Rethinking Tenure -- and Much More

MLA's new analysis has potentially dramatic implications for graduate education, hiring, promotion, scholarship, publishing and technology.
December 8, 2006

A year ago, a special committee of the Modern Language Association outlined the makings of a revolution in the way English and foreign language professors might be hired, evaluated and promoted. The panel talked about doing away with the "fetishization" of the monograph, making tenure expectations more clear, rethinking the way outside evaluators are used in reviews, and much more. The ideas the committee put forth attracted praise from professors and administrators alike -- even before the panel finished its work.

On Thursday, the panel released its final report -- and it isn't backing away from its call for dramatic change. If anything, the panel is going even beyond its public suggestions of a year ago, declaring that its recommendations about professors also suggest a need to rethink long-held assumptions about graduate education, extending even to the form of the dissertation.

Many of the changes sought in the report would by necessity be determined campus by campus and department by department. But MLA leaders signaled that they are determined to push their agenda. The association has meetings scheduled with deans and presidents next month. Workshops are being planned for department chairs. Members of the panel that produced the report -- very much an A-list of the profession -- pledged to lobby their colleagues.

Domna C. Stanton, a French studies professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center who led the panel, said at a briefing that she envisioned the report making it possible for professors -- including junior scholars -- to raise all kinds of issues that have been festering and that need attention. Broadly, she said, this effort is about "separating" the idea that publication is the only valid form of scholarship and focusing department goals on the real missions of their institutions.

The panel -- the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion -- urged departments to:

  • Create "transparency" in hiring and promotion, so that junior faculty members know what is expected of them and are not surprised by changing expectations as their tenure reviews approach.
  • Define scholarship broadly, including the "scholarship of teaching," scholarship produced by teams, and work that is not presented in a monograph.
  • Accept "the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media," ending the assumption that print is necessarily better. (And to the extent that some professors and departments don't know how to evaluate quality in new media, "the onus is on the department" to learn, not on the scholar using new media, Stanton said.)
  • Focus on scholarship, teaching and research -- and not collegiality -- as criteria for tenure.
  • Consider their missions in setting standards for tenure, and to consider whether they are adopting research-oriented missions that don't reflect the reality of the kind of institutions where they work.
  • Limit the number of outside review letters sought in tenure reviews, pay those who provide them, and limit the kinds of questions asked so that they are appropriate for the institution and the position.
  • Improve the process by which junior faculty members receive guidance on their careers.

The MLA created the panel in 2004, amid widespread anger and anxiety among younger scholars and others about a career path that seemed blocked and a system for sharing scholarship that seemed dysfunctional. A simplified version of the complaints would go like this: Young scholars need to publish books to get jobs and tenure. University presses can't afford to publish books any more and are raising the bar for publication. Libraries don't have money to buy the books the presses do publish, forcing the presses to make more cuts, making it still more difficult for young scholars to win tenure.

While the MLA task force found plenty of problems in the system, one thing it did not find was the feared "lost generation" of scholars who had been denied tenure. The association conducted a survey of 1,339 departments on their tenure policies and processes. A key finding was that the actual rates of tenure denials in these departments are quite low -- around 10 percent. But while junior professors in English and foreign languages were apparently incorrect in thinking that many were being rejected for tenure, they weren't incorrect that the rules and system had changed.

Relatively small percentages of new Ph.D.'s were found to be finding tenure-track positions and getting through the process at the institutions that initially hired them. And many were never finding tenure-track positions. So it's not that careers were being derailed at the point of a tenure vote, but that they were never getting that far.

The panel also found that there is a clear reason why so many junior faculty members perceive that the bar is higher: At many institutions, the bar is higher.

Among all departments, 62 percent report that publication has increased in importance in the last 10 years, and the percentage ranking scholarship as being of primary importance (over teaching) doubled, to just over 75 percent. While those figures might not be surprising for doctoral institutions, the report notes a "ripple" in which the standards for research universities end up elsewhere. Nearly half of baccalaureate institutions now consider a monograph "very important" or "important" for tenure. And almost one-third of all institutions are now looking for significant progress on a second book. And Stanton noted that while research universities provide support for writing books (in terms of expectations about courses taught or providing research support), many of the institutions now looking for a more detailed publication record provide little if any such assistance.

The MLA's report also contains ample evidence of the mismatch between what panel members call "the tyranny of the monograph" and the realities of scholarly publishing. Recent years have seen top university presses shift away from the kind of publishing that tenure committees want to see -- with Stanford University Press cutting in the humanities, Northwestern University Press cutting back in translations, and Cambridge University Press discontinuing French studies. For books that get published, readers may be few. Press runs that used to range from 600-1,000 are now more likely to be 250.

