Let's begin with a riddle: When is Purdue University to be preferred over Harvard? You might guess that there is an agriculture or engineering program at Purdue that Harvard cannot match. But we had something less rational in mind: namely, the annual spring ritual in which department heads seek outside letters of evaluation for faculty members being considered for tenure and promotion.
A few years ago, a friend of ours who played that role at a large public university experienced a little more than the usual level of frustration. Like many higher education administrators, the provost at this university had announced that outside letters evaluating candidates for tenure had to be from "peer" institutions. It is standard, though far from rational, for administrators to insist that outside letter writers must come from schools at least as good, but the short-lived pasha at this university added a less common caveat: the letters should not be from either lessor or greater institutions. Based on the institutional categories used at the time, there were 32 public research universities sharing the institution's rank. They were to be the only acceptable sources of evaluation letters. Letters from Ivy League universities or distinguished liberal arts colleges would not do. In a choice between Purdue and Harvard, you'd best choose Purdue.
Like faculty all over the country, we endure only slightly less crazy rules at Illinois and Indiana, where "equal or better" quality institutions are mandated, among other credentials, for letter writers. Last year an administrator at one of our institutions pushed his glasses down his nose, looked wisely over them, and asked "Is Penn State really a peer institution?" A department at another college had to reject the possibility of using a letter from an internationally renowned sociologist at Louisiana State University because the university was considered no match for his own. Then of course there are the apples and oranges matches: How do you compare a small, distinguished liberal arts college to a megauniversity?
Our own universities are hardly unique in employing such practices. Precisely because they are so common across the academy, the time has come for a national meditation on the procedures commonly associated with promotion and tenure. We begin with letters of recommendation because they are one of the more conspicuous and egregious components of a system in dire need of an overhaul. That's what we want to advocate here: a reform of the practices associated with awarding tenure and promotion to younger faculty and an equally serious reform of the procedures employed in promoting tenured associate professors to the rank of professor.
In some ways the rampant insanity of the process is even more striking in the latter case, where a lifetime employee is implicitly told: "You've done a great job, and we want to promote you. But over the next year we want you to assemble a lengthy dossier about yourself while we seek out poorly paid -- or unpaid -- experts to prove to us that you're worth it. Meanwhile, we may raise unpredictable and demeaning doubts about your qualifications. After we've finished with a ritual that makes fraternity hazing seem compassionate by comparison,we'll let you know if you've met the grade."
At a major Midwestern university this year, colleagues await the final decision in the case of an associate professor of philosophy up for promotion to full professor. He is the author of two books, each 400 pages in print, the co-editor of a massive reference book, and the author of half a dozen articles. His department voted unanimously to promote him. Then the problems began.
Although his outside letters were all clearly positive and supportive of promotion, some members of a college review committee felt they were not positive enough. That opened the door to a series of additional ill-informed complaints: he hadn't presented enough conference papers; he had no outside grants; the time between the publication of his two authored books was too great; he hadn't directed enough dissertations.
Cast aside as irrelevant was his decade of service in his department. Cast aside was the evidence of his devoted mentoring of graduate students not in his field. He had spent a summer writing the department's 60-page guide to graduate study. Cast aside was the evidence in both his writing and his teaching that he is a passionately committed intellectual. Cast aside was the judgment of both his colleagues and the outside referees.
After berating the philosophy department head for even proposing the promotion, the college committee voted against promotion. An appeals committee reacted in obvious anger, urging that the dean write a strong letter endorsing the promotion. Another committee is now reviewing the decision.
Why did the college executive committee act with such cruelty and irrationality? Why humiliate a faculty member who already has tenure? Why chip away at a case in which the faculty member has met all objective criteria?
The answer may have come from a dean at Indiana, who remarked recently that wholesale retirements over the last few years have made it impossible to appoint a competent college committee. There just aren't enough sane senior faculty members available to make up a committee with a sense of institutional history, a rational sense of fairness and an in-depth knowledge of campus standards. It is hard to rely on a college executive composed of three chimpanzees, a scorpion, a pit viper, and a coma patient.
Meanwhile, they are egged on by empty demands from provosts and chancellors to ratchet up "standards." At some point ratcheting up the standards for outside letters merely means institutionalizing paranoia. For many years we have argued that the scholarly achievements and status of the individual referee should be the basis of comparison. No sale.
We are told that a faculty member at a liberal arts college will not understand the standards at a major research institution. Of course that is complete nonsense. The standards at major schools are well known. Anyone actively participating in the profession will fully understand the criteria for tenure at the best institutions. It's the standards at the other end of the spectrum -- at small colleges with modest or largely nonexistent expectations for publication -- that are often mysterious.
When administrators demand letters from institutions that are equal or better, the latter is often preferred. This is all part of the pressure to increase standards for promotion. Since administrators cannot actually evaluate a candidate's work, they must ratchet up such "objective" criteria as the quality of colleges approached for outside letters. This goes hand in hand with demands for increased numbers of publications.
We'd rather see a candidate have one splendid book than three average ones, but judging the quality of scholarship requires serious intellectual engagement with a person's work. Hardly a job for a multidisciplinary committee or an administrator outside the field.
As we saw in the case of the philosopher, once the outside letters leave the department they may be subjected to another strange rite of passage. They are read and reread in search of doubts, criticisms, or exceptions. In a world organized into paranoid hierarchies, any reservations in a letter are immediately seized upon as evidence of "the truth." Praise is considered suspect or formulaic; criticism is obviously heartfelt, honest, sincere, and unfailingly insightful. The one point of criticism in a single letter may carry more weight than a stack of superlatives. Outside evaluators who insert a criticism or two to make their letters balanced have obviously not learned how the game is being played.
All this makes the departmental vetting of potential referees increasingly difficult and increasingly necessary. Publishers have long known that a manuscript should be evaluated by someone sympathetic to the kind of work being done who can then decide whether the work is done well. Anything else is a waste of time and potentially unfair. You do not send a feminist scholar's book to a Taliban cleric to evaluate it, because you know what to expect from such a reader.
Of course that is essentially exactly what happened to many feminist scholars in the 1970s, when it was widely assumed anyone really knowledgeable would be biased in favor of the work. Scholars working in new or marginal areas are still subjected to the same disabling ideology and outside letter writers are sought out who are either ignorant or antagonistic. But the reverse can be equally risky. If an aggressively traditional scholar may be a bad bet to review innovative work, a scholar deeply committed to recovering, say, forgotten gay poetry may not be a wise choice to review someone writing about Catholicism in modern literature.
A reasonable match between the research expertise of candidate and evaluator is the best bet. Unless, of course, the candidate seeks to overturn the dominant values in a particular field. One of us recently encountered exactly that problem with a brilliant candidate who received problematic letters and was denied tenure as a result, despite a unanimous positive vote by a department convinced he was the best untenured person in the field. What all this suggests, at the very least, is that the character and quality of the referee should trump such considerations as where he or she teaches.
"Character" can be understood in both professional and personal terms as well. It is crucial to the enterprise that reviewers not only be accomplished intellectuals but also rational, fair-minded human beings. Does the person step back and judge work on its own terms? Or does the person tend to say what sort of book or essay he or she would have written and criticize the candidate for failing to do so? There are no certainties in these matters, but running the names of possible referees by a knowledgeable colleague in the field can eliminate notoriously destructive scholars.
