A Tenure Reform Plan With Legs

Experts say timing may be just right for changes MLA panel is putting forth -- particularly the move beyond the monograph.
January 5, 2006

In 1998, a group of provosts of research universities circulated a document calling for bold reforms of the tenure process. Traditional publishing was becoming an economic sinkhole, they argued. Junior professors couldn't get published. University presses and journal publishers were losing too much money. Libraries couldn't afford to buy the new scholarship that was published. Somehow, they argued, the system needed to change -- with less emphasis on traditional publishing and more creativity about how to evaluate professors up for promotion.

The document was widely discussed (and praised) by provosts. It went nowhere.

Charles Phelps, provost of the University of Rochester and one of the organizers of that effort, said that the fundamental reason the plan went nowhere was that it didn't flow up from the scholarly disciplines. And that's why he's enthusiastic about a proposal being drafted by the Modern Language Association to fundamentally change how English and foreign language professors are reviewed for tenure. What the association is doing is "right on target," he said, and from discussions with fellow provosts, he predicted that English departments would receive similar receptions in other administration buildings.

"The thing that is first and foremost to me is that these changes will happen when they come from the learned society in the relevant discipline -- and the field buys into the idea of changing things," Phelps said.

There is nothing sacred about the way professors in any one discipline are evaluated, he said. Engineering professors recently approached him about having patents be used in evaluating their tenure bids -- and Phelps agreed, provided that there are appropriate reviews of the scholarly value behind whatever was patented. But provosts can't lead the effort -- they need to be signing on to changes that come from their departments, and the departments need to know that they are acting within the norms of their disciplines, he said.

Even if he believes -- as he does -- that the monograph is terribly overrated when it comes to evaluating a scholar's research capability, Phelps said he can't "unilaterally" announce that he's looking at other things as long as most English departments focus on the monograph. "If I start granting people tenure on conditions no one else believes in, then in some sense, I'm cheapening the coin of the realm," he said.

If his English department comes forward, however, and says it wants to move away from focusing on the monograph, Phelps said he'll be more than receptive. "I wouldn't blink an eye at approving the idea," which is what the MLA is preparing to endorse.

A special panel of the MLA is finishing a report that will call for numerous, far-reaching changes in the way assistant professors are reviewed for tenure. Among the ideas that will be part of the plan are:

  • The creation of "multiple pathways" to demonstrating research excellence. The monograph is one way, but so would be journal articles, electronic projects, textbooks, jointly written books, and other approaches.
  • The drafting of "memorandums of understanding" between new hires and departments so that those new hires would have a clear sense of expectations in terms of how they would be evaluated for tenure.
  • A commitment to treating electronic work with the same respect accorded to work published in print.
  • The setting of limits on the number of outside reviews sought in tenure cases and on what those reviewers could be asked.

Members of a special MLA panel preparing the report discussed the direction they were taking during a session at the association's annual meeting last week. Many panel members said that they viewed their proposals as potentially historic in dealing with long-term problems that the discipline has been unable to address until now. In interviews in recent days with a variety of experts on tenure, English departments, and higher education generally, it's clear that the MLA panel is not alone in thinking that its work could lead to significant (and praiseworthy) changes at many colleges and universities.

While many offered caveats for their support, they also said that the panel may well be setting out to succeed where the provosts of eight years ago failed. And support for much of the plan seems strong among institutions of various types and is coming from some higher education players who have not always been fans of the MLA. In particular, support is strong for changing the widespread practice of evaluating research capabilities based only on publishing monographs.

"There really has been a taboo until recently about talking about these things," said Lindsay Waters, executive editor in the humanities of the Harvard University Press. Waters has for years now been taking the position that university presses could not afford to keep publishing monographs of limited interest, and that colleges needed to stop expecting monograph publication of junior professors.

"When I first started to say this, I had publishers tell me that they wanted to hit me," Waters said.

By explicitly endorsing a move away from the monograph, he added, the MLA could lead the way to "a renaissance" in scholarly publishing. He said that until now, some publishers and professors have viewed the suggestion that monograph publication be decoupled from tenure reviews as a suggestion that publication didn't matter. The more subtle explanation, he said, is that presses can't afford to publish the monographs, and many monographs aren't that good.

"The message that will come from this is something I learned to say from day one in publishing: Write a more important book," Waters said. Freed from the demands of just writing a monograph for the purpose of writing a monograph, he said, professors could get tenure in one way while working on broader writing projects that could change the way people think.

"Imagine that you are an English professor. The challenge is how you write about Byron for the medievalists to understand, too," he said. That is so much more intellectually challenging and exciting, he said, than the status quo, which is "the assumption that it's OK to write a book for two men in New Haven who will understand it."

"I think we could be seeing a great shift happening -- this is a very positive, very important moment," he said.

