Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Tenure, Tenure -- Who's Got the Tenure?

Apparently not a number of women at Baylor. In yesterdays' Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik reports that in a move that is spreading through colleges and universities like the herpes virus, Baylor University administrators decided to "raise standards" for tenure this year, subsequent to the cases being prepared and submitted. They did this without informing anyone who would be affected by it, or the tenured faculty, for that matter. This means that probationary faculty who did what they were asked to do, and even those who might have looked beyond their department for a second opinion as to how to meet the bar, were hammered. Tenure denials went from ten percent to forty percent. Two-thirds of the women up for promotion were denied.

The story is a follow-up on a Monday story that features yours truly. Many hits to the Tenured Radical story linked to Scott's Monday piece, (almost 700), but no comments left: strange. However, I would report two interesting features of the comments left at IHE. They are overwhelmingly pro-tenure (fair enough, I understand that), but the comments are almost all aimed at the protection of academic freedom during the post-tenure years. Few are interested in what I think is a key question: what is the effect of the tenure process on young scholars, and how do we protect their academic freedom? Few people are also interested in unionization as an alternative. A third feature of these comments is that, as one of the commenters pointed out, that although they are overwhelmingly from tenured people, virtually all are written pseudonymously. Which suggests, as this commenter pointed out, that they don't feel that their speech is well-protected by tenure or -- that something else, a sense of one's reputation being fragile -- is provoked by even talking about tenure.


LumpenProf said...

Just a quick comment on you last point about tenured faculty writing pseudonymously -- this shouldn't necessarily be seen as an indication of insecurity about academic freedom.

Instead, just as the confidentiality of recommendation letters tends to encourage the frank assessment of a candidate, commenting pseudonymously can provide increased candor. As Dean Dad writes: "Simply put, you can have candor, or you can have transparency, but you can't have both. (That's why I write under a pseudonym.)"

For instance, I assume that part of your willingness to champion the case against tenure publicly is that you don't aspire to be a Dean or Provost, since these views would tend to raise concerns among faculty. That's fine. But there are many reasons why tenured faculty might prefer some measure of confidentiality in sharing their views -- both personal and professional -- and many of those will continue to exist no matter what form the job takes.

Susan said...

The best way to protect the academic freedom of junior faculty (and the tenure process) is more transparency. But the transparency always ends at the top, because at most institutions the recommendations from the governance process are recommendations. There is often a strong institutional culture of deference to the faculty committees, but that can always change. And the president is only accountable to the Board. It does not have to be a rational decision, or based on anything in particular.

It seems to me the Baylor process reflect the US News rankings approach: the more people you deny, the better you are. It's a common approach (I think new presidents do it often) Oddly enough, there are institutions that say, "We try to hire strong candidates and give them the resources to meet our criteria for tenure."

The best story about changing tenure standards I heard about 25 years ago (just to prove this is nothing new). A department, in the interests of transparency, decided to try to articulate its criteria for tenure more clearly (yes, folks, there was a time when it was just "you are evaluated on teaching scholarship and service".) So they are having a discussion, and people are throwing out standards, and finally someone called a halt to the discussion -- about when someone added "walk on water" -- and said "How many of us would have met this standard when we were tenured." The discussion got back to earth.

GayProf said...

It seems to me that the tenure process is less about academic freedom and more about academic conformity.

Unknown said...

I have been following the comments about tenure on this blog and on others. My view of academic tenure is colored to a great extent by the fact that I failed to get tenure at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I decided to get out of academics and opted instead for industry. In spite of my negative experience, I am of two minds on the subject of tenure. I certainly recognize that tenure is infinitely abusable, that it can destroy lives and careers, that it has evil effects on both those who already have tenure and on those who are striving to get tenure. However, I think that the job security that tenure offers is a very good thing, and I wish that I had gotten it.

More thoughts on tenure are at

anthony grafton said...