Such considerations should also trump academic rank. It should be clear that accomplished associate professors are fully capable of judging -- and in some cases better able to judge -- certain kinds of scholarship than are many full professors. A generation ago, associate professors regularly served as outside referees. Now the standards have been "raised;" at our institutions and others they are virtually prohibited.
Then there is the recurring nightmare for department chairs, as one of us happens to be: trying to find authors for the number of letters required. This year Indiana's English department set out to assemble papers for one assistant and four associate professors. At Indiana each case requires 8 letters. That figure, happily, is down from a previous requirement of 10 -- all the extra two letters did was increase the chance of bagging a cranky letter writer and throwing the case into crisis.
To reach the total of 40 letters required for this year's 5 candidates, nearly 80 faculty were contacted. Eighty names vetted and researched, submitted, and approached. Many didn't even bother to respond to an initial e-mail request, apparently deciding even that amount of labor was more than they were willing to exert. Many more politely declined. Several responded rudely. Others mimicked their undergraduates, dreaming up reasons to say no. Fortunately, this year no one's grandmother passed away suddenly.
Not surprisingly, in such a climate department chairs call on their brother and sister chairs, souls sympathetic to the dilemma. Old debts are called in. At times, a kind of quid pro quo system develops; you help me this year, I'll help you next. Anxiety, abjection, occasional despair of ever completing the task -- all these are byproducts of the process for both chairs and candidates.
A few years ago in "The Random Insanity of Letters of Recommendation" ( The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1, 2002), Deirdre McCloskey called the use of outside letters "a scandalous failure of common sense. It is corrupt, dishonest, unscientific." Since then, matters have only become worse. McCloskey urged "the responsible body to read the candidate's work and discuss its intellectual quality with immediate colleagues in a context of believably disinterested assessments from outside."
Some departments would be capable of holding such discussions, though the paranoid ratcheting up of standards makes any admissions of weaknesses in a candidate very dangerous indeed. But few college or campus level committees are any longer competent to serve this role.
Deans should be willing to invest resources in both internal committees and external referees. Given the increased risk that the single disciplinary representative on a multidisciplinary committee may be an assassin or a fool, it may be necessary to assemble separate committees to assess candidates in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and fine arts. Members of these committees might be compensated by a released course to give them time to conduct thoughtful reviews.
External reviewers who are expected to read a substantial amount of work and write detailed letters of evaluation should be compensated financially, as the Modern Language Association recommends. At present, humanities reviewers read much and write detailed letters. Scientists read much less and often write a perfunctory paragraph or two of confirmation.
Our own departments pay about a $100 for an evaluation -- far better than not paying, which is unfortunately the option most colleges choose, but still far less than adequate. The University of Minnesota pays $300 and makes it clear that it expects a thorough, detailed report. The University of Notre Dame provides $200 and expects the same.
While still far less than one would typically be paid for giving a single guest lecture at a university, Minnesota's practice is at the high end of the scale; it represents dignified compensation and generates more complete, thoughtful, and reliable letters. If other institutions did the same, the process would be improved over all.
Limiting the number of letters required also makes sense, especially since many faculty members receive several such requests every year. It is not unusual for referees writing numerous letters to spend a full week or two reading materials and composing reports. Two weeks of uncompensated labor can make anyone grumpy and less careful.
The aim is not to guarantee positive letters, but rather to assure every candidate a measure of justice and dignity. If hiring committees have done their jobs well and carefully chosen new faculty whose talents meet the needs, expectations, and ambitions of the department, then most probationary faculty members should earn tenure.
Worst of all is a set of problematic letters for a candidate whose teaching and research the department genuinely admires. As the standard for letters becomes increasingly higher and the price to be paid for one negative letter becomes ever more commonly catastrophic, the process risks becoming arbitrary and insane.
Campus review committees determined to raise standards can, in turn, become suspicious of departments that consistently assemble positive letters for their strong candidates, as if it were somehow a setup. On the other hand, when a department believes in a candidate but cannot gather appropriate letters the campus considers the department incapable of making sound judgments on its own. Negative views always trump positive ones. It is a high stakes game in which the best interests of the institution -- retaining quality faculty -- can too easily be set aside.
At the very least, some distinctions between tenure decisions and promotion to full professor need to be enforced. We would not grant the latter casually or for time served in rank. But an associate professor who has clearly met the standards for publication should be promoted in rank. Such promotions should always entail increased compensation. And campus review committees should overlook minor weaknesses in those cases.
There should be an institutional commitment to collegiality and to creating a positive workplace, both aims that are undermined when people who already have lifetime tenure are humiliated and degraded. A more exacting standard may be warranted when the decision to grant lifetime tenure is at stake, but even then sanity demands that the preponderance of the evidence be the standard. When committees ignore the preponderance of the evidence and focus on minority opinion they inflict wounds that even survivors of the process can carry for years.
Our experience suggests the tenure process now occasionally goes crazy, but it is not impossible to see how the system can be improved.
Cary Nelson and Stephen Watt
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stephen Watt is professor of English and chair of the department at Indiana University. They are co-authors of Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education and, most recently, of Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy, both published by Routledge.
Who would have thought that the number three could wield such power?
It’s such a simple, unimposing numerical value; almost cute in appearance. Yet as it turns out, this small digit is value-packed. "Three" is apparently a well-known assessment measure, a highly accurate indicator of academic prowess. Or so I’m told. This number is the key at my institution, at least in most departments, to determining which young faculty should be kept for the long haul or discarded back into the pile. If the latter occurs, it is a gross understatement to simply say that a pink slip has been handed out. There is finality in that decision, because so many who have been sent packing at one institution cannot endure the thought of being rejected again. Oftentimes, a career in academia has been put to an end.
How did three get selected to be so important, so insightful, so utterly determinative? Why was this number picked instead of, say, 4, or even 10? I do not have those answers. What I do know, or have been told, is that standards must be set, a proverbial bar must be attained. And that at any respectable place of employment, at least one to be recognized by U.S. News and World Reports, the standard cannot be lower than three.
I am referring, if you hadn’t guessed, to the number of publications needed, under most circumstances, to be awarded tenure at my institution. Why am I so cynical about this? No doubt some of you may say that three publications is a reasonable expectation over a six year time frame. Let me be clear: The actual value of three publications is not that troublesome to me.
What frustrates me is that the standard for research and scholarship at my institution and in my department has (I should say had) always been vague. In fact, during my ‘probationary faculty’ daze, I would meet annually with my department chair and dean to ask what the target was for research publications. I wanted a number. If nothing else I was looking for reassurance and piece of mind. I would usually hear "You are on the mark" or "Don’t worry, your research is good." But I was never offered a numerical value.
Asking other members of the department did not help. No one offered a firm target that I could set my sights on. After asking many times, I was finally told that the department did not have an exact number that the tenured members were looking for. Rather, I would need at least one publication for tenure, but two or three would be better. My interpretation of that statement was three is safe, but more is probably in the comfort zone.
