There is an old joke that says that at most universities, you have to write a book to get tenure, while at Harvard, they have to write a book about you. I am not sure who wrote that one, since I recently found out that I've been promoted to full professor with tenure. (Unlike most places, at Harvard, full professor is the only tenured rank. I've actually been an associate professor for three years now and the total clock is seven years.) So my time as a disgruntled junior faculty member is drawing to a close - on to the far more entertaining life as a (presumably) gruntled senior faculty member.
Harvard has a notorious reputation for not tenuring its own junior faculty. Indeed, some departments have not promoted from within for decades -- so long that they probably don't remember how to do it if they wanted to. In the math department, for example, junior faculty treat the job like an extended postdoc, with the goal of getting tenure somewhere else -- Yale or Columbia perhaps. You'd have to win the Fields Medal to get tenure in math at Harvard. Such departments treat the end of a junior faculty member's contract as an opportunity to scout out the best person in the world to fill the position, and typically the best person is 20 years more senior and at another school.
This is the classic Harvard model, but in recent years Harvard has started to use the term "tenure track" for the first time in its history. Since I joined Harvard in 2003, we have tenured six CS faculty from within, and turned down tenure to two people. The CS faculty here (and, more generally, the entire School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) are extremely supportive of junior faculty and we work hard to ensure that everyone has the best shot at tenure.
Unfortunately, this attitude is not pervasive, and often rubs against the antiquated culture found elsewhere in the university. For example, it was only recently that Harvard's request for tenure letters explicitly stated that candidate X from Harvard was actually under consideration for the job. The letters still request explicit comparisons against a set list of other faculty who are typically expected to be *full professors* at other schools, and respondents are asked to rank the candidates. To be promoted you need to be ranked first or second consistently across the letters. It is a very daunting process for a junior faculty member.
At many universities, tenure decisions are made at the department or school level, with the university essentially rubber-stamping those decisions. Not so here. The final step of the Harvard tenure process is the mysterious and fearsome ad hoc committee meeting, which is presided over by the President of the university, who has the final say. For this meeting, three senior faculty from other universities come and grill the internal "witnesses" that may support or oppose the case. I am pretty sure the meeting also involves a ritual with a human skull and a goblet of blood, but cannot confirm as of yet.
Now that I've passed the trial by fire, there is one last step. Harvard does not tenure anyone without a Harvard degree, and I've never been here as a student. So next fall, they will grant me an honorary Master's degree to clear that burden. I am not making this up.
From then on I hear it is just smooth sailing, lazy days with few responsibilities and just raking in the paychecks and use of the private parking space. Right? Right?
I'd like to thank all of the people who really made this happen. More than anything else, my tenure is a reflection on the hard work and vision of my amazing students and postdocs -- who took my wild-eyed whiteboard ramblings and turned them into reality. More often than not, though, the best ideas came from the students themselves. I have learned so much from them and have been extremely fortunate to have such an amazing group. I'd especially like to thank Margo Seltzer and Greg Morrisett for their tremendous effort in marshaling my case through the process. Thanks to Michael Mitzenmacher for the puff piece on his blog today. Finally, great thanks to all of my faculty colleagues for their encouragement and willingness to put up with my crap in our weekly lunch meetings.
(Once I've had a chance to digest it, I'll post a more personalized account of what it took to navigate Harvard's tenure process.)
I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.
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