New Approach to Tenure

Coalition of colleges starts effort to create new models for faculty promotion in the arts and humanities.
October 3, 2005

At many institutions, tenure has historically been determined by publishing and teaching records, with "service" a distant and poorly defined third criterion.

With the idea of "public scholarship" -- a broad term that encompasses any number of ways faculty members may work with and in various communities -- gaining more attention, many scholars believe that tenure systems need revision. A large-scale effort to do that was announced Friday by Imagining America, a consortium of colleges that encourage faculty members to be active members of their local and national communities.

The group announced the creation of a national commission -- to be led by Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, and Steven D. Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts -- that will develop new ways to evaluate faculty members in the arts and humanities. Members of the panel include other presidents, as well as deans and professors.

The group hopes to produce models that deans and departments could use, to keep rigor high while also recognizing different forms of work.

"What we are going to do is come up with creative ways to evaluate excellence in public scholarship," Cantor said in an interview. "Scholarship may be presented in venues different from our normal scholarly venues, and we need to evaluate it. It might be an arts journalist publishing in media outlets, or someone doing a K-12 curriculum, or someone doing something creative online."

Cantor said that the traditional idea of "service" implied more of a "one way" contribution by academics, and not the way many scholars today are not only contributing to their local communities, but getting their ideas there. "From my perspective, some of the most creative work in the arts and the humanities comes at the interface of campus and community," she said.

At research universities in particular, there has been skepticism about such contributions, and Cantor said it was important to show that tenure review panels had a way to review such efforts, not just affirm them. "It's not enough to say that there is great work being done, but how you can use the same very high standard of excellence [of tenure reviews] and apply it at the domain between the public and the academy," she said. "The argument here is not that you don't evaluate it with the same rigor, but that you think about the dimensions that need evaluating."

While the panel is just getting started, graduate students who attended a conference at Rutgers University where the effort was announced praised the idea.

Sylvia Gale is a Ph.D. student in rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation will examine the history of rhetoric education, with an emphasis on colonial America. Her work is informed by numerous community projects. She is working now to design a non-credit adult education course in the humanities and she previously worked on a project in which 800 Austin residents wrote essays about their life experiences.

"My community work is so deeply a part of my dissertation work and my interests that I can't separate them out, and I don't want to," she said.

Gale said she recognized that academics traditionally have separated out such efforts as "service," a separation that she said devalues them. So she praised the creation of the new committee and said that she hoped it would lead to systems that would help her in her career.

"I don't want to go on the market and put on my vita my journal publications and conference presentations and then under service, say that I have these other things," she said. "These are as important to me as a professional as the journal articles I'm developing."


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