So prior to my time to apply for tenure, I worked to far surpass the firmly vague target presented to me. Mission accomplished. I surpassed the target, and thankfully, the tenure process went very smoothly. However, I struggled with the reality that no one would commit to a narrowly focused standard for research during my probationary window. Mentally, I wanted to know the exact goal. But the exact height of the illustrious bar that I needed to clear was kept secret.
As I understand it, the vagueness allowed some wiggle room. For example, in an instance when someone was a dynamic teacher and provided exceptional service to our students, department and/or college, it was potentially permissible to be only so-so as a scholar and still make tenure. A hard and fast research standard would conceivably injure these individuals. And after all, I needed to remember that our primary focus as a college and department was on undergraduate education. Teaching is of prime importance at schools with such a mission, and service rivals research. Although vagueness is an approach that is difficult for a biologist like me to grapple with, I came to appreciate the intent.
This admittedly awkward research standard was the norm at my institution for quite a long period of time -- until recently. But research expectations have changed college-wide. Determining exactly when has been difficult, but the climate here is most certainly at a different place than it was a few years back. Vagueness was replaced with exactness. A numerical value was established as the minimum standard for being on track for tenure: three is that value, and the value shall be three. This is the target that the administration uses as the measure for evaluating a tenure application, at least for those in the sciences. Notice that I have not mentioned teaching or service. The reality is that those responsibilities have been moved to a somewhat different level of significance in the evaluation process.
I sought such a standard when I was an untenured faculty member, so shouldn’t I be ecstatic now, or at least satisfied? But I am not. The number that I have mentioned arrived rather suddenly on campus and in stealth-like fashion. And it has taken a toll.
About seven years ago, my department hired a promising young biologist who was enthusiastic about teaching and already established as a talented researcher. She was hired during our “vagueness” period. She was told the same thing that I was years earlier: for research publications, one is a must, more is better.
But while this young faculty member was traveling down this path, a detour suddenly appeared: The exactness period was ushered in. The short version of a rather nasty story is that my colleague was seemingly held to the new standards. It goes without saying that, if true, this was not a fair or appropriate practice for tenure protocol. No doubt you have predicted the outcome of her tenure decision: She was denied. Notice that I have not mentioned whether I thought she deserved tenure, because that is not the point. Her shortcoming was that she did not meet “the power of 3.”
My message is not a mere plaint on behalf of a fallen colleague. It is larger than a single individual. The current trend in higher education is to focus on scholarship, more correctly on scholarly output, most notably at schools that have traditionally served as predominantly undergraduate institutions. This in and of itself is not a poor strategy. I personally believe that teaching and research are intimately woven, and that an excellent teacher is most likely an outstanding scholar. So I embrace the idea of elevating research at my institution when the pursuit of knowledge and discovery will generate excitement and passion within the classroom.
But an appropriate balance between teaching and research must be established. The reality is that any faculty member at an undergraduate college or university must juggle heavy teaching responsibilities with mentoring, advising and college service, all while remaining a productive scholar. Unfortunately, as the demands for the latter increase, it can only come at the expense of the other responsibilities, including time dedicated to family. This means that teaching, mentoring and advising lose importance out of necessity.
Clearly, priorities are being confused. In the current market place, many institutions are competing for high quality students. The competition is made more intense by the soaring costs of attending college, particularly at private institutions. Regardless, schools that were outstanding because of the original mission (educating undergraduates) are trying to redefine themselves. The cost is becoming enormous in terms of the potentially diminished education provided to the students and in terms of the faculty that get discarded along the way.
This fall, I started the term without my friend and colleague. She has moved on. Thankfully for the students, she has stayed in academia. I understand that change is inevitable and that progress can only come through change. So maybe our new standards will in fact elevate my college to a higher level, allowing us to achieve academic accomplishments our students never reached before. Maybe.
Or just maybe the members of the college will like the taste of elevated scholarship and want to drink more rather than integrating it with our undergraduate mission. I am afraid the latter will take hold. The faculty governance on my campus already is debating whether the tenure standard should be raised even higher, and a member of the Board of Trustees has stated that the value of an undergraduate education goes up each time a publication appears with our institution’s name.
A friend of mine has argued that trends in higher education move like a pendulum, so this current craze will come back to equilibrium at some point. I’m not so confident. It appears that our pendulum lacks counterbalance, at least at the moment, and may just as easily rise so high that it crashes back down on top of us.
David B. Rivers
David B. Rivers is an associate professor of biology at Loyola College in Maryland.
When she interviewed at the university, my friend Jill asked very few questions. During the first year, she found a mentor and worked on improving her teaching techniques. She received excellent reviews from the chair, her peers and even her students. Frequently described as "thoughtful" and "amusing," a number of students followed her throughout the English sequence.
Inspired by her ability to take even dry subjects and make them seem lively and relevant, the chair began asking her to teach other courses in the humanities. By her fourth year, Jill was teaching a graduate course each semester, in addition to the "nuts and bolts" English courses in which she was an expert. Confident that she would be teaching at this Midwestern university for some time, Jill bought a house. Although it was no mansion, this duplex would allow her to keep her two dogs downstairs while she had a paying tenant upstairs. She loved the old-fashioned trim dividing the walls, the creaky wooden stairs, the octagon shaped window in the front room. She imagined that she would grow old here.
She had found her paradise. She had a job she loved, a campus that valued her, students that would stop her outside the Buehler’s Buy-Low to say hello, canine companionship and a group of close-knit friends. She belonged.
What happened in the sixth year of her employment was a shock. The chair of her department told her that although she had excellent reviews and the campus had no complaint about her work, she was being let go. Her initial three-year contract had lapsed into a yearly renewal; after this coming year, she would have no job. She had sat there, hands trembling, refusing to cry. She asked what had happened. The chair had said dryly, "Haven’t you heard of the six-year rule?" At home she found her faculty handbook and flipped to tenure. Buried on the fourth page of that section were the terms that would now crush her future:
"Tenure… is acquired de facto in the seventh year of a faculty member’s full-time service in the tenure-accumulating ranks, unless the faculty member receives notice during the sixth year that the seventh year of employment will be 'terminal.' Tenure de facto is automatic. It is conferred without a tenure review solely by reason of the faculty member’s appointment."
Because Jill did not have a Ph.D., she was not eligible for tenure; indeed, she had never hoped for tenure. With this rule, she saw that the campus had never intended to keep her for any time; it was one thing to be renewed every year -- it was another to find that for the administration she was a temporary employee, bound to be terminated.
She felt angry. She felt betrayed. She had built her life around her teaching schedule there. She had invested her time, her energy and her heart. Her reward was six years of paid work and a notice not to return.
Bitterly, she was moved to action, readying her résumé and making phone calls. By the time she had packed her office, she had a part-time job with another local university preparing high-schoolers for college. She ate at home every day, packing a thin sandwich to carry in her eight-year old car when she worked during the day. When her health insurance ran out, she simply prayed not to get sick. After her tenant upstairs moved out, she walked the floor, realizing that she did not even have six dollars to replace the ruined baseboard by the front door. The house where she had hoped to retire had suddenly become a luxury that she would surely lose.