The move away from what MLA panel members call the "fetishization" of the monograph is also important for there to be any chance of departments embracing another recommendation: that electronic work not be devalued because it isn't in print, said several experts on new media.

Alan Liu, a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is the founder of Voice of the Shuttle, a portal for electronic material in the humanities, and is currently leading the Transliteracies Project, which examines cultural, cognitive, and technological issues related to reading online.

Bias against electronic materials is a "significant" problem, Liu said, and it relates directly to the monograph issue. It is very hard for people working in an electronic format to say that their work resembles a monograph, Liu said, so as long as the monograph is the gold standard, rhetoric about valuing electronic media won't mean much. But if departments embrace some of the other ideas being put forward by the MLA panel -- that a series of essays may be as valuable as a monograph, or that work done in collaboration may be important -- then it becomes realistic for electronic materials to be valued, because they aren't so different from print journal articles or print collaborative projects.

Liu also said that there has been a reinforcing problem of departments being able to say that there are not good tools in place to evaluate work online, and people who work online saying that there won't be good tools until departments take their work seriously. Liu said it was vital for professors to spend more time on evaluating the quality of electronic work -- something he said he thought might be possible if the dominance of the monograph is finally challenged.

"The connection between the printed version of the monograph and tenure is problematic in many ways," he said, adding that he thought people who worked in electronic media would applaud the movement coming from the MLA.

Similar praise comes from Rosanna Warren, a Boston University professor who is head of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, a group that has in the past said that the MLA isn't sufficiently devoted to the traditional study of literature. Warren said that the questions being raised by the association panel are "pressing and real" and said that she was "delighted" by the direction of the committee's work.

Warren said that she thought there were good reasons that some had doubted the value of online scholarship, but that the time had come to find ways to evaluate it and accept that it can be good. "The suspicion of online work in many quarters has a great deal to do with the wild, miscellaneous, and often ill-judged quality of work available online," she said. "Our generation of scholars has the challenge of devising forms for establishing editorial rigor for online academic publication, so that review committees, administrators, and the institutions they represent can have more confidence in those publications."

Of those interviewed for this article, all but one said that the monograph needed to be seen as but one way for a scholar to demonstrate research excellence and not as the only way. And every single one said that the economics of publishing and the changes in technology made such a change essential. But at the same time, several qualified their support by saying that they thought the monograph needed to still be in the mix -- and in some cases to continue as the most common way used.

"There is no question that technological and economic developments are changing scholarly practices," said Langdon Hammer, chair of English at Yale University.

Hammer said his view was that "the quality and promise of a scholar's leadership in her or his field" should be the "first criterion" in tenure reviews, and that such leadership would be "defined by the ways in which a field is organized." He said that he expected monographs "to remain the first measure in most fields, for the foreseeable future," but he said he also expected to see "other forms" take hold and to matter more over time, as in some cases "they do now."

Daniel Fogel, president of the University of Vermont and also a literary scholar, said that he found the MLA approach "very sensible." Speaking as the founder and long-time editor of the Henry James Review, he said that "the academy never found a global and sustainable way to support the agencies of publication on which it relied for certification of the faculty.... So the move to de-emphasize the monograph and to no longer privilege print over electronic dissemination of scholarship seems to me to make sense."

Fogel did add some caveats. He said that the monograph may be more expendable in some fields than in others, and that in some kinds of scholarship in English (Fogel cited rhetoric, medieval studies and linguistics), careers can already be built on journal articles. But he said that in other fields "monographs provide the scope for development of a really rich and well documented argument," adding: "I would not want to see the monograph so devalued that we would no longer see productions of works with the heft, range and impact of Mimesis, The Mirror and the Lamp, or The Anxiety of Influence."

He also said that print-on-demand systems may provide economic ways to preserve the monograph where it is needed. "Truth is, there is a great deal to be said for a book in one's hand," he said. "How many of us would have wanted to read the Gilbert and Gubar trilogy beginning with The Madwoman in the Attic online?"

While much of the discussion of the MLA panel's work has focused on its recommendations about the monograph, there are other significant changes proposed as well, and they too are drawing attention.

One of the ideas is the creation of a "memorandum of understanding" between new hires and departments. Many younger faculty members and those who advise them said this approach could be very helpful.

"Among the junior faculty I coach, the most upsetting problems arise when the criteria for tenure are unclear or raised capriciously," said Mary McKinney, a psychologist and the founder of Successful Academic Coaching, who helps junior faculty members navigate the tenure process. "It's tough to jump over a bar that you can't see. And even harder to clear a bar that is being lifted as you leap."

Richard P. Chait, director of the Project on Faculty Appointments, at Harvard University, said that he and a colleague published an essay five years ago called "Tenure by Objectives," that suggested an approach similar to the "memorandum of understanding" idea. Chait said that the essay was "pretty obscure," so he was very happy to see a similar idea coming from a new source.

