In Lieu of Tenure

Webster U. has long maintained a separate but equal system for faculty who prefer frequent sabbaticals to absolute job security.
March 10, 2010
 

When Bill Lynch was six years into his time as a junior faculty member at Webster University, he had a seemingly simple choice to make: tenure or no tenure.

While the logical answer throughout much of academe would be to choose the security and stature that accompany tenure, Lynch followed the majority of his colleagues at Webster by opting against it. He wanted to be able to teach while still maintaining a professional career as an actor and director, and by turning down tenure, he could make that happen.

“I have a commitment to being a teacher first rather than an actor who wanted to teach,” says Lynch, a professor of voice who just started work as resident director of Webster’s programs at Regent’s College London. “But I wanted to be able to reconnect with my discipline more fully and more frequently, to work full time as an actor in a performance or an extended run and to keep my professional life alive.”

He was able to find that balance at Webster. Like most eligible faculty members at the university’s main campus in St. Louis and satellite locations around the world, Lynch opted for a faculty development leave (FDL) continuing status contract. By giving up the benefits of tenure, Lynch is ensured semester-long sabbaticals every five years, rather than every seven, but must undergo performance evaluations and contract reviews every five years, too.

Though Webster is not unique in offering an alternative to tenure, the longevity and popularity of the FDL status are rare. It has been around since the early 1970s, when faculty agitated for the option, which the university’s administration and board of trustees approved as a way to reduce permanent fixed costs and improve the quality of instructors. Two-thirds -- 92 of 133 -- of the university’s current senior faculty members have opted for FDL.

“It has worked very effectively,” says Neil George, the university’s chancellor, who’s been at Webster since 1972. “There’s a high expectation that the particular nature of the professional development will have some short-term and long-term gain to the department, and the university and its mission.”

More frequent faculty leaves, he says, are a way for Webster’s faculty to “maintain quality, relevance and relatively more opportunities for development.” At what is primarily a teaching-focused institution, there’s “an extraordinary amount of scholarship and applied knowledge going on.” Some faculty opt to be stationed at an overseas Webster campus while teaching a reduced course load, while others choose to focus entirely on research, writing or artistic work.

The option to go on more frequent leaves, “to get to do something that they really want to do that helps them grow as a faculty member … is phenomenal,” says Cathy A. Trower, research director and co-principal investigator of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who visited Webster in the mid-1990s while working on her doctoral dissertation. “The learning, the room for growth and development, I’ve never seen tenure do that."

But FDL is not a risk-free enterprise for faculty -- indeed, people unfamiliar with Webster almost invariably think that FDL is a lesser option than tenure. If the quality of a faculty member's work has dropped precipitously, the university can choose not to renew his five-year contract and instead offer a one-year terminal contract and a chance to appeal the decision. At least in theory, faculty on FDL would be easier to fire if the university fell on tough economic times or a faculty member said or did something controversial, though that premise has never been tested and faculty think there would be support for those on FDL, in large part because they comprise such a large proportion of the the status-holding population.

In the School of Communications, 19 faculty members have FDL status, three are tenured and four more are junior faculty. “There’s so much change happening in communications and media,” says Debra Carpenter, the school’s dean. “In fields like advertising, PR and journalism, faculty really feel good about themselves and are able to give a lot to their students by staying connected to what’s going on.” Some spend their leaves doing creative works, while others use the time to work in their business.

Including Carpenter, the deans of four of Webster’s five schools were on FDL as faculty. The fifth, Peter Sargent, dean of the School of Fine Arts, is tenured, though he dislikes tenure. “I find tenure to be a negative element,” he says. “By not having it as the only option, I think we allow for better teaching, a very good quality of life.”

He chose tenure so that he could have firsthand experience in the system that he disparaged. “Back in the dark ages of the ’70s, I was advised to take tenure,” he says. “Pontificating about why it’s worthless while having tenure was a good way to show what I thought.”

He’s never taken a leave, so “to me it got to be irrelevant one way or another,” but he supports FDL for his colleagues. “It really is enriching and rewarding and refreshing,” he says. “Once the person gets tenure they atrophy over a period of time. But [because of FDL] I don’t see that atrophication to be prevalent at Webster.”

Separate But Equal

Throughout the university, tenure and FDL are viewed on equal footing, says Monica Moore, a professor of experimental psychology. “Nobody even knows if you’re FDL or tenure. I can’t tell you even in my own department who is tenured and who has FDL. I would have to think about that, stretch to kind of remember who’s been gone more frequently.”

George, too, says there’s no difference and that, at least anecdotally, FDL faculty are among the university’s more distinguished. “The most statured faculty are often the ones who took the FDL. They’re the most confident and continue to be highly regarded.” Webster hasn't conducted any studies on whether FDL faculty are more productive in teaching, research or curriculum development than tenured faculty, but George thinks the fact that they must be reevaluated every five years "makes the faculty more relevant to our own needs, adaptive."

