What We Measure Is What We Value

The tenure and promotion documents currently floating around our colleges and universities do not necessarily reflect what should be rewarded, argues Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

August 22, 2019
 
 
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They say that budgets are moral documents. And they are. The decisions we make about how we will generate resources and how we will expend them are just that: decisions. Regulatory and systemic constraints govern budgets, but we still have room to make choices.

If you are a public institution, for example, the state will only fund you according to a specified formula. But you may choose to augment that sum by, say, spending marketing dollars to recruit out-of-state students, creating a differential tuition model. And once that money is in your coffers, you have additional choices. Should you work hard on first-year retention by hiring more advisers? Does your organizational structure need an overhaul, and should you hire a consultant to provide input? Are you developing a cool new program in graphic design, and should you add some new faculty lines to that area? In the end, such decisions will reflect the character and values of the institution.

Similarly, I would contend, tenure and promotion guidelines are moral documents. What we say we will measure and evaluate is a reflection of what we value. Requiring a monograph for tenure is another way of saying that the single-author, book-length piece of scholarship is the coin of the realm. Emphasizing peer and student teaching evaluations over research in promotion considerations is another way of indicating that pedagogy and effective instruction are what a particular department or institution has chosen to elevate as the most important benchmark of a candidate's success.

I would also argue, however, that this piece of the higher ed puzzle is often not done well. The tenure and promotion documents currently floating around our colleges and universities do not necessarily reflect what we value. Yet this is also an arena where faculty members have a considerable amount of influence. While it varies from institution to institution, department or program faculty members often write and revise and administer such guidelines. Although certainly subject to additional levels of approval, the conversation frequently begins at the department level, where disciplinary experts can shape the documents and, in turn, make clear statements about what they value.

So let’s start at the beginning. I continue to be amazed by the number of people who tell me that their department has no written tenure and promotion guidelines. Or if there are written guidelines, they are frustratingly opaque. That only serves to further complicate the experience of junior faculty members and other colleagues who are left frustrated and demoralized. If we don't have clear written guidelines, then we are saying that we value exclusivity, secrecy and creating a culture that does not encourage the success of our colleagues.

But allowing that your institution does have guidelines, it's worth taking a look to see what they actually say. We reward and recognize what they say we value. How representative are they of work being done in your discipline or profession? Do they actually reflect how and what people are publishing and teaching? Academic scholarship is changing in significant ways -- have our promotion and tenure guidelines caught up to those changes? (I suspect that the answer is often no.)

New colleagues -- trained in new methodologies, teaching and researching in new fields -- may not fit particularly well with our existing criteria. For example, in my own field, history, where the number and type of digital humanities projects have grown, the profession has wrestled with how to evaluate this type of scholarship. (Recognizing it as scholarship, rather than simply an add-on to teaching or service, was itself a huge step forward.) While not directing how this work should be counted in individual departments, the American Historical Association has developed guidelines for evaluating this work. It recently also did the same for the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. Next, we need to do something similar so that we can recognize the significant types of public-facing work -- like writing op-eds or policy briefs through which scholars communicate their ideas and research to different or broader audiences -- with which many academics routinely engage. Where such guidelines already exist, they provide the beginning of a road map -- with a professional disciplinary imprimatur -- to help departments that want to construct new guidelines do so.

Revising these criteria is dicey business. They are documents over which faculty members have considerable influence and are guidelines that have defined our departmental colleagues and their careers. As a consequence, people often have a very personal investment in what these guidelines say. Colleagues who made their career on a traditional path to tenure and promotion may resist the incorporation of new requirements that recognize digital scholarship, the scholarship of teaching and learning, or public engagement.

That said, this is work that actually lies within the purview of faculty. If you are in a senior (and thus relatively protected) position and committed to making these changes, it is work worth doing. Take ownership. Raise this at a faculty meeting, offer to head up a subcommittee tasked with creating changes or new documents, discuss this with the academic leadership at your institution. Anything you can do to make it part of your departmental or institutional agenda is a step forward.

Yes, it will be uncomfortable, possibly even for you. But if we believe that new and exciting work that doesn’t fit the old model of how to advance through the faculty ranks is occurring in our disciplines, then it is time to begin recognizing such efforts. And the moral documents that equip us to do that are our promotion and tenure guidelines.

Ultimately, the success of our colleagues will be measured against these yardsticks. What we count and measure is a reflection of what we value. The question is whether that reflection is accurate or distorted.

Bio

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College, Mandel Professor in Humanities, and a professor of history at Cleveland State University. She blogs about issues in higher education at Tales Told Out of School and tweets @school_tales.

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