I met Jill at the coffee shop she used to frequent. Although she sat in front of the bookshelves that day, there was no colorful ceramic mug of coffee on the wobbly table next to her chair. When I offered to buy her a cup of tea, she adamantly refused. Proud, she would rather sit thirsty than accept charity from another. We talked for hours. I could see how students and faculty would be drawn to her. She was unpretentious, thoughtful -- even funny as she reflected on the process that has left her pocketbook empty and her soul disappointed.
I never felt awkward around her -- even though I could see that, in effect, I was the enemy. The Midwestern university that had been her home for her formative teaching years was to be my newfound employer. In two months time, I would be walking those same halls, talking to the same faculty members, teaching the same population and answering to the same department chair.
Like her, I was hired as a non-tenure track instructor. Like her, I have only an M.A., and no Ph.D. Like her, I was not told of this limitation that would result in my shortened career there. If I thought this was bad, the worse news is that this "six-year" rule is enforced at universities all over the United States. Not only had Jill and I unwittingly become fixed-term instructors, but tens of thousands of non-tenured instructors all over the United States will find themselves on the street at the seven-year mark.
Initially I had been thrilled about the offer, and thought of this town as a place to retire. One of the reasons I had accepted a job there was not only because of the prestige of working for a university, but because the department chair and dean had gone out of their way to treat me with kindness before and during the interview.
Months later when they made me an offer, I had presented them with an awkward situation -- I had already accepted an interview with a community college on the East coast. Both the dean and department chair told me that if I did decide in favor of their university, they would simply reimburse the other campus for any expenses already paid out. At the time, I was impressed. These administrators didn’t even know the folks at this small community college. Yet, they were taking the high road. Considering the impact of my decision on another, they had sought to make it right. It was a heady moment for this applicant. It made my decision very easy. Go with the campus that takes care of their own.
Now, I feel cautious. Yes, even though I have been asked on no less than 13 other interviews since I signed a three-year contract with the Midwestern university, I have decided to stick with my original decision. In August, 2005, I will be there, working to teach freshmen- and sophomore-level English composition.
Before I found out about the "six-year rule," I'll admit that my attitude was noticeably different. I had planned to decorate my shared office: posters for the walls, a rug for the floor, a bookcase for my favorite texts. I had also surfed the house-for-sale sites online, frequently printing out "zero percent down for first homebuyers" and "low down for first-time qualifiers" advertisements. I had investigated the town with a fervor that I had never felt for my own town. I had three historic books on the area and loads of sites bookmarked that described the small zoo, the combination science and art museum, the used book store, the mall, the weather -- everything.
I really thought of this move as my last in education. After six years of adjuncting in California, I was finally going to make a home in the Midwest. With the terrific reviews I had always received, I was convinced that I would be renewed until retirement; this stability would allow me to develop as an instructor and really work at retaining students year after year. The idea of a place to really contribute (and to retire) made me smile.
Now I think of this university as a place that I will park myself for three years. I have been forewarned by colleagues not to wait until the axe falls to move on -- but to start looking at the end of each academic year. To turn down no offers to interview, to take every chance to make my résumé look good, but not to stick my neck out for the campus that will provide me with only a limited chance to teach.
It’s a sad turn of events. Yes, I will teach as well as I can, but I will not be thinking of aligning myself with a particular pedagogy, with a carefully chosen mentor, with one lucky student population. In effect, I will be an adjunct again -- gauging time spent on each project or assignment, time spent with each student during an office hour, minimizing preparation time when I can, and most importantly, always thinking of where I will work next. The rolling contract system has ensured that knowledgeable, qualified (even inspired) instructors such as my friend Jill and myself will not find a home in the university system.
I understand that in 1940, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges were thinking of keeping instructors from being strung along when the associations adopted the policy that set up six-year rules. In a superficial way, I understand that non-tenured instructors would be judged on merit at the end of their probationary period (although my friend was given no such review). I applaud the concept of tenure; someday, too, I will have the security, the freedom to teach as I see fit, to interject the controversial opinion now and then, to really give all that I have to one campus, knowing that I will be rewarded with a career lifespan of support.
Of course, this will not happen for me in the university system proper; instead, I will be shopping at community colleges for a long-term position. Should I be able to afford a Ph.D. at some time, I may consider the university system again; perhaps not.
Some have suggested that the tenure system be abolished. I don't agree. But "de facto tenure" was created 60 years ago to protect contract employees from abuse. The idea was to force the university system to actually give tenure to long-term instructors who had served good time and produced viable results. Now, with a bulging market of a hundred applicants (even thousands) for each full-time teaching position, universities no longer hire on contract with the idea of giving tenure later. Instead, they lure desperate non-Ph.D.s with an initial three-year contract with the vague promise of renewal year after year.
Part of my argument is with the university administrators who allow this "six-year term" information to be buried in 157-page documents rather than having it clearly stipulated in the job description. I know from experience that there are a few faculty members on hiring committees who feel poorly about deceiving inexperienced university candidates. In an online forum, one departmental secretary confessed that she felt "like part of a conspiracy" when the chair specifically told her not to inform potential candidates of this term limit.
A staff member I know in Human Resources confided that she "could almost feel an audible exhale" when she lifted stacks of six-year term faculty from the "active" file cabinets to the archives. She says that she feels badly, but knows there is nothing she can do. "These are people, you know," she told the student assistant whose job was to load files into cardboard boxes to be filed in an almost-abandoned building a mile away.
Information breeds responsibility. But then, I’m an instructor who withholds nothing in my syllabus. On the first day of class, students know exactly what is expected of them and how to earn a winning grade. They even know how many minutes into the class hour constitutes a tardy, as well as a bi-monthly accounting spelling out what their in-class grade is and how they achieved that. It’s also clear to my students how the essays count -- exactly how they count -- into their final grade. Although I may parcel out assignments in English composition, I do not hold back on information about how my students are expected to perform. Though it means lots of thought, working and reworking of syllabi (and an extra sheet of paper), I believe that assisting adults in making solid decisions involves informing them rather than letting them stumble across the information when it is too late to do anything to influence the outcome. But then, that’s just how I work.
Flawless reviews and gushing letters of recommendation may suggest that others find my techniques (and underlying belief system) appropriate for higher education. The good news is that this budding file-folder will ensure that I continue to work in academia -- wherever I am valued.
Perhaps I am naive in my evaluation. But I know there is a heart out there somewhere. In tapping it, I ask that the American Association of University Professors consider abolishing or rewriting the "six-year rule." Let's stop the creation of a roaming, transient "third-class" of full-time adjuncts and return to the meaning of "de facto tenure" -- protecting our professors rather than allowing them to be abused.
Shari Wilson is the pseudonym of an adjunct at several colleges in California. In the fall, she will join the ranks of untenured full-time instructors at a university in the Midwest where she will stay, of course, no more than six years.
I'm a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.
Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.
Bitches and golden boys needn't work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier -- frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label -- many of our local brood are quite stunning -- for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.
After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.
Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.
There's nothing much surprising about the above -- these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What's surprising is that they're really true. This, despite the fact that we're not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators -- well-nigh the highest administrators -- are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we've left those stereotypes behind.