Status-track faculty don’t have to make a final decision between tenure and FDL until they’re up for review and, either way, the evaluation is the same. “To win FDL you would’ve won tenure,” George says; “the criteria are identical.” The fact that the review happens in the same way for either status helps support the sense that the status options are equal in their prestige and value within the university.

But when Gary Ford, an assistant professor of public relations management, had to make the choice this fall, he decided to go for tenure. “It seemed for me more valuable that people outside the institution and outside academia could understand what my position meant,” he says.

Tenure is the currency in which faculty generally trade (and are traded), but George says the fact that so many of Webster’s faculty opt for something other than tenure doesn’t harm them in the world outside the university. He encourages FDL faculty looking for jobs at other institutions to include with their applications a letter from a department chair, dean or academic vice president explaining that FDL is the norm at Webster and, if anything, might suggest greater self-confidence than tenure.

“That someone chose FDL instead of tenure can be viewed as extraordinary strength,” he says. “They don’t need the added security of a guaranteed job for life. A search committee could be confident that the person they’re hiring will remain current, reliable and indispensable.

Trower, though, says she sees the choice to take FDL status as “very much a choice to stay at Webster” because it's not an easily recognizable designation.

Lynch, the voice professor now in London, started work at Webster in St. Louis in 1992, thinking he’d be there for just a year as a visiting assistant professor before moving on to a job where he’d probably have to choose between teaching and acting.

But, when he learned about the FDL option, he realized he could find the right balance and decided to stay put and take on a status-track job. “FDL seemed so obvious to me,” he says. “I know I’m not the only person who came to Webster as a young faculty member thinking early on they might stay for a few years and then move on but, because of FDL, end up spending their careers here.”

Moore arrived at Webster unsure of how long she’d stay and has been there for close to a quarter of a century. “I came for reasons other than FDL, but FDL was one of the reasons why I stayed,” she says.

Though Moore likes to conduct research, she’s known for more than two decades that a typical research-intensive faculty job wasn’t for her. “I wanted to mostly focus on teaching,” she says, “but still have some time and support for research.” At Webster, she’s been able to conduct long observational studies on nonverbal communication without feeling pressure to work at an accelerated pace or to value research over teaching.

It’s rare that FDL faculty actually leave Webster. “We have very low turnover,” says Carpenter, of the School of Communications. “Almost no one who’s made status leaves, other than to retire.”

When Security Is Threatened

FDL faculty may have the sense that their jobs are secure -- and in most cases they likely are -- but the status option denies them the same job security as tenure.

All faculty -- tenured or FDL -- undergo what George calls "less intrusive" performance reviews conducted by department chairs. If the review uncovers something problematic, the faculty member's performance is considered by the school's dean and other administrators. In this instance, he concedes, "the review has potentially much greater consequences for someone on FDL" who could be in danger of losing his or her job.

The major difference between the two status options is that FDL faculty must undergo a school-based review every five years, generally triggered by a proposed leave. The review is more rigorous than the annual assessments; faculty discuss their leave plans, present materials comparable to a tenure portfolio and fulfill other requirements that vary by school.

Most faculty on FDL don't see the reviews as particularly onerous, Moore says. "A lot of us are really excited to share with our colleagues all that we've done in the last five years." Faculty can also switch from FDL to tenure, or vice versa, by undergoing another review.

When faculty members sense that their work isn't going to earn them a new five-year contract, they often leave the university proactively, George says. A very small number fail their reviews and are given one-year terminal contracts with the option to appeal.

Other than the rare instances in which FDL status isn’t renewed, one of the greatest potential negatives of the option is what it could mean if the university fell on tough economic times or a faculty member did something particularly controversial.

Groups like the American Association of University Professors promote tenure as a means to ensure faculty members’ academic freedom and job security, but even without tenure, faculty are ensured those things at Webster, administrators and faculty argue. “The extraordinary number of people on status means it’s really part of the system here,” George says. “Every single faculty member at Webster University has academic freedom and the day that that is not the case is the day that the university ought to rise up and vote no confidence in its president.”

Lynch, a former president of the faculty senate, says he doesn’t see himself or other faculty on FDL as being in a less secure position than their tenured peers. “I cannot believe that I would be at more risk simply because I was willing to say I’m willing to have you guys check me out every five years so I can get reconnected to my discipline every five years.”

He adds: “If the decision was made in that kind of unilateral and simplistic way it would be at the detriment of Webster…. You can bet your bottom dollar that the faculty wouldn’t let that happen without a fight.”

The university hasn’t needed to test the system so far, but it could at any time. That, says Anita Levy, associate secretary of the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, is a major concern. “They’re fortunate that they haven’t had any incidents where they’ve had to put this up to the test. But, should a controversial issue arise, the non-tenured faculty could well be at greater risk.”

In general, she adds, “it’s a mistaken idea to think that getting additional perks can somehow replace tenure.”

Trower expresses the same concerns but says that Webster’s system seems to be sufficiently well-established that “there’d be a big problem and a big backlash” were the university’s administrators or trustees to test the sanctity of FDL.

At Webster, at least, “they do have clout and power even without tenure.”

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