A couple of points that haven't been made here. First, one of the IHE commenters, writing on the basis of experience in a dean's office, notes that almost everyone gets tenure. Nationally, this is true: even in the humanities, the majority of those who gain and remain on tenure-track positions are, in the end, promoted to tenured rank. The big difference is at elite schools, which have historically turned down many or most, and at aspiring schools (and schools with new broom presidents). These cases get a lot of attention in the profession and the media, and I agree with Radical about the awful way in whichmany of them play out. But they are not typical. of course, as numbers of non-tenure-track positions rise, this is far from the whole story.

Second: agism is a concern for me, as for one of the commenters at IHE. It is likely that, if tenure were removed, older faculty would find themselves off the island--especially at ambitious schools that would aggressively recruit newer, more productive professors. This doesn't always happen in the corporate world, especially to those who remain at least warm properties--friends whose skills remain in demand have head-hunters at their doors, even though the bloom of youth has long departed. But it happens often enough, and there's no reason university administrators wouldn't adopt such policies. From a business standpoint it usually seems sensible to get rid of those with high salaries--especially if, as is sometimes the case with our masters and mistresses, you're not too worried about the quality of the services that you're actually providing to students. In business, of course, decisions like this can backfire, as recently happened to at least one big retail chain. But in our world, who would know?

It's a mess. I wish I had answers, because I do agree that the system is deeply flawed.

Anonymous said...

It may be the case that most people are tenured. But I would argue that there is a huge amount of self-selection. Junior faculty are not stupid. We can read the writing on the wall and those who can get while the getting is good. So in fact the low figures of people who are not tenured reflect a much higher proportion of junior faculty who are shuffling jobs until they feel safe.

Ageism goes both ways, I fear. There are tremendously erudite junior faculty who are not tenured because of the insecurities of their senior colleagues, too. I'd like to be tenured because I am smart, not just because I write a lot. But writing a lot is the only way to protect myself against the insecurities of my senior colleagues.

Randall Newton said...

Your first paragraph notes that Baylor's move is part of a trend. I'm a Baylor grad who spent a few years in academia, but I moved on. (Never up for tenure anywhere). A high percentage of the wind in the sails of the BU administration is local campus politics. There's a new president who is trying to undue the intent of the previous administration. Having said that, changing the rules arbitrarily has the same effect anywhere, no matter what the motivation. (FYI: I think that if you chatted with each of the ones denied tenure, you would soon discover they are at different ends of the spectrum on many issues of the day. I hope that would not cool your support for them in their tenure problems.)

Anonymous said...

tenure and unions are not mutually exclusive. academic freedom could be protected by having both or by having seniors with tenure stop abusing juniors without it. either way.

Anonymous said...

Not in the education industry myself, I don't understand this issue. What is really the difference between getting tenure and making Partner in a professional firm? Almost nobody makes partner in the big firms but instead associates move down to smaller firms, freelance or go out into industry-this is taken for granted.

anthony grafton said...

Verbranntes Kind is right, of course, on one big point: some senior professors nourish prejudices against junior ones just because they're younger, or because they're younger and doing cool new things.

But the numbers are clear: most people who come up for tenure get it. Given the difficulties of the market and the many contingencies involved in finding another job, I doubt VK is wholly right to think that junior people fit themselves carefully into the spot where they can expect to get tenure. Life--and tenure decisions--are messier than that in the aggregate, even if individual cases work that way.

Tim Lacy said...

I'm concerned that commenters here are not addressing the full range of TR's question: "What is the effect of the tenure process on young scholars, and how do we protect their academic freedom?"

There are "young scholars" not on the tenure track, but that cohort is not being addressed here in the comments. But tenure does affect them in a trickle-down fashion. How?

This is tough to answer because pre-t-t work varies by institution: it's not the same at an Ivy League, slac, or cc. But I'll attempt some points anyway. Please bear with me.

They, meaning non t-t adjuncts, eventually desire to get on a t-t, so they ~limit~ the range of their behavior---for both their administrators and their students---in ways that they think will eventually result in a promotion. But with the "adjunctificiation" of the academy, that means a lot of part-timers (union or no) are not utilizing the full-range of academic freedom. In the best case, their teaching and classroom persona will pale in comparison with the tenured.

