Radical Change for Tenure

MLA panel outlines plan to end monograph "fetishization," create agreements between departments and new hires, and rethink evaluation process.
December 30, 2005

Three years ago, all members of the Modern Language Association received a letter from Stephen Greenblatt, then the group's president, warning of a crisis facing language and literature departments. Junior faculty members were unable to publish the books that they needed to win tenure and cuts in library and university press budgets left open the possibility that higher education "stands to lose, or at least severely to damage, a generation of young scholars."

He called for academic departments to rethink the way they considered publication as a tenure requirement, and his letter set off considerable debate.

Thursday night, a special panel of the MLA offered the first glimpse at its plan to overhaul tenure -- and in many ways the plans go well beyond the reforms Greenblatt proposed. As he suggested, the panel wants departments -- including those at top research universities -- to explicitly change their expectations such that there are "multiple pathways" to demonstrating research excellence, ending the expectation of publishing a monograph. But the panel does not appear likely to stop there.

It plans to propose that departments negotiate "memorandums of understanding" with new hires about what factors will go into their tenure reviews. It wants departments to end a bias that favors print over online publications. It wants to change the rules of how tenure candidates are evaluated, proposing that a limit of six be set on the number of outsider reviewers asked to look at a tenure candidate and that those outside reviewers no longer be asked certain questions that seem likely to doom some candidacies while adding little valuable information to an evaluation.

Domna C. Stanton, the MLA's current president and a French studies professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, has led the work of the panel, and she remarked several times as members discussed the group's ideas about how broad and significant they were. In an interview after the presentation, she said that these proposals could lead to revolutionary changes in the way faculty members start and advance in their academic careers.

The issue has importance far beyond the MLA and colleges' departments of English and foreign languages. Experts on university presses and libraries -- and on the economics of higher education generally -- have been warning for years that the current system of publishing and evaluating research in the humanities is simply not working. And while complaints about the system have been at times deafening from junior professors and adjuncts, many have complained that the leaders of academic departments have been slow to map a plan to change the tenure system.

The panel, which has been meeting privately, surveying departments, and interviewing administrators about their receptivity to changes, has still not released a final report and probably will not do so for months. There may be changes along the way. But panel members last night indicated that key recommendations had been agreed upon, and that they were ready to start sharing them.

Donald E. Hall, who holds the Jackson Chair in English at West Virginia University, was the panel member who focused on alternatives to the monograph as a tenure requirement. Hall said that in the committee's discussions with provosts and deans, one concern was whether administrators would permit such a change. Hall said that the uniform reaction was that "the fetishization of the monograph" was a product of departments and that if they made a case for change, administrators would not object. (One dean in the audience agreed, and noted that many other departments do not focus on book publication, and deans aren't bothered by that in the least.)

The monograph needs to be seen as but one way for a faculty member to demonstrate scholarship, Hall said. Others might be a body of articles (published separately or together), translations of works, essays or books for a general audience, works in electronic format, collaborative work, textbooks, and other approaches as well. Hall said that he realized that not all of these formats would work for every candidate or every institution, but he said that the key point was that reviewers needed to focus on "merit itself," and not whether expertise was demonstrated in the monograph format.

A candidate's chances for tenure "should never depend on the vagaries of the scholarly publishing market," Hall said.

Nor, the panel is preparing to say, should those chances depend on whether publication takes place in print or electronic format.

Sean Latham, associate professor of English and director of the Modernist Journals Project at the University of Tulsa, said that departments need to recognize that scholarship -- good, bad and everything in between -- is being produced online and needs to be evaluated without any media-based bias. "This process has begun without us," he said.

Latham -- to knowing nods in the audience -- joked about how some professors who favor print journals somehow ignore the fact that most of the print journals' readers these days are online, through various consortiums that make the journals available electronically. "If we read something through Project Muse, are we supposed to feel better because somewhere there is a print copy?" he asked.

Whatever tenure standards exist, Stanton said that a frustration of many assistant professors is that they are told one thing upon being hired, and then find the rules change when they come up for tenure review. To deal with this issue, the MLA panel will propose that departments provide new faculty members with formal agreements outlining expectations through the tenure review.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, said that these agreements should spell out the division of labor among teaching, research and service and any expectations about what form any of those areas should take. With joint appointments, this agreement should outline relative responsibilities to each department.

Such agreement, Cassuto said, would provide guidance for all involved and would create "valuable transparency" for the tenure process.

At the same time, Cassuto said, departments also need to be much more explicit about mentoring responsibilities. Every new faculty member should be able to count on specific mentoring help from senior department members, and chairs need to get involved. While this sounds like common sense, Cassuto said, the panel found case after case where junior faculty members didn't get any good guidance and among the senior faculty members, "everyone always assumed that someone else was doing the mentoring."

Assuming that assistant professors get mentors, and are permitted to demonstrate their scholarship in a variety of ways, there remains the question of how to evaluate them. Michael Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, outlined a series of changes there, especially in the use of outside reviewers.

Bérubé noted that colleges seem to be requiring more and more outside letters as part of the tenure process, and he said that the more prestigious an institution is, the more outside letters it wants, raising the question, he quipped, of whether those institutions have the least trust in their own faculty members. Bérubé said that the MLA panel will propose an absolute limit of six on such letters, a quota currently exceeded by many institutions.

But he said that more reforms were needed. The panel will call on departments to seek letters from similar institutions, not more prestigious ones, as many now require. Also, the panel will call on departments to stop asking these reviewers whether they would vote for tenure for the person at their institution. Such a question, Bérubé said, has these reviewers -- who should only be evaluating a candidate's research -- making broad judgments without any context. When these are reviewers at institutions that are substantially different from the candidate's institution, the candidate is doubly disadvantaged.

In the question-and-answer period, the audience reaction was very supportive of the approach the panel outlined, and the tone was one of "it's about time." One professor gave an impassioned plea for the panel to push leading universities to endorse the change first. He said that it was hard for other institutions to change, if they are always looking at the Ivies. But Bérubé said that actually "Harvard isn't the problem because it doesn't tenure anybody." The problems is everyone else, and so that's where faculty members need to start lobbying.

Stanton acknowledged that the MLA "can't legislate," but she and others said that having the association's endorsement for these changes could galvanize departments to make these changes -- especially if they know others are acting at the same time and based on a similar plan.

And if the process succeeds, it may not stop at tenure. One audience member asked whether there were implications from the panel's work for the future of graduate education, and especially for dissertations. Bérubé said that it doesn't make sense to move away from the dominance of the monograph in the tenure process and then continue to train graduate students "to produce proto-monographs."

Stanton agreed that there were "clear implications" for graduate education, but she said that panel members decided that they needed to just state that fact, and to focus on tenure and then let another panel tackle that issue at some point in the future. Stay tuned.


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