Op-ed: Hescott’s Army

At commencement, the head of the Board of Trustees Peter Dolan stated that Tufts is a student-focused research institution. On the same day, the Board of Trustees denied tenure to beloved computer science (CS) Assistant Professor Ben Hescott, winner of the Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Excellence in Teaching and Advising (2012), the Graduate Student Council Award for Outstanding Faculty Contribution to Graduate Studies (2013), the Professor of the Year award (2016) and the Recognition of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award (2016). The latter does not follow logically from the former.

In theory, an application for tenure and its subsequent review should possess a balance between teaching, service and research. Service in this context is work related to advising, course offerings, reading graduate school applicants, faculty meetings, etc. However, according to a current CS professor who preferred to remain anonymous, in actuality, teaching and service do not factor into the decision.

Personally, Hescott was tremendously helpful to me during my junior year, when I was thinking about taking the spring semester off to do an internship. Even though I am not one of his advisees, I talked with him multiple times over a three-week period about which classes were going to be offered in the upcoming semesters, the internship itself and why he thought I should not take the semester off from school. He said that he similarly took a semester off during his undergraduate years at Boston University and found it tremendously hard to get back on track when he came back, and it led to his own delayed graduation. In addition to this episode, Hescott has always been an available life coach and welcoming smile around Halligan. In context, the two actual advisors I’ve had in the CS department, who are tenured, still do not know my name and have never provided me with anything other than a signature on my advising forms.

Looking at Ben’s record, it is clear his teaching and service are stellar and his research is good. However, he changed his area of research when he started the tenure track at Tufts from Complexity Theory to Computational Biology. Usually, an assistant professor who is up for tenure has a research history that includes their postdoc and Ph.D. research in addition to their completed research as an assistant professor; because Hescott switched his field of research, he only has five years of research in his portfolio in comparison to the usual 12. This makes his case unusual because compared to a normal tenure applicant his research looks small in quantity. However, this seems remarkably short sighted as a tenured professor could be a hire for the next 40 years, and the quality and quantity of his research since switching fields is above the bar for tenure according to the CS department.

To backtrack a bit, tenure track works such that an assistant professor gets a six-year contract from Tufts during which they teach, advise and do research. At the conclusion of the fifth year, the individual is brought up before the Board of Trustees to be considered for tenure. As described in Statement 11, the department from which the candidate is from then accumulates his or her research, has an anonymous vote of the tenured-department faculty to decide which way to give their recommendation and then writes a detailed letter explaining their support for or against tenure. In this case, the CS department gave very strong support to Hescott’s candidacy. Then that department recommendation goes to the Tenure and Promotion Committee, which is a collection of eight current faculty members from the university and Provost David Harris, who is not a voting member of the committee. The committee reviews the candidate’s credentials and gives its own recommendation. In this particular case, it recommended against Hescott receiving tenure. From there those recommendations go to the dean of the school in which the person up for tenure teaches, who also writes a letter detailing his or her own recommendations on the case. In this case, Dean of the School of Engineering Jianmin Qu was supportive of Hescott’s candidacy. After that, the decision seemingly is made in a black box. The president and provost, in conjunction with the letters of the previously mentioned parties, present each case in front of the Board of Trustees along with their own opinions. And finally, given the financial responsibility a close-to-40-year hire entails, the Board of Trustees makes the final decision. If the decision is negative, the candidate is in effect fired as he or she is offered a one-year good will contract, so he or she has time to find a different job. As is usual, Hescott has decided to pack up and ship off without taking the one-year contract. It was announced on May 24 that he has taken a position at Northeastern University, which offered him a job instantly upon the news of his dismissal.

As a graduating senior, I have been witness to the CS department as it has transitioned from a Podunk little major of 121 students in 2013 to the largest major at Tufts in 2017 with 568 students, the latter figure of which is according to the department. The school has responded to the sharp increase in CS enrollment by increasing class size and limiting most classes in the department to only CS and related majors. It got so bad this past semester that many CS seniors found themselves locked out of required classes to graduate before their enrollment time even arrived. Personally, due to the extreme scarcity of seats in CS electives, I have only ever gotten into one of my top-two electives once in my four years.

In these strained times for the department, Kathleen Fisher took over as chair of the department under the condition that the school hires six new teaching positions: four professors and two lecturers. To me this sounded like the light at the end of the tunnel; the school and department acted swiftly to deal with the exponential rise in enrollment. However, this latest action to fire the best teacher in the CS department, if not the school, during a period of unparalleled hiring, because he possessed an excusably small quantity of published works, shows brightly what is going on in the mind of the school’s leadership. It is a clear message to all future tenure candidates that they should focus solely on their research. No level of excellence in teaching or service will help them. The poster boy for excellence in these two categories, who also possessed adequate research, was summarily rejected for tenure by the Board of Trustees.

The bigger story here is not Hescott. He will be fine and he is taking a tremendous job at a competing university. It is the incentive system the school is putting in place for all future tenure applicants. How can a school be student-focused when service and teaching are not factored into tenure applications? As I leave Tufts, if a parent or a child were looking to me for advice or recommendations about college, I am not sure I could recommend Tufts. Its disregard for quality undergraduate teaching becomes overwhelmingly damning when we are paying over $65,000 for a world class education. I recommend you take your money elsewhere.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this op-ed stated that the Tenure and Promotion Committee is a collection of six current faculty members and Provost Harris, who is not a voting member of the committee. However, the committee is now composed of eight current faculty members and Provost Harris, who is a non-voting member. The op-ed has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.