Chait has advised many university administrations on how to reform tenure systems, and has sometimes criticized faculty members for being too timid about considering changes. But he had praise for the ideas currently being discussed. "The very opening of the promotion and tenure canon to conversation strikes me as healthy. Making the process more transparent and consistent is better still," Chait said. "Bravo for MLA."

One person who wasn't impressed with the memorandum plan is Jeffrey Duban, a lawyer in New York City whose practice consists entirely of helping faculty members sue their institutions, in many cases because of tenure denials. He said he agreed with the concept that junior faculty members should have a clear understanding of expectations. But he was skeptical that departments would stick with those expectations. He has recently dealt with three cases, he said, in which faculty members received rave reviews in evaluations up to the point of tenure, and then were denied tenure over issues that weren't raised earlier. Duban said that many departments don't take reviews or agreements seriously until the point of a tenure vote.

Another major change being proposed would limit the number of outside reviewers to six -- and urge that departments avoid asking them certain questions, such as whether they would grant tenure to the candidate at the reviewer's institution. Proponents of these changes said that the large number of outside letters were taking too much time to collect and evaluate and adding little to the process, and that outside reviewers bring expertise only on the question of research, and not on many other factors that should go into a tenure decision.

How big a change this would represent varies by institution. Phelps, of Rochester, said that his university typically expects 12 outside reviews, although he has been willing to be flexible. Several administrators interviewed, while applauding the overall direction of the tenure changes, said that they liked outside letters. Hammer, of Yale, said his university considers three rounds of outside letters, the last round of which has six letters. But while the letter limit would be a big deal at many places, it's a non-issue at many others.

Heinz Woehlk, dean of the Division of Language and Literature at Missouri's Truman State University, said that as "primarily a teaching institution," there is not a focus on publication or outside reviews. No outside reviews are required. He said that the MLA plan appears to be a move "to loosen the sometimes inappropriate requirements" in tenure decisions, which is a change he said he would support, and would predict his faculty members would support as well.

One concern expressed by some -- including supporters of the tenure proposals -- was that they wouldn't change some of the underlying economic conditions facing language and literature departments. Phelps said that one reason for the difficulties faced by English departments is that they need to be large to teach writing to undergraduates, but there is not economic support to keep all of those teachers in professorial positions.

William Pannapacker, assistant professor of English at Hope College, in Michigan, said that he thought the MLA proposal was "a great idea," and that the reforms made sense. But he said he worried that the association was "addressing a symptom rather than the root problems -- overproduction of doctorates and elimination of tenure lines."

And the only person to defend a monograph requirement also cited similar economic arguments.

Jerome Christensen, chair of English at the University of California at Irvine, said he would not object to any individual department making the kinds of changes suggested by the MLA panel. And he said that it was possible to show excellence in forms other than the monograph. But he said that just as there are great undergraduate programs and great Ph.D. programs, he thought there were ways to demonstrate greatness in both types of programs and that the monograph was the appropriate review tool for faculty members in Ph.D. programs. He said that there may be too many people seeking tenure-track jobs, but that doesn't mean that the standards should change. Having too many ways to demonstrate research excellence, he said, could result in faculty committees without the ability to judge the work being presented.

"I continue to think that every Ph.D. granting institution should require a scholarly monograph for promotion and tenure," Christensen said. "I also continue to think that the real, objective problem in the profession is that we have too many Ph.D. granting institutions. To alter the standards for promotion and tenure in a fashion that would allow for everyone at Ph.D. granting institutions to be recognized for excellence in one shape or another, each in his or her own way, is to ignore the serious problem of over-production of Ph.D.'s while diluting the quality of the Ph.D. programs that we have."

For now, it appears Christensen's views on preserving the monograph as a requirement are in the minority.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that she is hearing almost uniformly positive reactions to the work of the committee, and particularly the section about monographs. "The phrase 'fetishization of the monograph' is on everyone's lips," she said. "People are really rallying behind this."

One question that many are posing is what the MLA will do with the panel's work, once it is finalized. Feal said she envisioned a two-pronged effort. The MLA as an organization will seek to speak with groups representing provosts and deans and other concerned parties to explain why the association took on the issue, and why it is recommending the changes.

But in terms of colleges changing policies, Feal said that long-term change will need to come from within. So she said that she hoped department chairs would be the "prime advocates" for these reforms, first working with members of the department to discuss which measures to adopt, and then selling those to deans and provosts. Feal said that panel members did talk to administrators during their work, and found them very enthusiastic about the ideas being discussed, if they are proposed from the ground up.

Given that many provosts wanted to push similar ideas eight years ago, supporters of the MLA reforms have reason to believe that at many institutions, these ideas may well go forward.


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