But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion -- being a good colleague -- gender still gets in the way.
You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they're assistants, golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we're a liberal arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It's like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out -- you can't shake the suspicion that you're being played. And while golden boys make the senior faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.
If you're in this for the long haul, then, it's a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They're married to the institution; they're, well, they're us.
Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees. Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is "who can help?" not "what should we do?" Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.
When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It's the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they've already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?). However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty's workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually, sweatily, receive their medals.
Bitches? We're tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs -- we may not smell Research 1 on this campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early -- unlike golden boys, bitches can't sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren't producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.
As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my students' self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase "buy in," and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn't be contributing.
I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. "It's nice to have you with us," he said, seven long years after my arrival on campus.
Still, it's lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I'm also, suddenly, thrilled. I'm not washed-up, I'm not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn't that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn't all that bad after all.
Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.
Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.
The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.
In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels. Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.
Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?
Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.
University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”
When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.
Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.
The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.
The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.
In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well).
The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.
At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.
The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.
The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.
Of all the tasks that confront a tenured community college professor, perhaps the least useful is the tri-annual self-evaluation. This year, I’m on the Pasadena City College committee that is reviewing the evaluation process for tenured faculty members, and last week I was handed the administration’s proposal for the new “Self-Evaluation Review of Professional Performance.”
It’s never been clear to me that anyone in the administration, from our department chairs to academic vice presidents, ever actually reads these self-evaluations. For tenured professors, reviewed once every three years, the main administrative concern is with student and peer evaluations of teaching. (We, of course, have no publishing or research requirements at the community college.) In the dozen years I’ve been at the college and involved in union politics, I’ve only heard of a handful of tenured colleagues receiving negative over-all evaluations from the administration. None have ever been dismissed. As far as I or anyone else I’ve asked knows, a poor self-evaluation has never been used against a tenured faculty member.
Here are three of the proposed questions for our new evaluation:
1. How has your perception of your role as a faculty member changed/developed since your last evaluation?
2. After taking time to reflect, what more could you do to provide students with a successful learning experience?
3. What can the college do to support you in your professional goals and development?
These are very different from the queries on our old self-evaluation forms, which simply asked us to list the courses we taught and what achievements, if any, we had had since our last evaluation. Reading these new questions, I’m struck by the increased emphasis that the college puts on never-ending personal and professional growth. These are questions to be answered by men and women who already have the security of lifetime employment, who (barring a felony conviction or gross incompetence) will never be forced to apply for another job again.
With the first question, I’m stumped. In 2002, I thought that my job as a professor was to be a good and interesting teacher, an attentive mentor, and an amiable colleague. That’s what I thought in 1999 and 1996, too. I suspect it will be my definition of a good faculty member in 2008, 2011, and beyond. But I suspect that that’s not the answer the administration wants. What shall I tell them? That I have suddenly discovered an interest in “student success”? (That’s the great buzzphrase on the lips of the Ed.D.’s who run the joint.) That it finally occurred to me to start getting my grades in on time? That I’ve at last thought better of telling sexist jokes to my women’s studies class? The notion that we ought always to be “professionally developing” suggests a career trajectory that resembles nothing more than a 30 or 40-year adolescence. Teenagers reinvent themselves with predictable regularity; the new model of faculty development seems to suggest that we do the same.
The second question is the shiny new academic version of that great interview trap question “Tell us your greatest weaknesses.” (As I recall, the correct answer to that question is “I’m a relentless perfectionist, and sometimes I’m too hard on myself.”) What more could I do than I am already doing to provide my students with a successful learning experience? Well, I could drop three-quarters of them in the first week, so that I would have more of an opportunity to mentor those who remained. I could become a far more dedicated activist to the cause of lowering textbook prices, so that my students would actually buy the books instead of trying to pass my classes on lecture notes alone. I could set up a Starbucks franchise in the corner of my classroom, so that the overworked and the over-videogamed could stay awake for a 9:00 a.m. lecture on Carrie Chapman Catt or Cato the Elder.
On the other hand, if the administration defines success as a passing grade, I could eliminate the requirement that my students form coherent English sentences. I could encourage the use of Wikipedia entries as a substitute for research papers. I could give A’s to the deserving and undeserving alike. I could, ala the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland after the races, announce that “Everyone has won, and all must have A’s”.
My colleagues and I are busting our collective behinds to reach students with limited English skills, who work three jobs, who are single parents, who are struggling with addiction. We teach five, six, and seven classes a semester, 35 to 40 students each. We have no readers or T.A.’s. But regardless, the new self-evaluation form insists that there must be more we could be doing. No matter how hard we’ve been trying, the question implies, the administration (staffed as it is by those who have rarely spent time in the classroom) feels strongly that we ought to be able to identify still more that we could be doing. Am I the only one reminded of a good old-fashioned Maoist self-criticism session?
As for the final question -- what more can the college do for us -- this is the one query that I’m confident will get an enthusiastic response. Yes, for starters, you can pay us more. You can reduce our teaching loads so that we can spend more time with our students. But above all, you can stop treating us like perpetual teenagers, doomed to a world of perpetual self-criticism and reinvention. Some of us will change over the course of our career for the better, some for the worse. And some -- not an insignificant number, either -- will continue to bring to the classroom what they have always brought, teaching at 50 much as they did at 30. Will their students be the worse off for it? I suspect not.
Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.
In my recent article, “Homeward Bound” ( The American Prospect, December 2005), I propose that the low representation of women at the highest level of the American government and economy is due in substantial measure to a steady stream of educated women deciding to leave full-time work. Recent analysis of the opt-out revolution reveals that the only group of mothers not continuing to raise their work-force participation despite economic ups and downs is mothers with graduate and professional degrees. Their numbers are flat and have been for several years. Their decisions matter because their careers, if realized, would be influential. Their decisions are a mistake because they lead them to lesser lives, by most measures, and because these decisions hurt society. And their decision is not freely chosen, even if they “chose” it, as it is made in the context of an ideology that assigns childrearing and housekeeping to women, an ideology that, interviews reveal, they themselves accept.The solution will not come from employers, who have no motivation to change economically productive behaviors, nor from the government, firmly in the hands of conservatives, who believe in the ideology. Instead, I recommend that women start by refusing to play their gendered role, preparing themselves for lives of independent means, bargaining from this position of power with the men they sleep with, only looking for help to more distant sources as a last resort.
The readers of this Web site would largely fall into my definition of highly educated people, even though academics do not normally earn salaries as large as similarly educated people in more conventional market positions. And this site has devoted substantial space to the subject of the advancement of women’s careers and the role of the reproductive family, which also inspired my American Prospect piece, reflecting a widespread debate in the academy. Does my analysis apply to the world of Higher Ed?
Straight off I confess I did not interview many academics or former academics. My data included the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Survey, the media reports of anecdotal evidence, my personal experience as a university teacher, and my interviews with the couples who announced their weddings in The New York Times on three Sundays during 1996, which sample did include a couple of academic women. After I wrote, I reconfirmed my data against the findings of economist Heather Boushey regarding highly educated women, although her failure to break out full- and part-time work makes her findings of questionable relevance to mine. The academic literature, however, includes a rich trove of data about the matter. As one would expect from a world of researchers!
