Monday, February 07, 2011

Department of High Standards: "And The Winnah Is......"

This is a tenure clock.
Give me just a little more time/And our love will surely grow:  The Brown Daily Herald reports another reason to take a job at this trendy Ivy, other than the school colors and the terrific little Italian food shops:  you get eight years for tenure instead of the canonical seven.  The legislation is not yet final, since the faculty "has yet to vote on the wording of the amendments" (so it could take....a...while....) However, the extended tenure clock recognizes that publishing is a little more difficult in the current environment and grants more competitive.  Other reforms of the tenure process up in Providence include things that I won't even mention because they mean nothing to the rest of us, but apparently they are a big deal at Brown and claims are being made that tenure procedures are now "more transparent."  Somehow I doubt this, but I'm sure the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) means well and has labored hard.

There are, of course, doubters.  As one former Zenith colleague used to point out dourly when we considered changing one departmental rule or another, "Things could get worse, you know."  In the case of Brown, theories abound that either a) Higher rates of tenure will demonstrate hte senior faculty's expertise in picking new people well; or b) Higher rates of tenure will make it look like senior faculty have gone soft in the head and are keeping anyone who can get paper stapled between two boards in eight years.  One concern is that candidates for tenure can choose three referees out of eight, thus introducing the possibility that promotions will will be skewed by people who will drive down the quality of the Brown faculty with their dotty, biased, candidate-centric opinions. 

Jerome Sanes, professor of neuroscience and chair of the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee, said that although he approved of many of the changes, he wished the administration had more input on the final list of references.

"I think that — and this was my opinion — it was of some importance to have the administration involved in the selection of the letters that are being requested," Sanes said.

Well, everyone's got an opinion.  And tenure-track faculty?  Don't waste that extra year, you hear me?

Outstanding explanations for the lack of racial diversity in academia:  Speaking of transparency, I guess DePaul University just can't catch a break in its own effort to maintain high standards.  Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports that the school that fired Norman Finkelstein in 2007 because Harvard's Alan Dershowitz wrote an unsolicited letter condemning Finkelstein's work on the Palestinian question, has another little tenure problem.  According to reporter B. Denise Hawkins, "The university is now facing claims of racism and racial bias after it denied tenure to six professors — two Blacks, two Asian-Americans and two Latinos — but accepted all of the White tenure applicants."  Members of the faculty are demanding an internal investigation of two of the cases which, without some serious push back from the AAUP, is going to get exactly nowhere if DePaul is like other universities I am familiar with.

A nasty business, isn't?  Thinking about some issues closer to home than that (why is it that when disproportionate numbers of faculty of color stumble on the road to tenure the idea of institutional racism seems inconceivable?) I tried to look up the comparative rates of tenure for white faculty and faculty of color.  It's not so easy, and I can't come up with any figures for Latino/a faculty at all because there are so few that no one is tracking them. I did find this article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which reports recent figures showing that only 5.4% of full-time faculty in higher ed are black.  This number is, sadly, inflated by the fact that at Historically Black Colleges (HBCs), over 60% of the faculty are black.  But dig this:

Black progress in faculty posts is even more disappointing when we look at numbers and percentages of tenured faculty. In 2007 there were 13,338 blacks holding a tenured faculty post at degree-granting educational institutions in the United States. They made up 4.6 percent of all tenured faculty. Thirty-five percent of all black full-time faculty members in 2007 held tenure. For all white full-time faculty members, 44.6 percent were tenured.

According to one illustration, with the current rate of progress, black faculty should make up 14% of full time faculty in higher ed by the year 2150.  Does that make you feel better?

