A Decade after FAS Moved to Tenure Track, Math Continues on Separate Path

With an eye to the department’s lack of gender diversity, FAS administrators have advocated for tenure-track hires, but Mathematics faculty say the characteristics of their field make instituting a tenure track impractical.

Eleven years after the formal introduction of a tenure track in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Mathematics Department remains an outlier, with no assistant or associate professors to speak of and no promotions from within since the 1990s.

In place of a tenure track, the department has a number of Benjamin Peirce fellowships, three-year postdoctoral appointments that carry the status of assistant professor, but are not on the tenure track. With an eye to the department’s lack of gender diversity, FAS administrators have advocated for tenure-track hires, who tend to be more diverse.

Mathematics faculty members, though, have defended their department’s hiring practices, arguing that while diversity is a top priority, characteristics of their field make instituting a tenure track impractical.

“The simple explanation for our policy is that it works well,” former Dean of the College and now-retired Mathematics professor Benedict H. Gross ’71 wrote in an email. “We get outstanding applicants for our postdoctoral positions, who go on to tenure-track positions elsewhere. And because of the nature of the field, we usually make tenure offers to people in their late twenties or early thirties.”

According to Mathematics department chair Peter B. Kronheimer, talent in mathematics is identifiable at a young age, meaning that top candidates for tenure are typically ones who have already made a mark in their field as a postdoctoral fellow.

“We are a department where our likely candidates for tenure will almost always have had a breakthrough result early in their career, and where a tenure-track position as assistant professor is already a non-competitive offer,” he said.

He said it would be difficult for the department to find good candidates for tenure-track positions, arguing that it would be unlikely to find someone who had not yet achieved a breakthrough but would ultimately rise to the same level of achievement as tenure-worthy candidates.

Kronheimer also argued that departments at peer institutions have positions similar to the Benjamin Peirce Fellows and that, when departments have tenure tracks, they are not large enough to contribute in any significant way to the body of tenured professors.

Other leading departments—including those at MIT, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley—do have tenure tracks, though they vary in size. Berkeley’s Mathematics department currently has “five or six” assistant professors, according to interim chair L. Craig Evans, and Stanford’s has just two with another joining in the fall, according to its department chair Brian White. It is common for those on the tenure track to be promoted to tenure positions at their respective departments, Evans and White said.

MIT's mathematics department has 13 assistant and associate professors, though its department has almost three times the number of tenure positions that Harvard has, according to the department chair, Tomasz S. Mrowka.


Just a few decades ago, the Harvard Mathematics Department’s policy was the norm, rather than an exception. From roughly 1970 to 2000, FAS often—and in some departments exclusively—hired its senior faculty from outside the University, according to William C. Kirby, who as FAS Dean helped establish the tenure track in 2005.

“Math was not alone in this regard—they may have been alone in formalizing it, but they were not alone in disregarding the prospect for tenure,” Kirby said. “In those decades there was—especially in the humanities and softer social sciences at Harvard—great resistance to promotion from within.”

Yet that attitude, Kirby said, has changed dramatically in most departments in the last decade. Since 2005, assistant and associate professorships within FAS have been tenure-track positions, and the school has increasingly made an effort to find and cultivate talent at the tenure-track level. Part of the increasing emphasis on internal promotion has come from a realization that for many academics—particularly those with spouses teaching at other institutions—moving, even to Harvard, is not as easy or attractive a proposition as it used to be.

“The days when Harvard could offer somebody a tenured position here, and wherever else they were in the world they would sort of drop everything and move to Harvard—those days have gone,” Jeremy Bloxham, the dean of the FAS Science division, said. “And now to attract the best talent we’ve got to be finding people before they’re so entrenched in another institution that they become effectively unmovable.”

Bloxham said tenure track also aimed to diversify FAS, both in terms of attracting younger talent and in bringing women and minorities into the top ranks of higher education. Faculty members and FAS administrators have decried the high attrition rates of tenure-track women from Harvard’s flagship school.

“So in terms of one of the aims of having tenure-track faculty being to bring in young blood, younger people, onto the faculty, [the Math Department is] succeeding in that regard,” Bloxham said, referencing the Benjamin Peirce fellowships. “Now, the more serious issue is are they succeeding in terms of helping us meet our goals for having a more diverse faculty in other ways—and clearly right now the evidence suggests they’re not.”

Given that the pool of tenure-track candidates is typically more diverse than those for non-tenured positions, Bloxham said he would “like nothing more than [for] the Math Department to have a search next year at the tenure-track level.”

The Mathematics Department currently has no senior female faculty, a fact that Dean of Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser and College undergraduates expressed concern about at a town hall last month.

The department had hired its first female full professor—Sophie Morel—in 2009, though she left for Princeton soon after. At the town hall, Zipser said Harvard had offered tenured professorships to two women, including Stanford’s Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female recipient of the Fields Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics.

Kronheimer said the department as a whole views diversity as a high priority, but said it was not clear that a diverse tenure track would translate into a diverse body of senior faculty.

He argued it would be “unlikely that we would find distinguished candidates who would increase our diversity who we can appoint at the assistant professor level now and then tenure.” Kronheimer added that the department has periodically discussed the possibility of adopting a tenure track but has no plans to do so at the moment.

Bloxham said that while talent at the pure end of mathematics—where Harvard’s department, he said, resides—is usually identifiable at a young age, the department could plausibly find competitive candidates for tenure-track positions if it moved closer towards the applied end of the spectrum.

This shift may indeed happen, Bloxham predicted, with the recently established Center for Mathematical Sciences and Applications in FAS. He added that the tenure track for the Mathematics department need not last the full eight years typical at other departments. If two years into the tenure track an assistant professor made a breakthrough and had received a tenure offer from Stanford, for instance, Harvard would certainly respond in kind.

“So it’s not that once one’s on a tenure track one’s got to let a clock tick all the way until the end,” Bloxham said. “We will react when we need to—we’re not going to let our best tenure-track faculty get poached away from us.”

He added that, though the Mathematics Department might currently be uneasy with the prospect of a tenure track, he was confident that it would adapt to it in due course—just like all other FAS departments had in the years following 2005.

“I think for the Math Department, for the department itself, the idea of contemplating tenure track appointments is something they’re not entirely comfortable with yet, but I think they will go through a process of adaptation and will find that in some areas it works just fine for them,” he said.

—Staff writer Luca F. Schroeder can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @lucaschroeder.