30-Minute Chat to Tenure

A president says he'll interview every candidate before making a recommendation to the board and that he won't be a rubber stamp. Professors say this isn't how faculty members should win job security.
November 11, 2009

Lloyd A. Jacobs announced last week that in his role as president of the University of Toledo, he plans to interview every faculty member who comes up for tenure before making a recommendation to the board on whether to approve the bid.

While many faculty members are angry about the idea that an academic career can be evaluated in a short conversation, Jacobs said he finds it odd that people expect a president to urge trustees to grant tenure to someone without the president having talked to the person and formed an independent judgment. "I think that the concept of university presidents being relegated to a rubber stamp role is one of the downsides of our current higher education," he said.

It's time for presidents, he added, "to take more and more responsibility to improve the way we execute our responsibilities."

In his three-plus years as president, Jacobs said, he has reviewed about 20 to 25 tenure bids a year and, to date, never rejected a candidate who had support in the various reviews that traditionally take place before the dossier reaches the president's office. So what insights does he hope to gain?

"I am making an independent judgment. I am attempting to exercise the responsibility that the board has delegated to me, in the best possible way," he said. "It's putting a face with a name, including the data gained from observation of body language, facial features, voice tone," he said. He said that the interviews would last about 30 minutes, and would cover teaching, research, service and other issues depending on where the conversation leads.

Jacobs, a surgeon who was president of the Medical University of Ohio before it merged with the University of Toledo, said that he has interviewed hundreds of job candidates over the years, for a range of positions. "You do interviews all the time and you gain information all the time," he said. Asked how he would approach scholars in disciplines different from his own, he said it was the same as this reporter interviewing him "without necessarily having content expertise." Further, he said that university presidents, whatever their discipline, interview senior candidates for finance or media relations positions all the time even if the president never studied those subjects.

At Toledo, the announcement has drawn harsh reactions from many faculty members. The head of the Faculty Senate said he was reserving judgment until he can talk to Jacobs, but said that the Faculty Senate should have been consulted on such a change and was not.

Harvey Wolff, president of the Toledo chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which is the faculty union at the campus, said that he believed the change violates the union's contract and should have been subject to negotiations. (Jacobs disagrees.) Wolff, a professor of mathematics, said that "this raises concerns that the president is going to be making decisions based on something" that is not actually known. "What if you have a whole bunch of yeses [in the review process] and then the president says no?"

Wolff said that while some faculty members are denied tenure by departmental committees, the norm is that annual reviews are used to let people know that they are unlikely to win departmental approval and that many of those likely to be rejected "never reach the tenure year." Wolff said that the system is working well.

The student newspaper, The Independent Collegian, ran an editorial Monday questioning the wisdom of personalizing the final stages of the tenure review process. "We find that Jacobs’ need to make his judgment on a 'face-to-face understanding' to be quite problematic. Although Jacobs will not admit it (for obvious reasons), face-to-face interviews with him will factor in personal attributes of the candidate into the process. And while it is obvious that personality is factored into the process at the departmental level, the fact is such biases are unavoidable within academic departments, but they are avoidable at the administrative level," the editorial says.

What Is the President's Role?

While the new policy at Toledo is unusual, it illustrates the lack of consensus about what role the president should play in tenure reviews. Several experts said that while some colleges operate with the expectation that the president is making an independent judgment of the review process, others operate with the expectation that the president is primarily making sure that procedures were followed -- and perhaps getting more involved in cases where various review panels disagreed.

Richard Chait, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education who has written extensively on higher education governance, said that the Toledo policy was "exceedingly unusual" and that he was "personally not aware of any other university where that occurs routinely or even exceptionally." He said that a presidential interview at the end of a tenure review means would create "the only part of the dossier available to only one individual in the process."

At a number of colleges, he said, presidents interview potential faculty hires, although even there, he said, "it's most often in the context of trying to point out the strengths of the institution."

Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said that "routine interviewing of internal candidates for tenure by a university president is ill advised and arguably quite inappropriate." He said that there may be a need to do so in the event of "factual contradictions in the tenure papers." But he said that "universal interviewing by a president risks giving the impression that the faculty's voice is secondary and that subjective personal impressions -- rather than documentary evidence -- will decide the matter."

Ann Franke, presidents of Wise Results, which consults with colleges about legal and other policy issues, said she thought the Toledo policy was "unusual and could create some risks." She said that when a president considers someone in his or her own discipline, "the urge to revert to the disciplinary role could become particularly strong in a face-to-face interview. In that situation, a tenure candidate from the same field as the president would undergo a different process than a candidate from another field."

Further, Franke noted that any remark by a president could be used in a lawsuit. In such a circumstance, she said, "the two people involved in the interview could have radically different recollections," but "most of the time a jury would be more sympathetic to the plaintiff’s version than to the president’s." She said that presidential remarks have been cited in court challenges to tenure decisions. For instance, such comments were cited in a 1989 federal appeals court's ruling against Boston University, in a suit brought by a woman who was denied tenure. The woman won her sex discrimination claim and the appeals court upheld the entry as evidence of comments attributed to the then-president of the university, John Silber. The comments were not made in an interview setting, but Franke noted that the court allowed the comments to be considered by the lower court. (BU disputed the charges in the case.)

Jacobs isn't deterred by the criticism. He said that the reason he is planning interviews is precisely because he recognizes the importance of tenure decisions. The decision to grant tenure, he noted, could easily be a $1 million or $2 million lifetime investment by the university, extending for decades. "I decided to do this because I take my responsibilities seriously.... I'm responsible to the future and to the organization."

Asked if he knew of other presidents interviewing every tenure candidate, Jacobs said, "I understand many do, but I don't know their names."


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