A Response to Ben Hescott’s Denied Tenure

To the Faculty Committee on Tenure and Promotion, the Provost, and the Board of Trustees:

Ariel Hamlin ‘13 first knocked on Ben Hescott’s door with a friend in September 2009. “I was expecting a professor who saw two freshman, said some nice words, and told us to take some classes and come back junior year,” she said. “Instead, we got Ben. He saw two young women who had a love for learning and he nurtured that. He offered to read papers with us every other week throughout our first two years at Tufts. He also funded my first foray into research after my freshman year, before I had even taken any classes in the department.”

That’s who Ben was. He would spend hours in advising sessions for students officially assigned to other professors. His office hours regularly ran beyond their scheduled end time. “In a subject that often lacks diversity, Ben was always working to make the community more inclusive, and to help lift up those students — particularly women — who elsewhere would expect to feel left out,” wrote Colin Hamilton ‘16. He spoke at countless events for prospective students. Kyle Sircus ‘11, a drama and international literary and visual studies major, always spoke about Ben on his two hundred campus tours. “The stories I told about his dedication to Tufts and the CS program, as well as his ability to inspire students to pursue a degree from that department, no doubt swayed many students to believe that Tufts is a place where professors care deeply about being incredible teachers and researchers.”

Countless alumni credit Ben with their post-graduation success. Shana Friedman ‘15, currently employed at Google, “would categorically not be a software engineer if it hadn’t been for Ben Hescott.” Joe Kennedy ‘12 has been a software engineer since graduating from Tufts. “He’s probably the most inspiring professor/teacher I’ve had; his teaching style, personality, and passion as a Comp 11 and 15 professor made it easy for me to fall in love with computer science and set me on the career trajectory that I’m on now.” Shilpa Nadimpalli Kobren ‘11 went on to pursue a PhD in computer science at another institution. “Ben Hescott played a major role in helping me pursue my passion for computer science and in getting me to where I am today,” he says. “I may have never even chosen to double major in computer science (after biology) if not for Ben and specifically the impact he had on shaping the computer science department community and personality at Tufts.”

But his reach goes far beyond the Department of Computer Science. “I took an introductory computer science class with Ben for a much dreaded math credit, expecting to barely scrape by let alone enjoy it. But Ben made the class fun and accessible, and he helped build in me an appreciation for logic and coding that has served me in almost every job I’ve had since graduation,” said one history major from the class of 2010. Yulia Korovikov ‘13 also took computer science classes to fulfill the math requirement. “That class absolutely revolutionized how I think about things and how l view the world,” she said. “I’m now the data analyst for Tufts Admissions, the first to hold this position, and will be going to Harvard in the fall to study the intersection of data and education. Ben is why I do what I do.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the community was shocked, upset, angry, and disappointed when Ben Hescott was denied tenure. One alum described the outcome as “heartbreaking and hard to understand.” Another was “deeply disappointed and incredulous.” Andrew Paseltiner ‘11,‘12 tied the news back to Ben’s Intro to Computation Theory course, remarking that “A proof that P = NP would be less surprising.” [1]

The impact of this decision will be felt far beyond the walls of Halligan. “I’m an engineering manager, and I think that these types of decisions significantly impact whether I’d consider supporting my company hiring undergraduates from Tufts,” said Lindsay Verola ‘10. “It’s hard to defend and support a program that does not actively try to keep its incredible teachers.” Cliff Bargar ‘12 volunteers as an alumni interviewer and worries that it will be “more difficult to enthusiastically ‘sell’ Tufts to a prospective student as a place that values undergraduate education more than many peer institutions.” Thirty-six alumni have already pledged to stop donating money or time to the university, and this number is likely to increase. “If Tufts CS is looking to become a research-first institution where the willingness of the faculty to build relationships with students is not valued as highly as bringing in grants, then I feel I can no longer support the department in good conscience,” said Andrew Mendelsohn ‘15.

Alumni have also called for transparency and reform in the tenure and promotion process. “Tufts now has created the perception that its tenure and promotion process completely lacks transparency, and has outcomes completely at odds with the experiences of the hundreds of students whose lives were changed by Prof. Hescott,” said Noah Daniels ‘01,‘06,‘13. He hypothesizes that “Tufts is punishing [Hescott] for not bringing in major grant funding, which in the current funding climate is a grave mistake.” Andrew Brieff ‘15 also questions the criteria used by the tenure and promotion committee, explaining that “it seems like the education of Tufts students, who have paid untold sums of money to attend the school, will be denied the best possible teacher in such an important subject for concerns that are not classroom based.”

Nicholas Chen ‘14 perhaps sums up the outcome of Ben Hescott’s tenure case perfectly. “This is about more than just one snubbed professor,” he writes. “This is a warning sign of a systemic failure in the administration at Tufts.”

Compiled by Ashley Hedberg ‘15 on behalf of the Tufts University community

[1] From Michael Sipser’s Introduction to the Theory of Computation: “The question of whether P = NP is one of the greatest unsolved problems in theoretical computer science and contemporary mathematics.” This article goes into greater detail.

The original email included unabridged reactions from 271 members of the Tufts University community. Those reactions have been omitted here for brevity and privacy.

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