For example, the American Historical Association reported that although in 1988, 39 percent of assistant professors of history were women, 11 years later, as one would have expected some of that cohort to have raised the percentage of full professors closer, if not fully, to 39 percent, the full professor ranks were still only 18 percent female. In 2003 over 45 percent of Ph.D.'s were women, while only 36 percent of the hires at the University of California were women. Judith H. White writes in Liberal Education that “while in 1998 women made up 42 percent of all new Ph.D. recipients, the portion of women faculty in the senior tenured positions at doctoral research institutions had reached only 13.8 percent -- up from 6.1 percent in 1974.”
The same article reports that careful studies out of Berkeley show that academic women having children within five years of their Ph.D. fail at tenure vastly more often than men in the same parental position. Academic women who have children later succeed at tenure just as much as childless women do. But findings from the 2001 Journal of Higher Education ("The Relationship Between Family Responsibilities and Employment Status Among College and University Faculty") also suggest that the employment of women in non-tenure-track positions is attributable in part to their marital status. Although a smaller share of women than men junior faculty are married (67 percent versus 78 percent), being married increases the odds of holding a part-time, non-tenure-track position for women but not for men. This study suggests that married men faculty and male faculty members with children are also benefiting from their marital and parental status in terms of their employment status.
This is very valuable data. One of the hottest debates in gender politics today is whether women fail at work compared to men more because of workplace hostility and discrimination or whether they fail more because of their “choice” to take their financial support from their spouses and tend the babies or the husbands and the home fires. But common sense tells us that something besides marriage must be at work. Nancy Hopkins’ groundbreaking study of resource allocation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lifted the veil on an ugly part of what goes on -- plain old discrimination, conscious or unconscious.
In this, I suspect the academy is worse than the world of finance and medicine and the like where my research subjects had worked before they quit. While no sane woman I’ve ever met claims that there are workplaces completely free of sex discrimination (it is, after all, only 85 years since the 19th Amendment!), research on gender reflects that the arena for discrimination is greater where there is not a clear monetary measure of productivity. So the world of the research university is a perfect playground for subjective opinion, including ideas about women’s proper roles, conscious or not, and the powerful lure of autobiography in each hiring committee member’s inaccessible subconscious.
But you already knew that. Nancy Hopkins and all the others have been telling you that loud and clear for what feels like 85 years as well. Is that all there is? I think not. In American Prospect, I did a Larry Summers and said that the male dominance of influential jobs is partly due to elite women’s decisions to devote themselves to childrearing and housekeeping, an opting out that is not new, but has not subsided, either. Most of the Times brides I interviewed didn’t take their work seriously and had been preparing to bail for years before their kids came. My experience in a very liberal classroom was that a lot of the female students were already preparing ... to prepare to bail. And I said it was a mistake for the women to do that and that they shouldn’t be looking for help from Jack Welch or Tom DeLay. Aw, hell, nobody from the Harvard presidential search committee was calling me anyway.
Here again the academy may be different, but in this way, better. Women may not be as eager to leave academic jobs as their well educated sisters were to quit journalism, law and publishing. There are two reasons for this. One, the hours are better. While the business magazine Fast Company reports that a 60 to 75 hour work week is typical for business leaders, ladder rank faculty with children in the University of California study (according to their own self-reporting) worked 53 to 56 hours a week. Second, university teaching is really good substantive work, between the good students and researching things that interest you and making them real, even if just in a book (like some of mine) nobody reads but mom. So it’s understandable that women faculty are pressing universities to make it possible for them to have children and stay on track, through devices like extended tenure periods and the like. Moreover, the effort to extract help from the workplace may succeed better at Harvard than at General Electric, because, when clear, objective programs are proposed, nonprofits like Harvard are not up to their eyeballs in the Hobbesian world of globalized late capitalism, so it’s easier for them to yield a little.
But in the end, it’s a fundamental mistake to ignore the gendered family in favor of putting so much emphasis on institutional programs or policies. The University of California reports that young faculty women with children work 37 hours a week on family care; if they are 34—38, they work a self-reported but staggering 43 hours a week on family care. Young dads work only two-thirds as much (25 hours); in the 34--38 age bracket the gap is even higher -- dads work half as hard as their female counterparts. No wonder, when the University of California proposed one of the many initiatives surfacing nationwide of flex time for tenure decisions, 74 percent of women with children supported the policy, but only just over half the men did. The statistics exactly mirror the difference between the dads’ family care hours and the mothers’.
Commentators on the California plan worried about the reduction in faculty productivity, especially in teaching, and the substitution of increasing numbers of serfs from the non-tenure track. Where such policies exist, it is overwhelmingly the women who take advantage of them. Stopping the tenure clock is one thing, but, as one of the commentators also asked, what will the promotion committee do when, years later, it looks at a CV half again as long for the man as for the woman? The women’s own reports of their domestic arrangements clearly show that the main guy in an academic woman’s path may not be Larry Summers after all -- he may be her own husband.
Here’s an answer to the commentators who worried about the reduction in faculty productivity and the length of male résumés. Since young faculty fathers spend two-thirds the time on family care that mothers do, why not simply require faculty fathers to produce half again as much (teaching, scholarship, whatever) at each step of the way that the faculty mothers do, rather than lowering the requirements for the women? Demanding of these pampered fellas that they work as hard, over all, as their female counterparts do would add a salutary dash of reality to their perceived superiority to women in the workplace, level the playing field and create some job opportunities for ambitious women who want to do a little extra. A modest proposal. In the end, I contend, the workplace will never be a substitute for women standing up for what they need in the reproductive family. It’s not only the tenure clock that’s the villain here; it’s the guys on the couch 12 hours a week while faculty mom does the wash. As Mothers’ Movement Online’s Judith Stadtman Tucker said in an interview, “Women will take on the worst bastard in the world rather than ask their husbands to help out.”
A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.
Linda Hirshman retired as Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University.
Submitted by Alex Golub on December 16, 2005 - 4:00am
When does one really enter the community of scholars and become a "real" professor? When you finish your Ph.D.? Perhaps -- but having a degree is very different from being a professor. What about teaching for the first time? But many people do that before they complete their Ph.D. Getting hired a professor? Getting a tenure track position? Getting tenure? As a new Ph.D. I thought these questions would end with a successful dissertation defense. And yet now as a young professor I find that the goal posts of disciplinary self-confidence seem to shift ever backwards over the horizon. Or at least they did. Today, however, my doubts have been erased with a single stroke. I now know, with a certainty and firmness beyond doubt, that I am a real professor: I have just found out I have been rated at ratemyprofessors.com.
Most obviously, I'm happy with "my reviews" because they've good (all three of them): I get a 4.8 out of 5 for overall quality.I am a "good professor," a "very great instructor," and I teach "a very interesting class." Although I was surprised to hear that in my classes there is, apparently, "no right answer." Some comments are even more enigmatic, like the one noting that "one of the books he has chosen for the class is very different from other books." But make no mistake about it, I’m gratified that someone cared enough about my course to register an opinion one way or the other, and delighted that the opinion was a good one.
