will be going on for another year, at MIT.

He was originally offered the opportunity to stay as a senior lecturer in the Physics Department for an additional year, but following a student petition at the end of Spring 2010, the offer was extended to three years. He is teaching 8.01 this fall and possibly 8.02 next spring, and doing research at Harvard while continuing to look for a new job.

A version of this story was originally published on June 11, 2010.