Non t-t adjuncts are clearly not able to act like real scholars or teachers. Because adjuncts need to remain popular with students to keep their courses, they can't say the necessarily pointed things needed to motivate the same. Also, because they need to remain popular with administrators to continue their at-will employment, they cow-tow to admin desires. Part-timers can not level pointed, risk-free, on-target opinions about bureaucratic obstacles. Tenured folks, of course, can say pointed things to both students and admin.

Finally, this popularity contest and cow-towing result in adjuncts not getting the ~real~ experience they need in the classroom. As TR pointed out, I believe, in a prior post, some of these junior scholars are ~conformed out of~ academic freedom before they've really experienced it. They'll have to unlearn their adjunct experience to become free-thinking, risk-taking teachers.

A sad corollary, I've come to learn, is that adjuncts are sometimes despised by the existing full-timers for not being great teachers. Adjuncts at an institution are often not considered for f-t, t-t positions that come open that the same place. Well, go figure. In some cases, the battle's over before the junior scholar/adjunct gets on the t-t.

I've come to the conclusion that, in some ways, it's better to not be employed ~at all~ in teaching before being on the tenure track in order to avoid the intellectual damage (perceived or real) done in the process. But since humanities funding is limited, there's no way for an aspiring graduate student to completely eliminate her/his exposure to some adjuncting.

What will limit these problems? Here are two ideas:

1. Strong adjunct unions. Those unions must vigorously protect and encourage academic freedom in teaching. This will prevent the adjunct from developing bad habits, and perhaps foster creativity in the classroom. In some ways, the union protects the disadvantaged adjunct from possible later criticism by tenured folks.

2. Across-the-board, universal funding for PhD students (or at least candidates) around the nation---not just at big institutions---will limit the need for adjuncting. This will also help the aspiring scholar focus on scholarship until they have the time to teach. The ultimate principle here is this: No PhD program should accept a candidate (post-exams) they are not prepared to generously fund.

But again, I'm just thinking out loud. - TL

Anonymous said...

I disagree emphatically that good teaching means you must say unpleasant things to students that will undermine your popularity. Good teachers can motivate without being unpleasant. At our university, grade inflation is not respected. Second, in my department, candidates for t-t jobs must have done sufficient research to show reasonable productivity for the number of years since their degree was granted. Those who work as adjuncts won't be considered for a t-t job solely on the basis of their teaching, but must have continued to do research -- or minimally have published their dissertation work. Most adjuncts disqualify themselves from t-t jobs by assuming that if they are teaching they do not have time to continue research. Anyone working in a t-t job knows that with service, they will be much busier than the typical adjunct and if they cannot do research concurrently, they will not be tenureable. So keeping up active research is essential for those wishing to become t-t faculty.

We have a strong union AND tenure. I found that being non-tenured motivated me to work harder than I would have if I had been on a renewable contract. Now that I am tenured, I find that I can relax and be less stressed, but I work no less hard. I do see considerable prejudice against older faculty (called "deadwood" behind their backs) and I agree that they would be vulnerable without tenure. I see very little stopping untenured faculty from expressing their opinions and doing controversial work. I DO see a great deal stopping them from being slackers in the dept and encouraging them to participate actively in governance and take on challenging tasks. I doubt anyone would do as much of that without the stress of the pre-tenure years, especially since raises and promotions are largely tied to number of years worked. The younger faculty all worry about tenure but they all get it -- we don't hire anyone who wouldn't be capable of it.

I resent adjunct assumptions that they do the same work as the t-t faculty (they don't) and I further resent their belief that they should be hired based on teaching and shouldn't be expected to continue research. If they don't have a genuine interest in knowledge generation, which they can then communicate to students, they don't belong in a t-t job, in my opinion.

gwoertendyke said...