In fact, comparatively my reviews are quite good -- of the four other rated profs in my department, I tie for second in terms of overall quality, although I am second to last for overall easiness (i.e. most professors are easier than I am). There is one thing that I am missing though: the coveted chili pepper icon, which indicates that at least one of my students thinks that I am "hot". This lack of hotness is something I share with only one other professor in my department. Transference: it's complicated. When I told my chili-peppered department chair that I lacked this most desired icon, he just put his hand on my shoulder and said "don't worry, Alex, it'll come. Just give it time."
What does the existence of sites like ratemyprofessors.com have to teach us? Quite a lot, actually. We professors worry constantly about how our corporeal classrooms spill out onto the Internet. Was Dan Drezner denied tenure because of blogging? Is Ivan Tribble right that blogging hurts your chance of being hired? Is it ethical for profs to blog anonymously? Ratemyprofessors.com raises a related problem: what happens when students, rather than professors, virtualize the classroom dynamic?
The first response of many professors to their virtual rating is, of course, the same one they bring to bear on their real-world evaluation: angst and denial. Frankly, I understand the usual end-of-term outpouring of complaints that professors release into the blogosphere about how unfair and unrepresentative student evaluations are. I am sympathetic to much of this, and I can understand why ratemyprofessors.com would be even more galling. Completely anecdotal, unregulated, random -- despite pretensions to quantitative rigor -- and biased, as a diagnostic of actual teacher performance it probably stinks. As someone with good ratings on the site, I can shrug off the weight of these problems. But as someone lacking the chili pepper, I know all to well how these sorts of sites can sting.
How to respond to our students' virtual evaluations? Is it wrong, in other words, to go in to my class and thank them for the rating and tell them I'd really appreciate a chili pepper? Intuitions vary wildly here, but I bet some of you reading this think that mentioning virtual discussion of a professor’s performance in class somehow violates our students’ privacy, or at least the in-class/out-of-class divide that structures so much of our relationships with our students. Here we see the strange dual nature of the Internet at work again -- writing on the Internet is both public and private, and the mediated nature of interaction on the Internet makes every blog post and Amazon review written both a personal confession made in the solitude of a glowing screen and a world-readable, deeply public statement.
There is an even more interesting question here: what about my world-readable confession? Which bounds of propriety am I crossing if I discuss my ratemyprofessors.com entry not in class but on screen? If we started with a recognition that not only professors talk out of class, then we can now ask: What happens when professors blog back?
I imagine the situation could ultimately come to resemble that in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman goes undercover and weds the Nazi Claude Rains in order to track down a post-war cabal hoping to revive the Reich. He discovers her secret, and begins poisoning her food. She knows what is happening, he knows that she knows, and she knows that he knows that she knows, but they go about as if nothing has happened in an eerie, very Hitchcock set piece in which no one is willing to admit that the game is up. It could be that my students and I could each end up blogging behind our backs, unwilling to admit in class what we have both been saying behind each other's backs.
So in some sense ratemyprofessors.com has the potential to provide me both existential solace and to affect my in-class dynamic in a way which, if not as poisonous as Claude Rains's meals, at least has the possibility of being unhealthy. Ultimately, however, I think that the way to navigate this dilemma is simply to accept it. Increasingly today young Ph.D.’s (or at least young Ph.D.’s like me) recognize that the question is not whether you will leave a data trail on the Internet, but simply what sort of trail it will be. Reconciling with the fact that information about you is going to circulate willy-nilly, means accepting that part of being a professor these days means actively construing yourself online -- shaping your data trail to make it behave the way you want it to. The solution, as I see it, is not to futilely rail against sites like ratemyprofessors.com, but to learn to live them. Which is just to say that for a professor like me, the surest sign that we have well and truly arrived is not an august sheepskin with my name on it, but a small smiley face icon next to my name at ratemyprofessors.com. Preferably with a chili pepper underneath it.
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The abuses placed upon adjunct faculty members by college administrations are legion, long-standing, and not likely to lead to change anytime soon -- despite intermittent committees, activist organizations, and other groups of well-meaning but naïve educated people. Still, hope blooms eternal and the forces of justice press onward. I am not about to add to that fray, but rather, will reflect upon a higher caste of faculty. How much higher, though, is up to debate.
Administrations rationalize their un-evenhanded -- at times underhanded -- treatment of the one or two or three section per term laborer by saying that he or she is probably enmeshed in graduate work, and the adjunct experience is a fine training ground for future full timers. But what of that group designated as non-tenured full-time faculty: Those with the one-year contracts with no promise? They labor on without the dream of a full-time job, for they already have one. In fact, in many cases they are worthy enough to receive a full plate of benefits: A job with a health plan, full-time status, and office space commensurate with that of (can we dare utter its name) an associate professor?
Yes, these are good things. If not an answered prayer for an academic, at least such a position may appear as a sign of one. But the academic fine print and the job market challenges this purported academic coup. For while the adjunct may dream of tenure-track possibilities when the dissertation is done or that refereed journal cherry picks his or her article off the crowded transom, what dreams does the year to year full-time teacher have?
For half a decade the door of my office in the humanities department was located at 45° angles to two others across the hall, forming an invisible equilateral triangle. From this vantage point, I witnessed the injuries of cast and class of this species of scholar. One office was easily visible by a leftward turning glance. It was inhabited by an associate professor; the office further up was apportioned to a full-time non-tenured year-to-year man. While the geometry was ineluctable, the effects upon these two professors -- equally matched in education, competency, and age -- was all too palpable. As the months and years went by, and the mien of the overworked scholar grew wearier, I recalled an essay by Isak Dinesen wherein she lamented the suffering of oxen, who because of the insensitivity of the farmers to notice how poorly designed were the creatures' wooden collars, doomed the poor animals to a lifetime of suffering. On the other hand, the harness designed by the administration in funding the non-tenured position was a sophisticated, bureaucratic one, albeit devoid as well of any empathy to relieve the stress of this educated beast of burden.
The associate professor would jauntily enter the department domain in good cheer, spotlessly attired in a gray suit, well-groomed hair, and freshly shined shoes. While her job duties may not have been those of a managerial professional in the business world, her appearance would pass muster without a thought in the corporate corridors. She differed from her counterparts in business, however, since she needed make her appearance only twice a week. She taught two classes -- both "upper level" -- and dashed about the hallways as if her requisite time at the institution was something of a novelty, even an adventure. Not so the faculty member whose office abutted hers. He walked with a slow slouch. His demeanor reflected the toll of his job was heir to. His face poorly hid the toil of teaching twice the number of sections and grading hundreds of freshman compositions: first drafts and final. On occasion he could summon up a smile or a retort. But it was clear these were temporary anodynes, and even though his contract went from year to year basis to a guaranteed two-year stint, his reward for his labors were as threadbare as were his clothes.
