Tenure track system at IITs is a recipe for failure

IIT Madras - Gajendra circle1-Optimized

Flogging a small subset of young faculty to improve research and teaching metrics using the threat of tenure track while leaving the large majority of senior faculty completely unmonitored will do very little to achieve the prime objective.

In a marked departure in the way assistant professors, who are the lowest rung of the academic ladder, are hired and confirmed at all the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology, the IIT Council recently agreed to grant them tenure 5.5 years after recruitment.

Under the new system, an assistant professor may be hired without the mandatory post-PhD experience requirement and his/her performance reviewed internally after a period of three years. Based on an evaluation by an external committee at the end of 5.5 years, the assistant professor may either be granted tenure (made permanent) and promoted to the next higher level of associate professor or asked to leave. In certain cases, based on the recommendation of the external committee, an extension of two years may be granted before being assessed again.

Currently, a fresh faculty member is placed on probation for a year before confirmation without being subjected to any kind of a critical evaluation. According to the Council, this leads to a situation wherein “a large number of faculty, despite having very good credentials, do not put in enough effort on research and teaching”. Over the years, the number of faculty whose performance is below par has risen to such an extent that “more than half” underperform. The tenure track system is being seen as a silver bullet to prevent further deterioration and to remove the non-performers. “The tenure track combines academic freedom with responsibility and accountability”, Higher Education Secretary R. Subrahmanyam told the media.

Wrong approach

If we look at the tenure track system in other countries, it is clear that the process doesn’t guarantee to promote excellence or improve accountability at the institution level. While the principal purpose of tenure in the U.S. is to provide permanency and safeguard academic freedom, using the same system to promote research and teaching excellence reflects a lack of application of mind. Flogging a small subset of young faculty to improve the metrics using the threat of tenure track while leaving the large majority of senior faculty completely unmonitored will do very little to achieve the prime objective.

In fact, keeping the young faculty on a tight leash can prove to be counterproductive. To begin with, the power asymmetry that already exists between new recruits and the older faculty will worsen. But tenure’s biggest disservice may be in the field of research. With the sword of Damocles hanging, a young faculty may end up being more risk-averse and refrain from working in unchartered, cutting edge research areas. The temptation to settle for safer, short-term, sure-shot solvable research problems or just an extension of his/her PhD or post-doc research is likely to become overpowering.

Half-hearted attempt

If the Ministry of Human Resources Development feels compelled to ape the West, then it should be willing to go the whole hog and match the U.S. and other countries that have this system in terms of research facilities. Unlike in most U.S universities that have a tenure track system, it is extremely difficult for new appointees to hit the ground running as even basic infrastructure to carry out research is not in place at many of the newer IITs. There have been umpteen cases in the older IITs where even securing a lab space can sometimes take as long as a year or more. A year or more of waiting for specialised equipment and reagents is also nothing new.

While those working in theoretical areas might find it relatively easy to produce results and publish papers, experimentalists will be at a greater disadvantage as setting up the lab would take a longer time. While even established IITs face difficulty finding good computer science faculty, finding computer science students willing to pursue PhD programme will be even more challenging for the new recruits.

While the older IITs do provide seed funding of about Rs.20 lakh, like in IIT Bombay for example, the newer IITs provide just a couple of lakhs of rupees. Researchers will have to necessarily turn to funding agencies for grants. With a significant reduction in the number of research proposals getting funded, fresh faculty will be forced to compete with well-established researchers for a piece of the pie and secure one in a year or two of joining. The delay in disbursal of funds by agencies is another problem. Of what use is the funding which lands in February and is supposed to be spent in a month?

Left marooned

The biggest area of concern is upper age limit of 35 years for assistant professor’s post, which is not the case in the U.S. Since assistant professors are in the early 30s when they secure a position, anyone who fails to secure tenure at the end of 5.5 years is almost out of reckoning at any other academic institution.

With MHRD planning to extend this system to central universities and the draft National Education Policy recommending that the system be introduced at all institutions by 2030, chances of securing a position at an alternative institution will be almost nil. Unlike in the U.S., industry jobs are not in plenty in India for those who fail to get tenured. The 5.5 year period to secure tenure is particularly disadvantageous to women researchers.

Will the introduction of the tenure track system at IITs make the task of recruiting fresh talent even more difficult? Prof. V. Ramgopal Rao, Director of IIT Delhi, told me earlier that the institute has not been able to find “suitable candidates” to fill 300 faculty positions that have been lying vacant for the last 10 years. The introduction of the tenure track system without addressing the underlying problems researchers face is very likely to make it even more challenging to find good talent. It is also unclear if the newer IITs, which are just being built, will find themselves at a disadvantage in attracting talent. At this stage, one can only hope that the IIT Council has deliberated on these critical issues and not acted in haste or under duress.

Published in The Hindu on October 5, 2019

2 Thoughts

  1. I don’t understand the system at IITs, but know the one in Universities where every teacher gets tenure quasi automatically without having to perform as the so-called review committees are manipulated in nearly 100% cases and the tenure is given automatically for ALL candidates from reserved categories. All of this has led to a disastrous situation both in research and quality of education.

  2. Tenure position at IITs is totally unacceptable because it is against the social security of the person. When all other faculty appointments in universities are not transpatent and have regional bias, absence of IInd tier Institutions for placement, absence of positions open elsewhere, will through the youngsters on street.
    This fear and insecurity will breed corruption and unfair interference.
    Moreover, for research, which is becoming damperning factor in the last ten years, India, going to take a beating. Indian research funding bodies and universities/institutions have notnevolved a smooth mechanism to carry forward assets to any where they go. This will be exploited, resulting in loss of precious research fund, time and kill the morale of the faculty.
    In my view, if we do not ensure fair and transparent faculty recruitment process across India, the ‘tenure’ concept being introduced in IITs now may only help increase discremination, favouritism and nepotism.

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