A second study also shows that claims by some ideologues that white men are the objects of new prejudice in the academic hiring process have no basis in fact.  As I suspected, such claims seem to be arising from the fact that white men are being treated exactly like everyone else, since employment outcomes for different groups disaggregated by race and gender differ by only a couple percentage points. This equality looks good for racial diversity on campus, however, only if you clump all self-identified non-white men and women in groups labeled "of color." According to Diversity Web, if colleges and universities are doing a poor job of tenuring faculty "of color," they are doing an even worse job of diversifying candidate pools, even though they nearly all say they are EEOC employers. "Claims that faculty of color are in great demand and subject to bidding wars are greatly exaggerated," Debra Humphreys reports, in a study sponsored by the Ford Foundation.
  • Only 11 percent of scholars of color were actively sought after by several institutions simultaneously, which means 89 percent of scholars of color were not the subject of competitive bidding wars.
  • Twenty-four percent of white men, 27 percent of white women, 26 percent of men of color, and 25 percent of women of color were among those in the study who had the most job options, which suggests a nearly even distribution of access between men and women and across race, again undercutting contentions that people of color (and especially women of color) are advantaged on the job market.
  • Contradicting the notion that campuses are so focused on diversifying faculty that heterosexual white males have no chance, white men in the study had a variety of experiences, from the 20 percent who did not receive regular faculty appointments to the 24 percent who had a favorable result in the labor market.
I understand that the professional associations are reeling from the decades-long bad job market, but why are they not getting involved in these questions and setting standards for what constitutes a fair tenure review process?  It's time to stop worrying about throwing the baby out with the bath water and make it possible for talented young people to continue working as intellectuals even -- and especially -- after they make their elders anxious.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

I wonder if the extended tenure clock has extended tenure requirements that go with it?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I have heard that there are schools with ten-year tenure clocks.

Tenured Radical said...

I too have heard of such places. I think these schools are allowing for the time snow shoveling and ice chopping takes away from scholarship.

Perpetua said...

@ Notorious - exactly my concern. As though of us who have switched institutions as assistant professors know, the "extra" years we get get/are forced on us don't equal more time to refine the book. The idea is that more time = more output. This is an increasing issue as many advanced assistants move around with a book ms in hand or assistants get jobs after having a nice multi-year post-doc. Universities don't want to use the same tenure standards they use for their "regular" assistants (ie, book plus an article or two) - thus people who produce their books before year 5 or 6 (on a 6 year tenure clock) are actually at a *disadvatange* because they are then supposed to be making "significant progress" on project #2. The problems here are multiple: what does "significant progress" mean? Does anyone know? Or is it code for arbitrary tenure decisions by departments and administrations? In addition, second projects can take a while to conceptualize fully. Many people start out with an idea only to discover after some initial research that the project doesn't have legs. Having the freedom to fail at Project 2 in order to come up with something ambitious and brilliant is one of the major perks of tenure, in my opinion. Thirdly, significant progress on Major Project 2 *without* a sabbatical is also highly problematic.

So extended tenure clocks can be great options for people who need them (ie, people who have trouble publishing or people with family/medical situations) but otherwise can turn into a nightmare for the assistant prof. I have often worried about the "extra year" routinely offered to female faculty who have children. In some institutions, I bet you dollar for donuts, faculty perceive that extra year as time she could/should be using to advance her research agenda (since many still feel that maternity leave is some kind of holiday). They are probably smart enough not to state that view out loud, but it doesn't mean it doesn't affect their decision-making.

Uncle Tweed said...

In a darker mood (or, thinking like an administrator), I might think that it's also a method for administrators to reduce costs by not having to pay the salary bump that comes with a promotion from assistant to associate professor for an additional year, and to statistically even out the ranks of a top-heavy senior/aging professorate. And perhaps also prolong the seemingly endless "apprenticeship" model of graduate education and faculty promotion....

Notorious Ph.D. said...

In some institutions, I bet you dollar for donuts, faculty perceive that extra year as time she could/should be using to advance her research agenda (since many still feel that maternity leave is some kind of holiday).

Perpetua, I personally know one woman who got precisely this from some department members, who kept referring to her "semester off."

LouMac said...

At Large State U, one of the things that's genuinely impressed me was my tenure process, and what seemed like real goodwill and helpfulness that extended all the way up the collegial and administrative tree. I know this is the exception, and I feel very lucky.

My tenure clock was extended by 3 years, one because I was hired ABD, one for my partner's illness, one for my own. I produced no more than I would have over the standard 7 years, and never got the impression that this would have been expected of me. In fact, I probably produced less, because the impact of the medical issues extended beyond the 2 years I was given off the clock. But I got tenure without any contestation.

Cynically, one could say that the university has an investment in keeping me because I'm cheap compared to a new hire (salary compression), and am a familiar and reliable department citizen. But if you're up for tenure soon, take comfort in the fact that it is possible to get tenure at a flagship state university (which thinks of itself as R1), with a tenure case that looks distinctly mediocre (a book, 2 articles, 2 book chapters).

Anonymous said...


Before you conclude that "a book, 2 articles, 2 book chapters ... looks distinctly mediocre" I'd want to know what each of the members of your committee had when their case was decided.