He was friendly to his neighbor of higher status as she was congenial with him, although I could not help but notice a mote of resentment settle in his eye and a subtle gritting of the teeth from time to time as he turned from a brief interchange with his colleague back to his office. Eventually I noticed other subtle signs of unsucessful attempts at hiding his discontent. When new candidates for tenure-track positions were interviewed, he’d often show up and cordially inquire about their views on teaching or ask pertinent questions regarding their experience. However, I had the troubling feeling this was a pose, that beneath his professional stance, there stooped a disheartened soul that cringed at the idea the next academic year would bring in a new faculty member with higher rank than his. Why he did not apply for these positions himself is a mystery. He certainly seemed to have the qualifications. Perhaps after so many year-to-year years, he believed he had been apportioned his lot. Was he a representative of a new millennium academic Uncle Tom?
As for the professor who resided beside him during those years -- the one who kept bankers' hours -- it never seemed she was aware of the irony of being placed so geographically close yet so professionally apart from him. I suspect, however, she was grossly unmoved or unaware of the life on the other side of the thin slab of sheet rock that separated them.
There is an old adage that the three best things about college teaching are June, July, and August. This seemed to be the case for the solidly tenured half of our duo. When the first inklings of summer tinged the end of the academic year with warmth and greenery, she was off to parts unknown to the rest of us. But for her counterpart, these months were filled with summer teaching assignments (as many as could be legally and logistically taken on). Which led to another irony of academic life. Since the year-to-year contract covered only nine months per annum, summer school pay was lowered to an adjunct's compensation. So, as is the case with bureaucracies such as certain local governments, operations that exist outside the law, and corporate whistleblowers, it seems for the non-tenured faculty, no good deed goes unpunished.
Izzy Academic is the psuedonym of a writer and college teacher who resides on the East Coast. His previous column recounted the visit of a famous writer to a college where he taught.
Submitted by Dean Dad on February 21, 2006 - 4:00am
OK, a thought experiment.
Although tenure is still around, it seems clear to me that it’s on its way out. Higher ed hasn’t really had an open, honest discussion about that yet -- denial is one of our talents -- but it’s hard not to notice. Right now we honor tenure in the breach, by saying all good things about it while simply replacing retiring full-timers with adjuncts. It seems to me that this strategy has a natural limit. We need full-time faculty, but do we need tenured faculty?
In the corporate world, “at will” employment is the normal default mode. Under “at will,” employees can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason, with a few legally defined exceptions (racial discrimination, say, or absence due to jury duty). “At will” is a pretty good description of the bottom of the occupational ladder, but in the credentialed ranks, there’s usually a brief probationary period followed by a system of graduated warnings. If you do something badly wrong, first you get an informal spoken warning, then a written warning, then some sort of sanction, then termination. (Layoffs are another matter, since they’re about reducing headcount rather than addressing individual performance.)
“At will” strikes me as inappropriate for professors. The subject matter expertise required of faculty is usually quite specialized, and no rational actor would undertake such narrow specialization without some reasonable expectation of still having a job next week. Given the realities of course scheduling and the nature of semesters, it’s just not realistic to assume that people can be fired on Wednesday for looking slovenly on Tuesday. Nor would it be any way to run a college.
Tenure certainly meets the needs for security and predictability, but it does so by granting impunity and saddling a college with immovable costs for the life of the employee. (It used to expire at 70, which struck me as more than fair, but now it expires at death.) As any academic manager can tell you, once people have tenure, they’re almost completely unaccountable for their actions. Give large numbers of people absolute immunity for decades on end, sheltered from economic reality, stuck with the same peers for 30 years, and some very weird behaviors come to the fore.
(For a while, my family lived in Ann Arbor. One of our favorite games when we went downtown was pointing to badly disheveled men and asking “homeless or faculty?” Sometimes the only way to tell was to see if the shiny aluminum thing they carried was solid or foil. Even then, you couldn’t really be sure.)
Worse, locking a group in for decades on end has the unintended side effect of locking new hires out. In my academic field, for example, my current college’s last hire occurred during the Nixon administration. He’s still here. I’d venture to say that the field has moved forward since then, but you wouldn’t know it here.
When I’ve tried to engage faculty friends in this conversation, they’ve uniformly reacted with horror. “I’ve killed myself for years to get tenure! Don’t take it away now!”
Well, exactly. I don’t think tenure is the solution to abuse. It’s a root cause.
The labor surplus in academe is not new. Why does it persist? Why do smart people keep crowding into a field with relatively few jobs, shockingly low pay relative to its training period, and absolutely no idea where it’s going? Sure, teaching is fun, but lots of things are fun.
I think the siren call of tenure is the culprit.
Tenure creates a do-or-die moment 15 years into a career. What other profession has anything even vaguely like that? At least in law firms, if you don’t make partner, you have the option of putting out a shingle and starting your own practice. Most of us can’t afford to start our own colleges. After years of extended graduate training, some post-grad-school bouncing around, and more years of tenure-track teaching and writing, you are either set for life or summarily fired. No wonder people are edgy!
Colleges have responded to increased cost pressures and a huge and enduring labor surplus by raising the bar for tenure for the lucky few on the tenure track. To my mind, this pretty much guarantees increased burnout. People who’ve lived monastically for 15 years and finally get tenure often effectively retire on the spot. They start paying back the other parts of their lives, which makes individual sense, but no institutional sense.
There’s an obvious alternative out there. Every administrator I know, when pressed, admits that the alternative is better. A surprising number of tenured faculty, when pressed, admit the same.
Long-term renewable contracts.
Hire full-time faculty to 3-to-5 year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews. (I could imagine the initial hire being for 3 years, with subsequent renewals for 4 or 5.) It’s far more secure than anything in the corporate setting, and it allows for predictability of scheduling, in-depth course preparation, and the like. But it doesn’t allow for someone to throw in the towel at 40, and self-righteously suckle at the teat of the college for another 35 years. It would give faculty some sort of stake in the success of their programs, since contract renewal times would be natural times to make adjustments reflecting changes in enrollments. It would allow for more turnover than we have now, which means more hiring of new people.
Some might argue that post-tenure review already accomplishes this goal. It doesn’t, and it can’t. At my college, tenured faculty are reviewed on a multi-year cycle. As one of them (correctly) put it to me, I can write that they feast on the entrails of the innocent and it wouldn’t make any difference; they still have tenure, and raises are contractual and across-the-board. Other than hurt feelings, they’re bulletproof.
(Before I get barraged with “easy-for-you-to-say” comments, I’ll disclose that my job is on one-year renewable contracts, with annual performance reviews, and without tenure. I don’t even have a faculty position at my current school, despite having a Ph.D. in an academic field and having reached the associate professor rank elsewhere. So I’m not proposing anything I wouldn’t gladly accept myself.)
Most faculty, I would predict, would get renewed easily. (That’s what happens at Duke University, which uses a system like this for its "professors of the practice.") But those awful 10 percent at the bottom (the ones who use two sick days a week, or who just go AWOL without even calling in, or who last bothered updating their courses sometime around the bicentennial) could be dispatched and replaced by people who really want the job. They couldn’t just hang around and spread bitterness for decades on end.
Good new people would actually have a chance to break in, students would be spared the worst of the worst, and colleges could actually start to focus on performance. With the siren call of tenure muted, the rush to graduate school (and the resultant labor surplus) would gradually subside, bringing us closer to market equilibrium (and forcing better salaries).