The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Tenure-Track Review Committee on Tuesday released its report on the School’s tenure-track system, providing critical recommendations to Edgerley Family Dean Claudine Gay.
In its 106-page review, the committee found the FAS tenure-track system to be structurally sound. Since its inception more than 15 years ago, tenure-track processes — and the handbook — have been updated continually and improved iteratively. Gay’s charge to TTRC a year ago asked for a deep study of the process as a whole, and identified areas that could use further improvement.
The committee — chaired by Hopi Hoekstra, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, curator of mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology — recommended several changes to better prepare candidates for reviews, increase transparency, revamp the associate review, and mitigate potential bias throughout the system. The committee paid particular attention to how the tenure-track system affects women and faculty of color when it comes to service and timing.
In a message to the FAS faculty on Tuesday, Gay applauded the committee for its “extraordinary work” and endorsed the report’s call for a new level of shared responsibility for the tenure-track system among tenured faculty. The FAS will begin implementing the recommendations this fall, she said. The process is expected to unfold over two years.
“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. I believe that their recommendations in this report will move FAS forward.”
Hoekstra, who headed a committee of 10 tenured faculty from the divisions of Arts and Humanities, Social Science, and Science, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, spoke to the Gazette about the report and its recommendations. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: A recurring concern among faculty — both tenure-track and already tenured — is the lack of constructive criticism or useful feedback candidates receive before, during, and after their respective reviews. Could you discuss the committee’s recommendations regarding feedback and how it adds clarity to the tenure process?
HOEKSTRA: When we listened to our tenure-track colleagues and those who have recently received tenure, one consistent point of frustration was that they didn’t feel they received enough feedback, or at least constructive feedback, during their second-year and associate reviews. One of the ways we tackled this issue as a committee was to recommend normalizing critical feedback. For example, the letter a candidate would receive following a review would include positive feedback, all the things that are going well, but also always, to the extent possible, include areas for improvement or areas that need more attention. These are our colleagues; we want to be reassuring. But, if the expectation is that there will always be some critical feedback, it won’t negate the encouraging, supportive sentiments that we want to share with our colleagues.
Another important point is to make sure that the feedback comes from multiple people. So that it’s not just one voice providing that feedback, but several voices, from, for example, the review committee, the department chair, and the divisional deans.
Feedback after a negative decision is much more challenging. Many parts of the review process are confidential and rely on the trust between those providing candid assessments and those making decisions. Moreover, these decisions are always complex, and it is not always possible to point to one factor that led to a promotion denial. Nonetheless, we recognized that feedback is important both to help departments feel confident in their ability to guide and mentor other tenure-track colleagues and to build trust between the faculty and those involved in the review process. We recommended that more information and feedback be shared from the Committee on Appointments and Promotions to the department, to the extent possible, to better aid tenured faculty and departments in guiding, mentoring, and supporting their tenure-track colleagues — whether a case has a positive or negative outcome. While the ad hoc process was outside of our committee’s charge, which was focused on FAS processes, one could extend this recommendation to the ad hoc as well.
GAZETTE: The committee recommends aligning the associate, tenure, and second-year reviews. Why do you think this will help improve the tenure-track process?
HOEKSTRA: One goal we strived to achieve was to ensure each step of the review processes to be consistent throughout. While this may seem like a subtle change, we felt this was a critical change. If we consider what’s important for the tenure review — excellence in research, but also teaching, advising, mentoring, and service contributions — we want all those aspects to be considered at all review stages, so that one doesn’t focus on any one of those areas in one review, and then more areas on another review. We want to use the same criteria.
For example, when we ask external experts for their views, we want to really think about asking the same question that we’d be asking at the tenure review: Is our colleague tenurable at Harvard? That’s the question we ask at the tenure-review step. Instead, we were asking a slightly different question — whether faculty are tenurable at a major research institution in three to five years — at the associate-review step, and we felt like those things should all be aligned. Similarly, we wanted to ensure we gathered information on teaching, advising, and mentoring as early as the second-year review — both because we wanted an opportunity for colleagues to grow as educators, and self-correct as needed, but also because these are important components of the tenure review step. In that vein, we also made several recommendations about how we can better and more fairly assess contributions to teaching, advising, mentoring, and service.