The Power of 3

The Power of 3

May 13, 2005

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 is an associate professor of biology at Loyola College in Maryland.



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