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Letter to the Editor

News & Features | November 15, 2010

We read with great interest your recent article about the tenure process at Tufts (“The Truth about Tenure,” October 18, 2010) and are delighted to learn that The Observer welcomes responses to anything it publishes in the form of a letter to the editor. Please allow us, then, to take this opportunity to correct the record on some important issues that are raised in the article.

The article opens by saying that faculty arriving at Tufts have the “option” to pursue the tenure track. This is incorrect. Some faculty are hired into advertised tenure-track positions, others are hired into non-tenure track positions; no one is at liberty to switch tracks or choose the terms of their employment. The first paragraph implies that “improving the quality of student life in the classroom” is a secondary concern and then characterizes the tenure system as one “designed to keep professors stagnant after a certain point in their career.” In fact, faculty performance in the classroom is a vital consideration in tenure and promotion review and incentives for productivity are in place up until the moment a faculty member retires. Given that productivity does, as the authors note, bring “prestige and greater academic integrity” to the university, our system actively discourages stagnation.

The article goes on to oversimplify the tenure review process. The Tenure & Promotion Committee (T & P) is made up of tenured faculty, who are elected by the faculty as a whole. T & P does vote on tenure cases after a lengthy review of the candidate’s teaching, research, and service, with crucial input from a dozen or so carefully screened field experts drawn from around the world. (The authors later state incorrectly that these experts “have worked closely with the candidate;” in fact close collaboration with a candidate is actively discouraged and may automatically rule out potential experts.) The T & P vote then goes to members of the senior administration who forward a recommendation for or against tenure to the Board of Trustees, whose members make the final decision. Only the trustees have the right to grant tenure. Teaching is seriously scrutinized at every step up the ladder. No one who is judged an inadequate teacher receives tenure.

Contrary to the article’s claims, the origins of tenure pre-date the McCarthy era of the 1950s, but whatever its historical roots tenure endures at the heart of American academe because it guarantees that college campuses remain places where ideas and opinions may flow freely. This is as important for students (and indeed society at large) as it is for faculty.

On the subject of student evaluations, the article states that departments “disregard almost entirely the handwritten comments on the back of the form.” In fact, department chairs and academic deans who evaluate all faculty members on an annual basis pay close attention to all facets of student evaluations. Written comments are especially valuable to teachers and administrators in pursuit of higher teaching standards, and it is a shame more students don’t take the time to share their personal comments with us.

Sincerely,
Andrew McClellan        James Glaser            Joanne Berger-Sweeney
Deans of Academic Affairs, School of Arts and Sciences

OUR RESPONSE:

Dear Tenure and Promotion Committee,

We very much appreciate your letter and your desire to open up discussion about the tenure process. We hope our article sparked discussion about tenure’s benefits and shortcomings, on what tenure is and how professors gain it. With this in mind, we thank you for pointing out some errors in our writing. We attribute these inaccuracies about how faculty end up on the tenure track, the history of tenure, and the specifics of the tenure process to the complicated nature of the process and the difficulty we encountered in finding comprehensive sources of information regarding tenure.

We disagree, however, with some of the assertions in your letter. You state that we were incorrect in writing that professors seek recommendations from those with whom they have worked closely. While the experts do not necessarily work closely with the candidates, Statement #11 Tenure and Promotion Process supports our claim: “With the help of the Department, the candidate prepares an annotated table of all closely mentored individuals with whom he/she has worked either in one-on-one or small-group settings, e.g., PhD advisees, master’s thesis advisees, senior honors thesis advisees, Summer Scholars, lab and research collaborators, participants in directed performances and creative projects, and so on.”

In terms of student handwritten evaluations, this is a more subjective issue. We fully acknowledge that officially, students’ hand-written professorial evaluations should be regarded in determining the tenureship of a professor. However, in speaking off the record with multiple professors who have gone throught the tenure process, we were told that in reality these evaluations are swept under the rug in favor of more quantitative methods of evaluation.

We are glad to hear, however, that student perspective does factor into the tenure process. We are pleased to have started this discussion and to hear that our voice matters more than it originally appeared.

Sincerely,
Molly Rubin and Katherine Sawyer