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Changing the Tenure Rules -- Without Telling Anyone?

April 1, 2008

When assistant professors talk about the ever more stringent standards for winning tenure, one of the favorite metaphors is of colleges "raising the bar." At Baylor University, assistant professors who came up for tenure this year believe that not only did they face a higher hurdle, but they were forced to jump while blindfolded.

That's because, several university officials said, senior administrators have come to believe that departmental standards were not rigorous enough and so applied new standards, which have never been shared with faculty leaders, let alone with those who submitted tenure portfolios under the old standards. Largely as a result, tenure denials at Baylor this year -- which have been about 10 percent annually in recent years -- shot up to 40 percent.

Twelve of the candidates were denied tenure this year, and while some are always denied, two statistics are raising particular concern at the university:

  • Nine of the 12 rejected candidates had the support of both their departments and the universitywide faculty committee that reviews candidates after the departmental evaluation. In the past at Baylor, it has been rare for the president to overturn recommendations that had solid backing at all the levels of faculty review.
  • The rejection rate was particularly high for women. Of the nine women up for review, six were rejected.

Matt Cordon, chair of the Faculty Senate and a law professor, said that this year's tenure cases raise significant issues on both fairness and the faculty role in shared governance. "The administration determined that the departments' standards weren't enough, but the departments used them, and the tenure candidates used the standards," he said, adding the no one knew of the new standards until deans reported being told of the change by the president and provost.

"If I'm a tenure candidate and I'm looking at department guidelines for tenure, and the university is going to decide those are insufficient after I've submitted my tenure notebook, how can I have gauge whether I've done enough or made enough progress?" Cordon asked.

While Cordon said he believes Baylor is a wonderful university, he said he is worried that junior faculty members won't want to come to a place where they may be completely in the dark about how they will be judged. "It's not just a moving target, it's a moving target after you think you're done," he said.

Cordon said that it is legitimate for university administrators, along with faculty leaders, to talk about tenure standards and to consider changing them. But he said that this must be done in a fair way, and that the faculty committees that review tenure cases need to be involved, so that their recommendations can have weight. He said that the administration has not offered a formal explanation of the new standards, and instead just started using new standards.

"The university is not showing any deference at all to departments or the tenure committee, and that raises real questions about shared governance," he said. "We don't know what kind of criteria we have if these decisions are being made after the fact."

Rene D. Massengale, an assistant professor of biology, is among those who have just been denied tenure. She said that during her six years at Baylor, the departmental standards for tenure review changed three times, but she thought she had prepared a portfolio reflecting the latest requirements. She said that she received a "form letter" from the university -- something other rejected candidates also reported -- saying she had not sufficiently excelled in research.

Massengale said that during her time at the university, she won outside grant support and published a series of journal articles. Her frustration was being told that the standards she had received weren't the ones used. "I understand the need for improving the rigor of science and the quality of research, but the challenge is that when you are shooting to a specific set of criteria and those criteria are changed and we're not aware of it, that's a problem," she said.

Another professor, denied tenure despite backing at the departmental level and from the universitywide committee, said: "The tenure process here has transparency gaps a mile wide. Students have little input, faculty, even less, and the administration, no accountability at all."

Lori W. Fogleman, a spokeswoman for Baylor, said that she couldn't say anything about the specific cases because tenure cases are personnel situations that require confidentiality. She noted that those rejected by President John M. Lilley have the right to appeal.

Fogleman characterized the response on campus as "what happens every year" at colleges nationwide when some professors are denied tenure. She said that the university's president and provost value "the input of those who contribute to the tenure decision" and discuss their decisions with deans and the university tenure committee. She also said that each case is judged on its "own merit."

While Fogleman is correct that tenure denials cause pain on lots of campuses and create plenty of controversies, many campuses don't see sharp, unexpected increases in the percentage of candidates denied, or have faculty leaders saying that the standards were changed after the fact. Asked if these circumstances raised questions about the situation at Baylor, Fogleman again noted the right of rejected professors to appeal.

She added that after recommendations are made by various players in the tenure review process, "it's the president's job to examine the recommendations and the feedback provided from different levels throughout the process and make a decision."

Many at the university link the tenure denials in part to Baylor 2012, a plan to join the upper ranks of research universities. Baylor has historically seen itself as a teaching-oriented university, and some faculty critics have worried that the plan would shift the institution away from that mission. While university officials have said that they want to remain focused on students, they have repeatedly indicated their hope for more stature (and outside financial support) in research.

Cordon, the Faculty Senate chair, said that professors appreciate the interest of the administration in improving Baylor. But he questioned the realism of the plans -- and of applying standards now that assume a transformation has already taken place.

"I don't think there's a problem of aiming for the top tier," he said. But he said that the new standards appear to be based on "aspirant peers" that Baylor hopes to emulate, not the university's actual peers. He said that the university appears to want research achievements of the sort found at universities with much larger endowments, and the facilities, graduate programs and grant support that go with larger endowments. "It's unrealistic to expect that when we don't have the facilities and funds -- to think you are going to have a new faculty in four years" just because a strategic plan has been adopted, Cordon said.

Cordon said that as he looks at those who were rejected for tenure this year, they "are people who have contributed to the university -- in research, outstanding teaching and service. We're losing very good people."

The Lariat, the student newspaper, published an editorial in which it expressed support for the goal of improving the university, but criticized the tenure denials because they were based on standards people didn't know existed. The newspaper quoted a professor as saying that while tenure rejections are part of academic life, a university with good systems in place wouldn't have so many people shocked by decisions, and wouldn't have faculty committees using one standard and the president another.

"It's one thing to ask tenure candidates to aim for excellence," the editorial said. "It's another thing entirely to require them to triple the number of publications you initially ask from them. Telling your tenure hopefuls that they have to write eight articles and really expecting them to write anywhere from 16 to 24 is downright ridiculous."

 

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