Many of the recommendations pushed in the report represent attempts to reconnect the tenure and promotion process with the excitement that the committee members see in much of scholarly life today. One undercurrent of the entire report is that for all the flaws in the current system of evaluating faculty members, there is no shortage of appropriate ways to do so.

Take digital media, for example, which the report notes is "pervasive in the humanities" and says "must be recognized as a legitimate scholarly endeavor." While faculty members are engaged in digital scholarship, departments appear unable or willing to evaluate it. Of departments, 40.8 percent at doctoral institutions, 29.3 at master's institutions, and 39.5 percent at baccalaureate institutions report having "no experience" evaluating digital scholarship. More than half of all departments report having no experience evaluating monographs in digital form.

The report notes that the impact goes beyond the unfairness to those whose important digital work may be ignored when being considered for tenure -- to creating disincentives to do such work. "The cause-and-effect relations work in both directions here: Probationary faculty members will be reluctant to risk publishing in electronic formats unless they see clear evidence that such work can count positively in evaluation for tenure and promotion," the report says.

Making sure that motivations are properly aligned also applies to the committee's endorsement of the concept of Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate, the late Ernest Boyer's 1990 call for moving beyond the traditional teaching/research dichotomy. Boyer argued that there is a science to teaching, and that the same sorts of tools that have promoted traditional research can be applied to teaching. As relates to tenure and promotion, the MLA panel wants to see more of an emphasis on a range of activities -- teaching tools, textbooks, curricular designs -- as evidence of significant contributions of a professor to a field.

"We are trying to separate scholarship from publication alone," said Stanton. "They have been too aligned. There are scholarly components of teaching and of service."

Donald Hall, a professor of English at West Virginia University, said that he considered the recommendations to broaden the definition of scholarship "the most revolutionary" in the report.

And Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said it was particularly important for departments outside of research universities to consider this concept. "This is about aligning values" of what an institution is about and its tenure expectations, she said. At teaching institutions, Boyer's definition of scholarship makes more sense than a "how many books have you written" definition, several panel members suggested.

Even within more traditional publishing, however, panel members said that they wanted to encourage change. For example, while group work is common in the sciences, it is relatively rare for humanities scholars -- in work submitted for tenure -- to feature work done with colleagues. Panel members said that there should not be any bias against such work.

Together, panel members expressed hope that by ending the use of the monograph as the "gold standard" for tenure, they could promote a variety of positive changes in the profession. But if the monograph is to be reconsidered, the report says, what of the dissertation, which the authors call "a larval monograph."

Along with rethinking the dissertation, the report suggests, it is time to rethink "the entire graduate curriculum." While each institution will need to think about its own mission in graduate education, the next generation of scholars -- if they are to produce new types of scholarship -- need to be trained differently, the report says.

Feal said one goal of the entire report was "contextualizing" the way graduate education and academic careers have been defined. The role of the monograph is relatively recent, she said, and realizing that current models haven't been set in stone can encourage reform.

As the panel has been sharing its ideas over the last year, the broad themes have attracted significant support -- even from other players whose roles might change in the academic world envisioned by the MLA panel.

Peter J. Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, praised the MLA for imagining structures that would "open up new possibilities for younger scholars." He said that university presses have seen publishing monographs as "among our responsibilities" but that he didn't see any problems if fewer scholars focused on them.

Change in the relationship between publishing and tenure will come, Givler said, but it may come a little more slowly than the MLA would like. "I think there is going to be change, but it is going to be generational," he said. Most of the ideas in the report will resonate with assistant professors, Givler said, and "when they get on tenure committees," the pace of change will accelerate.

Others, however, said that the MLA is catching up to the ideas that are already out there among the rank and file. They predicted that the report would find a warm reception with many who have seen scholarship change -- ahead of the systems by which colleges hire and promote.

Clark Hulse, dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he saw the MLA pushing departments to accept their responsibility for evaluating scholarship, instead of assuming that anything published by a university press is good and any scholarship that couldn't find a traditional publisher must be bad.

"We need to have the courage to deny tenure based on a bad published book and to award tenure based on a great manuscript," he said.

As to considering different forms of scholarship -- in dissertations and for tenure -- Hulse said that the thought most deans would "be eager to embrace these changes."

Today, he said, "all dissertations are produced electronically," and most start off as a series of linked articles, so the idea that they must follow a traditional book format doesn't make particular sense. Whether a dissertation ends up in print or ends up being a series of articles is "almost a trivial question," he said.

What needs to be preserved isn't the monograph or dissertation any one form of scholarship, he said. "What I think is sacred is the creation of a substantial and coherent and significant body of work."


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