Tim Lacy's solutions seem spot on, as is his focus on the vulnerability of non-tenured jr. faculty and/or adjunct faculty.

the resentment expressed by anon seems strange to me: is there any way in which adjunct labor is a threat to you? i think the point about adjunct labor is the degree to which it renders "knowledge production" next to impossible because of the need to teach 4-6 courses for 1200-3000/course in order to survive. sometimes, as we know, adjuncts have to string together work across more than one campus or department. they also do this without offices, support staff, a collective body with which to identify (often), photocopy access, and of course, respect. how on earth one could feel resentment about a growing body of ph.d.s who find themselves in a triple bind is beyond me.

lacy is right: the only possible way to get hired for a t-t position is to remove yourself from the labor pool so that you are never tainted by the adjunct brush--the kiss of death.

Anonymous said...

I was an adjunct before being hired t-t. The main difference between me and other adjuncts was that I continued to do research and to publish. I found that my teaching experience made me more qualified, not less. Their lack of commitment to students and academic values offends me.

Adjuncts are not "threatening" to me. I find it dishonest to teach so many courses at multiple universities concurrently, doing a piss-poor job at each, while claiming to be "as good as" the t-t faculty. Our university supports adjuncts with community and resources but that may be an exception. However, I have never worked any place adjunct that did not provide photocopying. Exaggeration of the poor working conditions as an excuse for doing nothing to improve one's marketability is just an example of why adjuncts are so rarely hired t-t. They don't want to do what it takes to get hired and thus are rightly passed over with the assumption they won't do the hard work needed to attain tenure once hired. If you can't live on what a reasonable workload pays you, find another job, but don't shortchange your students and whine about what you could do if your pay were higher. Asst Profs don't earn that much more and yet are expected to do a great deal more work. Whiney adjuncts won't survive in that job so it is better if they leave an overcrowded field and find something that pays them what they think they are truly worth.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous 9:38/10:49,

What on earth has got into you? I think you should have a friend read your comments and tell you frankly whether they read as hostile towards people for whom compassion and encouragement might be more appropriate -- because honestly, I would hate to think that you would carry these ideas into your work on hiring, and eventually, tenure review committees. I don't know how your success was achieved, but I would bet the farm that half a dozen people who applied for your job alone probably had the same credentials. Another half dozen had better ones. And for some reason you will never know, they picked you.

First of all, *most* people have worked adjunct before getting a t-t job, but I think Tim's point is that what I am arguing is a lack of freedom for t-t faculty is magnified at the adjunct level. I agree with him. And people who are being employed in what is exploitative labor (for some 2K per course) naturally have trouble putting together a living wage at what they have -- after all - been trained to do.

And calling people who are doing the best they can --and who, exactly, are you saying is not publishing? -- and not getting results "whiners" is not only mean and small, it ignores everything we know about how adjunct teaching saps people's time and puts them further in the hole financially.


gwoertendyke said...

thanks TR: i was going to respond but you did a great job.

Tim Lacy said...

What TR said. - TL

Anonymous said...

Well I am for tenure and unionization. And I'd use my real name except that then people will say "she thinks this because..." instead of just reacting to what I say. My university already knows my blog, and everyone in my field is aware of my general attitude, so I'd have nothing to lose materially by de-anonymizing, it's just that in blogs I'd rather only be a set of words (for a change).

On abuse and harassment: I've seen seniors do it to each other, and juniors do it to seniors, as well as seniors to juniors.

Workplace abuse is not confined to academia and I don't think it is caused by the tenure system. More importantly, though, I think that what is wrong with the tenure system reflects, and is symptomatic of what is wrong with academia generally. For example: especially in science and technology, anything with big grant money and labs, consider the abuse of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and technicians, all before anyone even gets onto the tenure track.

The tenure system does encourage conformity but it is not clear to me that its abolition would not do so as well. And the tenure track is very stressful and can be deforming but once again, that has in part to do (I think) with the way it is implemented, which, once again, has
to do not just with deciding on reasonable standards but with the whole gestalt of the academic industrial complex.

Finally, on academic freedom: it isn't just freedom to say what one thinks in research and upper level classes, it's freedom to choose materials and methodologies even in basic courses, so that you can meet actual student needs. No Child Left Behind, for instance, violates academic freedom in my view insofar as it forces teachers to teach primarily to multiple choice tests
on reading and math - at the expense of much else.