Is it just my impression, or has there been inflation in tenure "expectations"?

Historiann said...

LouMac & anonymous: I too wondered about the comment that a book, 2 chapters, and 2 articles is "mediocre." That was about my record when I was tenured in 2003-04, although my book wasn't published but rather just under contract. I thought it compared really well to the records of those who came before me in my department, but I was rapidly outclassed by my junior colleagues just a few years later, some of whom had books in print plus articles and book chapters.

In short, yes, tenure standards have risen precipitously, but that shouldn't surprise us given the job market for the last 40 years. What's a little surprising is that the standards took so long to rise at many places. (At least, it seems like this is a phenomenon of the last decade or 15 years that we see and hear of people who aren't at R-1s coming up for tenure with books in print plus a list of articles as long as their arms. But that may just my relatively short vantage, being just 14 years post-Ph.D.)

LouMac said...

Anonymous and Historiann - I went up for tenure in my 10th year, not my 7th. Given the extra 3 years, in many places my productivity would have been seen as quite low, especially since I have no coherent second project.

This is not to negate your points about inflated tenure standards, which are absolutely on the mark. Many of my most senior colleagues would have been considered superstars if they had done what we are now routinely expected to do. However, my institution seemed to hold me to a fairly standard 7-year expectation, despite my extra time - I just wanted to give encouragement to others in the same position. In what could have been the most dehumanising of processes, i actually felt treated like a human.

theVikingDiva said...

... only 5.4% of full-time faculty in higher ed are black. This number is, sadly, inflated by the fact that at Historically Black Colleges (HBCs), over 60% of the faculty are black.

That is only "inflation" if you assume those faculty would not have gone into academia anywhere BUT an HBCU (which may be true for some individuals). But it is really better described as a non-random distribution - one that says something about the historic (and current) opportunities for black faculty, and about the attractions of the mission, history, and climate typical of these schools.

Tenured Radical said...

True, Viking Diva: I misspoke. What I meant was that the 5.4% includes the number of faculty at HBCUs, pointing to a much lower percentage at non-HBCU schools.

Anonymous said...

From on the ground in Providence: this 8-year business is driven overwhelmingly by Brown's efforts to enhance its profile as a science and engineering school. In fields driven by external grants and where new faculty need to spend several years getting labs up and running, it turns out that 6 years just isn't enough. What this change means is that humanities faculty are now working within a system designed to suit the needs of a very different kind of academic work. Suffice it to say, few humanities faculty think an 8-year clock is a good idea and recognize that it can and will be used to demand additional scholarly production. However, departments can hold the line by continuously bringing people up in year 6 and in maintaining current tenure expectations (in History, book in hand and evidence of second project). It is worth noting context for the reconsideration of tenure processes at Brown: the 2008-9 accreditation report-- chaired by the president of Penn-- concluded that the major obstacle to raising Brown's academic reputation was its too high rate of tenure.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 2:05: "the 2008-9 accreditation report-- chaired by the president of Penn-- concluded that the major obstacle to raising Brown's academic reputation was its too high rate of tenure."

Wait, what? A university that gets its stellar reputation partially by hiring only the tippy-top of candidates now has to tell some of them at year 6 [7, 8] that they're just not up to snuff, or else its reputation falls?

I understand that the tenure process is designed to weed out people who are, in scholarly terms, one-hit wonders. I accept that for whatever reasons, some percentage of people who made it through the Ph.D. won't get tenure (though I don't think those reasons are random, and I suspect many are related to work-life balance in some form.)

This logic, OTOH, sounds like to me that the "reputation" system is built on playing Russian roulette with the careers of highly educated professionals. ("If Oligarch U puts 3 bullets in its 6-shooter, then clearly we're not as elite as Oligarch unless we do too.") That, friends, is a recipe for faculty psychosis at any institution.

The pre-tenure job market is a shark tank, but the most comforting thing I've ever heard a job committee say was, "We want you to get tenure, and we try not to make offers to people unless we're confident that they'll meet the standards easily."

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In fields driven by external grants and where new faculty need to spend several years getting labs up and running, it turns out that 6 years just isn't enough.

Importantly, it is not enough time to determine if an NIH-funded investigator is going to obtain their first large-grant renewal, which is--most likely correctly--perceived as the best indicator of long-term sustained productivity. This is because their first initial large grant is likely to be awarded two or three years after starting, and the duration of the grant is likely to be four or five years.