Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,
By the time I came up for tenure consideration, what I cared about was that my research group had made really interesting findings. We had asked how organs of the body get put in the correct place, or as a student subtitled his thesis: ‘why your brain is not in your big toe’. This topic is both fascinating but also crucial for families seeking causes of birth anomalies. I cared about the wonderfully bright group of trainees who had chosen to work with me, and that I had been able to raise funds to support the work. Tenure was a milestone, but not the point.
The thing you may know about tenure is that it comes with a very long term contract. University tenure is described by the AAUP as originating to protect ‘academic freedom’ allowing faculty the ability to express opinion without fear of retribution. I had thought tenure was like academic regalia, dating back 1,000 years, but actually it is quite new, beginning in the 1940s. Tenure has been criticized as not useful, unfair, and responsible for promoting narrow, elitist research. Indeed, shorter contracts can be a reasonable substitute. But I think with proper understanding and mechanism, tenure remains a viable system, that can maximize the high impact research carried out at a university.
And it’s tenure season at Northeastern. So, let’s clarify that tenure is not about the stereotype of relaxing, putting your feet up and enjoying the view from your office for the next thirty years. Rather, tenure is an entrustment. That because you have proven your expertise in carrying out brilliant, original research, there is confidence you will keep going. Top research is very difficult, and tenure gives the freedom to put your energy into reading out this trust. There is additional entrustment, that a faculty member will help run the university through increased service and will continue to teach. But it’s the freedom to put time into excellent research that is key. With tenure, I felt huge responsibility to go in creative, innovative directions. And that is what we did - devising new models and solutions for brain disorders; understanding origins of the ‘third circulation’, the brain ventricular system; defining the myriad steps in mouth formation, that has led us to discover mechanisms underlying microcephaly. It was an honor to receive tenure, and certainly not an invitation to relax.
There is one thing about present university tenure systems that I feel is not right, but readily fixable. The system is designed to assess individual research prowess, what you personally have been able to achieve. Your single Principal Investigator grants, publications with you as the sole Principal Author, your individual contributions. That makes for a lonely, singular road. And it does not reflect the truth! Because most research is collaborative. There are teams of research groups involved in almost every publication, and almost every grant has co-investigators. As many of us know, joint research is collegial, builds close communities and gets excellent outcomes. It is the way much of our research at Northeastern is done, and a thrust for the future. So, in the College of Science, in accord with Northeastern University policy, we are developing revised tenure guidelines that will emphasize the value we place on collaboration and teamwork. It will become fine to have grants where you are one of a group of principal investigators; fine to have all your publications involve multiple groups; fine to carry out your research as part of a powerful team. We feel that acknowledging collaboration in the tenure process aligns us with industry, will help build a more diverse faculty, and indeed will reinvent the academic track.
I am deeply impressed by the outstanding research done by so many of you, with almost everyone in the College of Science contributing towards our research goals. In this season, we are also searching for new tenure stream faculty. Thank you to all involved. We will assure candidates that while we expect hugely important work, their success will be acknowledged through tenure mechanisms that are contemporary and relevant.
Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science