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Taking a Look at Tenure at MIT

My first two blog posts for Fairer Science were full of good news but my pessimistic nature told me that wouldn’t last…and now we’re here, with a depressing Boston Globe headline: Tenure at MIT still largely a male domain. I thought it was an interesting article; it touched on hiring rates, the pipeline issue, mentoring, and tenure clock adjustments.

I looked at the pretty graph that the Globe staff helpfully provided, showing promotion to tenure at MIT for the past 5 years. 5 years ago things were pretty bad – of the 15 faculty granted tenure, a whopping 0 were women. But then there were some improvements: 4 out of 15; 6 out of 19; 5 out of 19. Hey, women were above 25% for three years in a row, break out the bubbly! Wait, not so fast – this year the number is 1 out of 24.

Now, I obviously understand the importance of taking a larger view of things – you can’t make grand conclusions based on one year. Yet, that voice inside me still yells “One?” The Globe quoted MIT president Dr. Susan Hockfield: “We are absolutely committed to accelerating our progress, and we want to be able to show that progress every single year, but all of the variables that go into this mean some years, it's not going to look as good as we want it to look." She also called the group photo of faculty members “unsettling” and Dr. Nancy Hopkins (a biology professor at MIT and a professor who walked out of Lawrence Summer’s infamous speech) found the photo “unnerving.” Both are good adjectives, although I’m tempted to use a few other words that I probably shouldn’t post publicly. The Globe article mentions some steps MIT has taken to address the problem and we at FairerScience know that there are many talented people who are working so hard to achieve equity. (Hey, look at me being optimistic!)


Given Hockfield's poor record at Yale, particularly around issues of graduate women in science, I'm not hopeful that she has the will or the way to solve the problem at MIT. A friend of mine was told by Hockfield (it was a group of first year neurobio grad students) not to have kids before tenure, because she did it that way and it was easier. Given how long it takes biologists to get to tenure (not to mention the leaky pipeline etc, etc), not a lot are getting tenure before menopause. So I trust very little that comes out of her mouth.

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