Tenure Rates and Faculty Mission

On the surface, the proposed changes to the tenure system at Brown University may seem like relatively minor adjustments, designed to help junior faculty members build up a more complete portfolio of work for review. For instance, the review would be moved to the seventh year of employment instead of the sixth.

April 27, 2010

On the surface, the proposed changes to the tenure system at Brown University may seem like relatively minor adjustments, designed to help junior faculty members build up a more complete portfolio of work for review. For instance, the review would be moved to the seventh year of employment instead of the sixth.

Administrators have characterized the changes as modest, but they have run into strong faculty opposition, with many professors believing that the changes add up to an attempt to assert more control by administrators and to shift the teaching-research balance in faculty responsibilities decidedly in the direction of research.

One reason that many professors are dubious of the plan is that the process to reform tenure started after the university's accreditor -- in a generally stellar review for the university -- drew attention to the high rate of tenure approval at Brown (typically above 70 percent) and suggested this was a problem because it is 20 percentage points higher than is the case at the research universities to which it compared Brown.

Many at Brown earned their doctorates or started their careers at institutions like Harvard and Yale Universities -- places known for strong research orientations and a use-'em-up, spit-'em-out approach to junior faculty. Why should it be presumed, the Brown faculty want to know, that such a system is better, especially for students?

Susan Smulyan, a professor of American civilization, said she was thinking about the changes last week as she surveyed the scene in a tent set up for a reception for the pre-frosh who have been admitted and are deciding whether to enroll at Brown. She looked around and saw on a rainy day how many full professors had trudged across the quad to schmooze with these high school seniors -- and she imagined how few full professors would join in such activities at institutions where time not spent publishing or in the lab isn't valued.

"One of the reasons the faculty is so upset is that Brown has been a very unusual place, a place where you could make a career where teaching mattered and where community mattered -- in ways that colleagues at Harvard and Yale haven't been able to do," she said. Looking around that tent, "there were all these amazing people there, all these people who have been doing amazing research, but who really value teaching," she said. Looking up at the administration building, "I wanted to go tell them: 'Look, you've got something special here. Why are you doing this?' "

A recent faculty meeting featured speaker after speaker criticizing the proposals, and some at Brown doubt that the administration will be able to win the support of the majority of faculty -- which it wants by next month, when the plan is set to be put to a vote.

To many, the answer to the question of "Why?" is that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges gave Brown an excuse to dive into the issue by comparing its tenure rate to those at other research universities. Provost David Kertzer, who appointed a committee to review the tenure system and has been the chief public advocate for the committee's suggestions, said that the NEASC report was only part of the impetus. He said it was appropriate for any university to periodically review its tenure system.

Many faculty members report that Brown administrators have talked about wanting to see the tenure rate cut, but Kertzer stressed that there was no goal for an approval rate and that he saw the proposed changes as moves that reflect changes in the way scholarship is produced.

Kertzer also focused on ways that the new system could help junior faculty members. The report issued by the panel he appointed notes that the traditional time period may not work well for everyone. "If the period is too short, even excellent candidates may fail to establish productive, independent research programs and to develop and demonstrate effective teaching skills. Likewise, the university may have insufficient information on which to make informed decisions. If the period is too long, untenured faculty may become frustrated and discouraged," the report says.

The recommendations would not only give extra time, but also open up potential for sabbaticals after the first four-year period that someone is a junior faculty member, allowing for more ambitious research, Kertzer said. And any lengthening of the tenure clock requested for family responsibilities will not be affected by the change, and would still just be added on, he said.

Faculty members note that -- while the rationale for the additional year includes teaching -- the prevailing sense is that this is about writing that extra book or landing that additional grant, not creating the perfect seminar. And the other reforms proposed focus on research, not teaching, in ways that concern professors.

For instance, the plan would seek to standardize the way outside letters are collected to evaluate tenure candidates -- an area in which there is apparently variation among departments. The number of letters would be increased from 5 to 10 (a move that would send Brown in the opposite direction from that recommended in a landmark tenure reform report by the Modern Language Association, which cited evidence that the number of outside letters was edging up at many institutions, with no apparent improvement in quality of the process -- but imposing a major burden on letter writers and adding to the angst of tenure candidates). Outside letters focus on research, not teaching, so that is the expected emphasis of the additional letters.

Other changes would -- to faculty critics -- tilt a balance of control over the tenure process away from departments and toward administrators. For example, currently the outside letter writers are selected in a process involving the candidate and the department. Under the plan, senior academic administrators could also solicit letters. Currently, at Brown, faculty members nominate and select members of the faculty committee (across disciplines) that reviews decisions after they have been made at the departmental level. Another of the proposed changes would have the administration make those appointments.

While some faculty members are concerned about one or another of the specific recommendations, many said that it is their cumulative impact that they fear -- and a sense that they suggest a push to make Brown more like a traditional research university.

"I think the administration is surprised to see all the disagreement, but I think this is part of a larger dialectic. The institution is at a pivotal moment about reconsidering its own image and mission," said Arnold Weinstein, a faculty member since 1968 and the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature. Brown adopted the New Curriculum in 1969, and while it is best known for its relative absence of requirements, Weinstein said that the curriculum also was a commitment by Brown to "a student-centered model of undergraduate education." That means lots of small seminars, lots of independent study, lots of direct faculty-student interaction in ways sought by students.

