‘Tenure track system: Incentivising performance better than making insecurity as a model’

Tenure track

MHRD has called for a meeting of all seven IISER directors to discuss the merits of tenure track system and alternative systems for evaluating the performance of new faculty members before they are made permanent. The directors have been asked to send their views prior to the meeting.

A meeting of all seven directors of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) will soon be convened by the Ministry of Human Resources to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the tenure track system. In the U.S, the tenure track system is used for evaluating the performance of new faculty members before they are made permanent. In an email sent to all the seven directors a few days ago, VLVSS Subba Rao, Senior Economic Adviser, Higher Education, MHRD has requested the directors to provide their views on the system well before the scheduled meeting can take place. “During the meeting, one director may make a presentation on Tenure Track and another director on the counter view (alternative system),” the letter says.

The ministry is calling for a meeting to discuss different implications of the system as faculty appointment at IISER Pune and IISER Tirupathi is at variance with the statutes of IISERs giving rise to court cases.

In the tenure track system, the performance of a young faculty joining as an assistant professor is evaluated at the end of five years and made permanent if his/her performance has been satisfactory. If person fails to make the cut, he/she is asked to leave. Some institutions such as Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Begaluru already have this system in place.

A few days ago, Prof. Jayant B. Udgaonkar, who was earlier with NCBS and now the director of IISER Pune told the Hindustan Times: “It is important that universities and institutes adopt this [tenure track] system.” He went on to state that the draft National Education Policy has said if the system is adopted “there will be a massive improvement in the quality of research done in the country”.

Tenure1

Diametrically opposite views

Speaking to me, Prof. Arvind, director of IISER Mohali says: “We are doing very well without the tenure track system. If this system is introduced then new faculty will forced to pursue short-term research goals to satisfy the administration instead of addressing long-term research problems of societal significance.”

Prof. Arvind adds: “Faculty at IISERs do both teaching and research. Since teaching and lab work do not get quantified, the focus will be on publishing papers.”

“Incentivising performance is better than making insecurity as a model. The tenure track system gives too much control to directors and the administration. Directors change every five years. Subjectivity in assessment will come in,” says Prof. Arvind. According to him, faculty becoming permanent under the system will be based on the whims of the director and administration.

Fostering insecurity

In a note sent to the ministry, Prof. Arvind has stated that job insecurity would affect personal life and thus academic performance. Since assistant professors join the institute when they are 33-35 years old, they would be unemployable when they fail to make the cut after five years of assessment. “Most academic institutions will not consider them for a job, particularly if they know that the candidate is being asked to leave from the parent institution,” the note reads. This is unlike the situation in the U.S. where tenure track system is followed. Researchers in the U.S. who fail to get tenure at top institutions can “probably get a full professorship in a lesser ranked university”. Further, industry jobs too are available for those who fail to get tenured at the end of five years, which is not the case in India.

“It is well known how difficult it is to attract excellent faculty members to join institutes like IISERs in India. When a new faculty member joins, it is quite a strenuous process for them to establish themselves and build their scientific reputation. Experimentalists have to set up their labs, train students and produce results, which in some research areas can take up to five years, even when there is adequate funding available for setting up the labs. In the changed funding situation, if the colleagues have to compete in the beginning itself for large grants, then many of them will not be able to show meaningful results even in five years,” the note reads.

Tenure2

While IISER Mohali does provide institutional support and provides grant to new faculty, it takes at least one year for a research grant to be approved, if at all, by funding agencies. It also takes time to write a grant proposal. Even when projects get funded, very often funding is released sometime in February and the researcher is expected to spend the amount before March 31. There are several hurdles researchers face on a daily basis, such as delay in procuring essential reagents, lack of essential equipment, lack of funds to maintain equipment, to name a few.

Not young researchers’ fault

“It’s not the fault of the young researchers for the condition in which Indian science is [today]. I managed first five years without a proper lab space in makeshift arrangements. That’s everyone’s story,” says an Associate Professor at a national institution of repute. “I am fine to be accountable. But then I want my deans to be accountable too. Problem is when people like Prof. Jayant pretend to be oblivious to these problems.”

Senior academics air their views

Several senior faculty members have on Facebook commented strongly against introducing the tenure track system. Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar from the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru says: “I fail to understand why the pressure [to improve the quality of research in the country] should be only on the young faculty. It stands to reason that the pressure to perform should increase, the stringency of the evaluation criteria should become more severe and the probability of being dismissed for non-performance should become significantly higher with seniority.”

Prof. Gadagkar then adds: “I am not really convinced that dismissing non-performers will really improve performance but, if we are going to go down that path anyway, why not dismiss 10% of the worst performing assistant professors, 30% of the worst performing associate professors, 50% of the worst performing professors and 90% of the worst performing directors and vice-chancellors?”

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Worsening the power imbalance

Prof. TNC Vidya from the Evolutionary and Organismal Biology Unit at Bengaluru’s Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) says on Facebook: “Tenure track only increases stress and leads to quick rather than necessarily meaningful publications. It also places young faculty at the mercy of more powerful ones, worsening the power imbalance that already exists. The necessary support system for young faculty does not exist in India. Having a tenure track system in such a situation is just one more reason for people to leave academics.”

She then adds: “It is also interesting how senior professors who did not have to go through the kind of competition that exists today keep coming up with these recommendations that affect young faculty and not themselves.”

“There will probably always be some poor performers. You can either allow genuine researchers to work and also carry some dead-weight or you can try to weed out poor performers and also make it difficult for genuine people to work. I think the second case is worse than the first case. I don’t think the ideal case can be achieved — it is like minimising both type 1 and type 2 errors,” writes Prof. Vidya.

Prof. Amitabh Joshi also from the Evolutionary and Organismal Biology Unit, JNCASR says on Facebook: “We should not be making young faculty wait five years before they are confident about their jobs. In a research context, a five-year evaluation period also ensures that the young faculty (who are the most creative and active) will choose simple “solvable” research problems to work on rather than focusing on establishing more meaningful long-term research programmes addressing fundamental questions. At most, probation period can be enhanced to 18-24 months from 12 months.”

According to a June 21, 2019 column published in Nature, a survey of members of the Young Academy of Europe (YAE), a pan-European network of early-career researchers found “career uncertainties are costly, and burnout rates among tenure-track researchers (those who are on track to a permanent position) seem to be on the rise”.

Published in The Hindu on June 24, 2019

3 Thoughts

  1. The US has a giant Sequoia trees. Trees grow when the seeds are planted in the soil, and watered. The way to grow giant sequoia trees in India is to bring in a seed from US and plant it here. That’s all, isn’t it? And as is already noted above, teaching be damned. But then, how beautiful and orderly will the world look when one size fits all :-). Let’s have giant sequoias and giant research faculty, albeit they be sparse and well below the critical mass in number. Afterall great ideas take shape in great minds, never mind that they need to competitively interact with other ideas to mature.

  2. No where and none addressed how to improve teaching.
    Without Basic concepts can we go forward ? Creating an academic intellectual society is the need of hour
    Only that institute will survive whose founding Director has recruited well trained faculty.

    May keep reservation but do not dilute merit and publication criteria.
    Make Post doctoral work at 2 different places (in related fields )at least compulsory for recruitment.
    Those who are really exceptional they must be rewarded by extra increment/ research grants etc.
    Make probation of 2 years.

  3. The published research papers must be scrutinized & action needs to be taken, this action is otherwise is a kind of Tenure Track System. Unless real researchers have job security they will not be able to concentrate on real research will genuine output

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