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FAS Review Largely Upholds Tenure System Despite Acknowledging ‘Mistrust and Low Morale’

A recent review of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences tenure system for professors recommended certain adjustments.
A recent review of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences tenure system for professors recommended certain adjustments. By Aiyana G. White
By Meera S. Nair and Andy Z. Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: October 15, 2021 at 3:30 p.m.

A review of tenure processes within the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences found that the tenure-track system is “structurally sound” but recommended adjustments in certain aspects of the system — particularly surrounding the stages of associate professor review and the use of ad hoc committees — to address “mistrust and low morale” in the process.

The Tenure-Track Review Committee — charged in fall 2020 by FAS Dean Claudine Gay with reviewing the FAS’s tenure promotion system to make recommendations for improvement by February 2021 — released a 105-page final report on Tuesday.

The Committee — chaired by Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor Hopi Hoekstra — also included 10 other professors from across the FAS’s Arts and Humanities, Social Science, and Science Divisions, as well as the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Over the course of eight months, the Committee conducted outreach to tenured and tenure-track faculty, department chairs, and administrators across the FAS and SEAS. Ultimately, they found that “there is a lack of trust in, and a low morale, about the tenure process” among ladder faculty.

Specific factors the Committee cited as increasing uncertainty and stress around the tenure review processes included the “murky area” of how decisions on tenure are made by the FAS Committee on Appointments and Promotions and the ad hoc committee, as well as a “lack of clarity” regarding the standards by which faculty will be assessed.

“Faculty anxiety about the tenure-track system has also been exacerbated by some recent, high-profile, unsuccessful tenure cases whose outcome was described by colleagues as surprising to the department,” the Committee wrote.

The Committee — citing data from the Office for Faculty Affairs — wrote that the number of cases that fail after the ad hoc is “relatively small.” In a 10-year span between AY 2009-2010 and AY 2019-2020, 23 of 163 tenure promotion cases — or 14 percent — failed after an ad hoc review, according to the report.

Faculty and students have previously criticized how the FAS’s tenure review processes treat scholars of color. The tenure denial of Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña in fall 2019 ultimately led to more than 100 faculty demanding a formal review of the tenure system.

The Committee — formed following those demands — wrote that while the account of the “lived experience of the tenure-track system” may appear to suggest the FAS’s tenure review procedures are “broken,” the Committee overall found the tenure-track system to be “performing adequately.”

“We believe the system is structurally sound: it has checks and balances (e.g., internal and external evaluations, and four levels of assessment, from the review committee to the department to CAP to the ad hoc committee) and is designed to ground promotion decisions in ample evidence,” the Committee wrote.

The Committee added that while there is room to improve the system, “stress, frustration, and disappointment will always be a part of faculty members’ experience.” They pointed to a 70 percent success rate in tenure review as an indicator of the system’s effectiveness.

“The bar is high for tenure at Harvard, tenure is not guaranteed, and not everyone will get tenure,” the Committee wrote in the report’s preamble.

In its report, the Committee recommended that the review for promotion to associate professor, which happens in a faculty member’s fourth year, be “treated as a thorough rehearsal for a possible tenure review.”

“Promotion data and colleagues’ comments make clear that the associate review is currently neither a rigorous selection mechanism nor, in many cases, adequate preparation for the candidate en route to tenure,” the Committee wrote.

The Committee issued guidance on “aligning” the associate review with the later tenure review and also suggested making the associate review “significantly more rigorous in terms of feedback, to truly help the candidate to prepare for tenure.”

Some of the most outspoken criticism of Harvard’s tenure process has centered around the ad hoc committee stage. Chaired by the University president or provost, ad hoc committees, whose composition is secret, deliberate on FAS tenure case decisions, after which the president will make a final decision. Ultimately, the president’s decision may be communicated to the candidate and the candidate’s department without any explanation.

Because the ad hoc review is at the University level, it was not directly in the Committee’s charge, but the Committee wrote that they nonetheless investigated it “given our colleagues’ concerns.” Ultimately, they found that the “black box” nature of the ad hoc “erodes faculty trust in the tenure-track system.”

“Because little feedback about what happened in the ad hoc stage gets back to the department after a tenure case is decided, tenured faculty report that they lack information that can help them to more effectively mentor other tenure-track colleagues,” the Committee wrote.

While the Committee reaffirmed the confidential nature of the ad hoc process, they recommended further review of the ad hoc process with a goal of “repairing frayed trust in the tenure-track system.”

“We recommend that the University consider examining the ad hoc process, with an eye towards assessing whether any productive changes can be made to increase (within reason and with due concern for confidentiality) transparency about its processes and the feedback that is provided to departments after tenure cases,” they recommended.

In addition, the Committee suggested formalizing assessment measures of teaching, advising, mentoring, and service within the tenure review process, recommended increasing the flexibility of external letter requirements in candidate assessment, and put forward guidelines to better review interdisciplinary scholars.

The Committee also recommended maintaining certain controversial aspects of the tenure process at Harvard. Chiefly, the report suggests that Harvard should maintain the current timeline of tenure review and continue offering tenure only at the full professor rank, even though many other universities tenure at the associate professor level.

“The time to tenure is already long, relative to some of our peers, and extending the term would make us less competitive in hiring and retaining colleagues,” the report reads. “Conversely, shortening the tenure clock could curtail the development of novel, risky, and interdisciplinary research, disadvantage women and faculty of color, and result in less data needed to make the most informed tenure decisions.”

In an email to faculty on Tuesday accompanying the report, Gay thanked the Committee’s members for their dedication.

“I applaud TTRC for their extraordinary work, including extensive outreach to faculty colleagues and deans across the FAS, careful review of data, thoughtful deliberation, and a comprehensive report documenting their recommendations for my review,” she wrote.

Gay emphasized the report’s call for “a new level of shared responsibility for the tenure-track system among the tenured faculty.” She wrote that this will require increased senior faculty engagement with tenure-track colleagues beyond the scope of promotion reviews.

Gay further wrote that the FAS will begin implementation of the Committee’s recommendations this fall, with a timeline of two years for full implementation.

“The FAS’s tenure-track system is central to our efforts to build a world-class faculty,” Gay wrote. “Strengthening this system is one of the most important things that we can do.”

CORRECTION: October 15, 2021

A previous version of this article misstated that ad hoc committees make a final decision in certain tenure cases. In fact, the ad hoc committee deliberates on the candidate before the University President makes the final decision.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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