Not only has the curriculum made "very sound intellectual sense," Weinstein said, but it also was "good business sense in that Brown improved its market share." For faculty members, he said, "this has been a tightrope act, in which you have the same kind of professional horizons as you'd find at the other Ivies, but at the same time, we have been committed to a different kind of ethos about the centrality of undergraduate teaching."

While all universities say they are committed to teaching, Weinstein said that he has seen teaching and research have relatively equal status at Brown, which is unusual for any research university and is something to be protected. He said that you can't talk about giving people another year for adding to their portfolios without sending the clear message that you want more research.

Weinstein, author of numerous books, published by top university presses, said he's not anti-research. "But I disagree with the notion that [more research] can be achieved at no cost, and that this is just about fine tuning," he said. "This is about telling people to do more research, and if you tell your incoming faculty that the bar is going to be raised, and that they must have two books during their probationary period, you are also telling them, even if you are just whispering it, that they will spend less time on undergraduates."

He added that "the status of teaching at Brown is in jeopardy."

Like many professors at Brown, he also said he resents the idea that the university's tenure rate is being judged a failure for promoting too many people. "I don't think we have anything to apologize for," he said. At Harvard, he said, the expectation is that junior faculty will not be tenured. "We try to hire people for the long haul, and we think the humane model is that you make a careful appointment decision and a careful reappointment decision," rather than looking for people to reject later, he said.

One way of looking at a low tenure rate, several faculty members said, is as a sign that a university does a poor job of initial hiring or doesn't worry too much if junior faculty members aren't the best talent. Is that to be valued? they asked.

"It strikes me that we do a very good job of hiring and mentoring," said Smulyan. To say that there should be a lower tenure rate is "in some ways to say that the faculty doesn't know what it's doing when it hires," she said. "This isn't like grade distribution. Why should there be failures?"

Several faculty members also said that Brown may do a better job than other research universities on initial hires because of the outcome of a gender bias suit filed in 1974. The suit was by Louise Lamphere, who was denied tenure in anthropology, and the resulting consent decree -- in place until 1992 -- specified hiring and promotion procedures with more detail than is the case at many institutions. Many said that the consent decree put Brown ahead of the curve in terms of promoting sound hiring practices, assuring lots of rigor and consistency and limiting the influence of "old boy network" hiring.

Dore Levy, a professor of East Asian studies, is among other professors who offer a different critique of the research agenda. They say that Brown is trying to provide them with the sort of research resources that are on the high end of what one could find at a liberal arts college, but then judge them by the standards of a research university. "You want us to be like Harvard? Then give us the Widener Library," she said.

Levy, whose scholarship is on classical Chinese, said that she has spent her Brown career doing research at the libraries at Yale and Princeton Universities, which are far superior in relevant holdings than Brown's collections. Brown can't have it both ways, with resources not matching expectations, she said.

Adding to faculty frustration, she said, is a sense that Brown is trying to fix a tenure system that's not broken and that many of the fixes give more power to administrators. If administrators could show that weak faculty members were being tenured, Levy said, she would be concerned. That's never happened. She noted that administrators have said that some departments have higher tenure rates than others. But is there a relationship between those figures and quality? Levy said faculty have never been told. "Where are these weak tenures? We have no statistics, no information."

By adding more administrative control to the selection of outside reviewers (though the letters) and internal reviewers (through the all-campus faculty committee), Levy said "there is the appearance that they are interested in setting aside departmental decisions for what looks like an arbitrary desire to get the tenure rate down."

Brown faculty members aren't afraid of high standards for their work, she said. "We are willing to do the job, but not to let the administration use this as a back-door method to seize control and set an arbitrary standard."

Kertzer, the provost, repeatedly stressed in an interview that he didn't see the changes as dramatic. He said that, many times, administrators might not feel any need to solicit letters beyond those suggested by the candidate and the department. And many of the same kinds of people who are appointed to the tenure review panel today would probably be asked in the future.

He said that all of the changes were about getting more information about candidates' potential. And he said more time and more voices can only better inform the decisions. "It's not that we are looking for any one letter," he said. The university wants the best possible understanding of each candidate's contributions and to do so in a way that is consistent with "good practice."

He also said that administrators would respect departments and would recognize that there are disciplinary traditions and knowledge bases that they might not have. "We know that people have different approaches and different perspectives," and he stressed that departments would still see a final list of the letter writers and could flag any concerns.

And as for faculty concerns that the proposed changes would alter the teaching-research balance, he said: "I think we have long been saying that research and scholarship of the highest level is a sine qua non for getting tenure at Brown, although we also expect excellence in teaching. The proposed changes are to ensure that we have the best possible information available to us in making the tenure decision."

Obviously, those most immediately affected by a change in tenure rules would be junior faculty members. Several contacted said that they preferred to let the senior faculty take the lead (and that they were happy they were doing so), since their comments might be seen as more self-serving. Other junior faculty noted that, whatever happens to the tenure reforms, their tenure cases will eventually need both faculty and administrative backing -- so there isn't much to be gained by speaking out publicly.

But minutes of some faculty meetings to discuss the administration's concerns about the tenure system -- minutes that didn't identify junior faculty by name -- confirm that they are watching the process closely and will adjust their work based on the outcome.

One junior faculty member was quoted expressing worry that those without tenure "may be hesitant about doing cutting edge research and interdisciplinary research because they may run into more problems." Another junior faculty member "stated that he would gear his publications and efforts towards pleasing the 15 or so colleagues at top universities and focus less on service."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top