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Tenure Changes Coming to Brown U.

February 8, 2011

Brown University's faculty members have approved, in concept, changes in how the institution will reward tenure, including extending the maximum probationary period to eight years from seven.

With 85 percent of the faculty voting in favor of the general thrust of the recommended changes, the 170-30 vote in December represented a stark turnaround from the faculty's previous stance. In October, faculty members bristled at efforts floated by Provost David Kertzer and an ad hoc committee to make tenure -- a process once lauded as exemplary at Brown -- more difficult to earn. The faculty will consider codifying the new rules in a vote later this month.

The changes include extending the length of the first probationary contract from three years to four years, increasing the number of external letters submitted in support of a tenure bid from five to eight, and keeping confidential from tenure candidates a list of external scholars who will evaluate their application (though a minimum of three of these scholars will be drawn from the candidate's list of suggestions).

While some changes to the substance of the plan were made between October and December, what seemed to truly pave the way for faculty assent was a shift in approach, said Cynthia Garcia Coll, the Charles Pitt Robinson and John Palmer Barstow Professor of Education, Psychology and Pediatrics, and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee (Brown does not have a formal senate).

Rather than trying to circumvent the faculty governance structure in place by simply asking faculty members to approve or reject the measure, Coll said the administration allowed them to carefully mull over the measure's implications and own the decision. "If you have a university that believes and says it’s faculty governed," she said, "you need to be sure the faculty is given enough time to process, debate change, and argue and all that."

Kertzer offered a different take. He attributed much of the initial resistance to defensiveness. "Brown is an outstanding place, and people thought that any kind of recommendation that we could do things better cast in doubt somehow the things that we have been doing," he said.

Some of the underlying reasons for the changes were also perceived differently by faculty members and administrators. Kertzer said that 75 percent of "tenurable" faculty at Brown now have tenure. Beginning in 2001, Brown started hiring 100 junior faculty members, many of whose tenure determinations are looming. If existing procedures -- in which 87 percent of assistant professors who are nominated for tenure receive it -- remained unchanged, the rate of tenured faculty at Brown would likely return to levels seen before the infusion of new faculty. In years past, Brown was identified by the American Association of University Professors as having the highest rate of tenured faculty -- at 82 percent -- among its peer Ivy League and highly selective private colleges, said Kertzer. The lowest among the data he cited was Columbia University, with 59 percent, while the University of Pennsylvania was closest to Brown, with 78 percent. Administrators and trustees were worried that a return to previous tenure levels would lead the university to ossify, he said. "If you tenure a high number of eligible faculty, you can’t bring in new blood and new ideas," said Kertzer.

Coll said she disregarded the relative rate at which tenure was granted, because she wanted to focus on what was good for Brown. Instead, faculty members were more concerned about the process. "We’re dealing with procedures -- to make them clear, transparent and fair," she said. "Will it change the tenure rate? I have no idea. I don’t care. I don’t feel I need to be compared to anything."

Both sides, however, recognized the value of lengthening from seven to eight years the maximum allowable probationary period before the tenure decision is made. Kertzer said the idea originated from the biology faculty, who pointed to the increasing competitiveness of external grants and publications. While these changes were resisted, at first, by those in the humanities, they eventually came around, he said. "That was an example of something that spawned a lot of heat at the beginning, but, in the end, was not heated."

The most notable change won by the faculty was one preserving each department's role in determining external referees. The deans will review the list of external scholars in consultation with the department, and can recommend to the department additional referees rather than determining the final selection themselves.

 

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