Friday, 1 September 2017

Implementing the tenure track system in Indian academia

The tenure track system followed by US universities and institutes allows them to be sure about keeping someone for the long term on their faculty after having carefully observed him or her for some years. In itself this is a good provision to have as it allows for a better quality check than the present day system of permanency after one year of probation in government institutes and universities in India.

However, the manner in which it is implemented needs some attention in my opinion: (1) If I'm not wrong, most tenure track appointments go through an evaluation of "research productivity" every year. I see a flaw here and propose a way to address it below. (2) It is my impression (which may be flawed) that excellence in teaching is not given its due and tenure decisions are overly biased towards research output and the magnitude of money brought in via grants, etc. The flaw here is all too obvious: there are students to be taught and their interest (and grasp of subjects) are clearly dependent on the quality of teaching. It is for university administrators to realize and admit this and restore balance : I will not dwell on this point in this post.

Coming to the flaw I perceive in Point (1) above and a possible resolution of the same:

Any serious research problem, fundamental or applied, requires a settling down of the mind and deep, careful and rigorous thinking. And I don't think this is possible with a gun to one's head creating pressure to "produce output" on a yearly basis.. What that can do is keep an academic unsettled and worried about producing enough output in the short term to secure his or her job instead of going after tougher problems.

Instead, if one's research output is evaluated (quantitatively as well as qualitatively : please also read: at (1) the three year mark (i.e. half way) and (2) the six year mark when one comes up for tenure, then that would allow the faculty member to make progress on his or her research in a more balanced manner in my opinion and still go through a comprehensive evaluation before getting tenure.

I think a case can be made for institutes and universities in India to implement the tenure track system IF (note the use of capital letters in the IF) they are also willing to make the required effort from their end to enable the faculty member:

1. Keep teaching loads reasonable : no more than one course a semester with a UG/PG teaching balance. This will enable the faculty member to keep a healthy balance between teaching and research.

2. Provide good TA support for examining answer books and conducting lab and tutorial sessions.

3. Carry out start-up grant and lab-space / research-students-seating-space negotiations during the hiring process and make sure these are provided the day the faculty member joins.

4. Make sure the faculty member gets a couple of Masters students and a PhD student to guide at the first student induction following his or her joining.

5. Make sure processes related to procuring and setting up research infrastructure are efficient and well supported by trained staff.

(I spent 11 years in the US after my B. Tech. across three different universities for my M.S., PhD and Post-Doc and can say from my personal observation that ALL these five points were implemented there.)

Basically, create the right conditions for meaningful research, provide the required support, evaluate qualitatively as well as quantitatively at sensible intervals and give both teaching and research the emphasis they deserve while making tenure decisions.

Then, I think the tenure track system can work in our favour.

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