In a marked departure in the way assistant professors, who are on the lowest rung of the academic ladder, are hired and confirmed at all the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology, the IIT Council recently introduced the tenure track system.
New hiring process
Under this system, an assistant professor may be hired without the mandatory post-PhD experience requirement and her performance reviewed internally after three years. Based on an evaluation by an external committee at the end of 5.5 years, he or she 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 to the candidate before being assessed again.
At present, 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 non-performers. “The tenure track combines academic freedom with responsibility and accountability,” Higher Education Secretary R. Subrahmanyam told the media.
If we look at the tenure track system in other countries, it is clear that the process doesn’t guarantee excellence or improve accountability at the institutional 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 unmonitored will do little to achieve the prime objective.
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 over their heads, 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 extending their PhD or post-doc research is likely to become overpowering.
If the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) feels compelled to ape the West, 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 innumerable cases in the older IITs where even securing lab space can take as long as a year or more.
While those working in theoretical areas might find it relatively easier to publish papers, experimentalists will be at a greater disadvantage as setting up labs will take longer. While even established IITs face difficulty finding good computer science faculty, finding computer science students willing to pursue the PhD programme will be even more challenging among the new recruits.
While the older IITs provide seed funding of about ₹20 lakh, the new IITs provide just a couple of lakhs of rupees. Researchers will necessarily have to turn to funding agencies for grants. With a significant reduction in the number of research proposals getting funded, new faculty will be forced to compete with well-established researchers for a piece of the pie. The delay in disbursal of funds by agencies is another problem.
The biggest area of concern is the upper age limit of 35 years for an 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 the reckoning at any other academic institution.
With the MHRD planning to extend this system to Central universities and the draft National Education Policy recommending its introduction in 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 securing fresh talent even more difficult? Professor V. Ramgopal Rao, Director of IIT Delhi, had said sometime ago that the institute had 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 likely to make it even more challenging to find good talent. It is also unclear if the new 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.