A committee charged with reviewing tenure and faculty development policies met for the first time Wednesday, but some Division of Biology and Medicine departments are already hoping the committee will recommend that junior faculty in those departments be given longer to prove themselves before coming up for tenure.
Five of the six BioMed departments have requested a longer probationary period for junior faculty in tenure-track positions, Associate Dean of Biology Edward Hawrot said. There are around 20 junior faculty members in BioMed, and about 15 in those five departments specifically, he added.
Currently, all University departments follow the tenure guidelines of the American Association of University Professors, which require that faculty be told by the end of their sixth year at an institution whether they will be awarded tenure. After that point, those who are denied tenure have a seventh year of work left, during which they can search for employment elsewhere.
That deadline means the tenure review process begins in a faculty member's sixth year, leaving a professor with effectively only five years to distinguish themselves.
The BioMed division at Brown is "really quite unique" in that its faculty members teach undergraduate, graduate and medical students, Hawrot said. But unlike other departments in the University, whose peer departments at other schools also follow the AAUP tenure guidelines, BioMed departments compete against departments in medical schools, where "more and more schools are going towards longer probationary periods," he said.
In 2008, 45 percent of medical schools had probationary periods of eight years or more for science faculty, according to Sarah Bunton, research director for organization and management studies for the Association of American Medical Colleges.
"In most places other than Brown, the medical school is separate," Hawrot said. "In many cases, there are separate tenure clocks, and in some cases, there are separate tenure review committees."
A tale of two tenure tracks?
But the AAUP maintains that its seven-year tenure clock is not inappropriately short for science faculty at medical schools, according to Anita Levy, senior program officer for the AAUP. In a 1999 statement on tenure at medical schools, the association states that while clinical faculty can have longer probationary periods, "we see no reason to consider the extension of such a practice to researchers in the basic sciences."
Many American universities follow the AAUP tenure guidelines, Levy said, though choosing to follow the guidelines is not so much a formal commitment as it is an industry standard. She added that many medical schools use the guidelines as well, though they diverge more frequently than universities.
Since most of the University's departments do not want a longer tenure clock, the committee will consider extending the probationary period just for the BioMed departments that are dissatisfied with the current situation, according to the committee's charge.
The AAUP discourages having separate tenure clocks for separate departments, Levy said.
The seven-year tenure clock has been a complaint within BioMed for several years, said Professor of Computer Science Andy Van Dam, a member of the tenure review committee. Van Dam, who served as the University's Vice President for Research from 2002 to 2006, said he was approached by a "delegation" of professors from BioMed, who complained that because of a lack of funding — especially for new researchers — from the National Institutes of Health, post-doctoral students were being forced to work without permanent positions "for an unconscionable amount of time."
NIH funding has been flat in recent years, with the exception of the recent federal stimulus package, which "may be a blip," Hawrot said. Without an initial NIH grant, junior faculty cannot "make their research flourish," he added.
But "the reality is, because of that funding climate, the junior faculty spend much more time having to write and rewrite grants at the expense of publishing papers and really accelerating their research program," said Professor of Biology Kimberly Mowry, who chairs the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry.
"You can either be flying or you can lay eggs," Hawrot said of the struggle between applying for grants and conducting research. "You can't do both at the same time."
Ideally for BioMed, the committee to review tenure would recommend that the Corporation extend by one year the probationary period for five BioMed departments, or "possibly two in extraordinary circumstances," Mowry said.
Brown's tenure clock, which is "pretty tight" compared to BioMed's peer departments, Hawrot said, was an area of concern for some junior faculty members BioMed was trying to recruit.
"For the first time ever," he said, recruits asked about the "potential disadvantage they would be at" if they came to Brown, since they would get less time to develop a research program before tenure review.
If the committee does not recommend that the BioMed tenure clock be extended, the BioMed departments will be "disappointed," Mowry said. BioMed would then consider changing the requirements for how much junior faculty members have to teach, to allow them more time for research, Hawrot said.
"There are no foregone conclusions" with the committee, Hawrot said. "If the length of time cannot be increased then we have to find some other measures that could be introduced to — in essence — give the faculty more usable time."
The only BioMed department that has not requested a longer tenure clock is the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. That department's faculty rely less on large laboratory equipment and NIH funding, and their peer departments are often housed in arts and sciences institutions rather than medical schools, so they are competing against faculties which are also on a seven-year tenure clock, Hawrot said.
The rules of tenure "evolve over time to meet changing circumstances," Van Dam said. For example, there used to be no exceptions to the tenure clock timeline, but faculty can now request extended probationary periods to care for a new child or for extraordinary circumstances, such as catastrophic equipment failures, Mowry said.
The tenure committee, which held only a general discussion at its first meeting Wednesday morning, has yet to make any decisions about its methods, priorities or schedule, Van Dam said.
"We all come with different ideas on what a committee like this could accomplish," he said. But tenure is a human system, and "by definition, human systems can be improved," he added.