Low Stress Christian Tenure

DENVER -- Gatherings of any significant number of faculty members on the tenure track feature many discussions of the stresses associated with coming up for tenure. Will I publish enough? Have I offended a senior colleague? Do I know what the review committee really cares about? The American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here is no different, with plenty of hallway chatter among younger scholars about their chances.

May 5, 2010
 

DENVER -- Gatherings of any significant number of faculty members on the tenure track feature many discussions of the stresses associated with coming up for tenure. Will I publish enough? Have I offended a senior colleague? Do I know what the review committee really cares about? The American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here is no different, with plenty of hallway chatter among younger scholars about their chances.

Research presented here, however, identifies a group of pre-tenure faculty members who are significantly less stressed than their colleagues elsewhere, and who feel that they know what the standards will be. Further, there are only minor gaps in the attitudes of male and female colleagues in this group -- even though national surveys have indicated higher stress levels and greater levels of uncertainty about standards among women than men.

Who are these calmer faculty members? Those who teach at Christian colleges.

The study, presented by Gary L. Railsback, dean of the School of Education at Point Loma Nazarene University, was based on survey results from faculty members at 38 colleges that are members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The council’s members (Point Loma Nazarene is among them) come from a variety of denominations, but all are faith-centered institutions where faculty members abide by statements of faith (some of which are much more detailed than others). Railsback’s paper notes that many of these colleges are fast-growing, and trying to balance their philosophies, finances and the need to attract and retain top faculty members.

The data on Christian colleges were collected as part of a larger survey of faculty attitudes (at a range of institutions) conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The study on Christian colleges featured responses from 2,573 full-time faculty members. (Of those, 411 work at institutions without tenure, and their answers are not included on tenure-specific questions.)

One area where a gender gap was noted was in tenure status. Of all men who are full-time faculty members at the Christian colleges studied, 43 percent have tenure, compared to only 30 percent of women. Many colleges report that a greater proportion of male than female faculty members are tenured in part because, for the more senior ranks, scholars were starting their careers at a time when far fewer women were hired than is the case today.

However, a gender gap is also visible among those who work full time off the tenure track (a group that among all colleges represents a rapidly growing category of adjuncts). This group at the Christian colleges includes 24 percent of full-time female faculty members, but only 12 percent of full-time male faculty members.

On questions related to stress and clarity, faculty members who already have tenure tend to give their institutions and the institution of tenure better grades than do those coming up for tenure (at Christian colleges and among all institutions). But at Christian colleges, generally, the stress levels are low for those on the tenure track, with only small gender differences:

  • Only 15 percent of tenure-track faculty members reported "extensive" stress (16 percent for women, 14 percent for men). And 41 percent reported that they were stressed "not at all" (38 percent for women, and 42 percent for men). For faculty members elsewhere, the share reporting extensive stress is about twice what it is at the Christian colleges.
  • Asked if college policies on tenure and promotion were clear, 73 percent of faculty members either agreed or strongly agreed (74 percent for men and 73 percent for women).

Answers to questions on pressure to publish may reflect an increase in research expectations at some Christian colleges. Among tenured faculty members, 8 percent said that they felt "extensive" pressure to publish or conduct research, while 40 percent felt that pressure "somewhat" and 52 percent felt it "not at all." Among those on the tenure track, in contrast, 20 percent felt "extensive" pressure, 45 percent felt pressure “somewhat and only 35 percent felt it “not at all.”

In the paper, Railsback notes a number of factors that may result in lower stress levels and more clarity at Christian colleges. He notes past studies on tenure policies that have documented that some Christian colleges do not use the "up or out" approach to tenure and that some faculty members who do not win tenure are given another year to try again, or the option of working on a year-to-year contract. Further, he notes that some Christian colleges work to send signals early on to those who don’t appear likely to win tenure, to encourage them to look elsewhere -- resulting in very high tenure rates for those who complete the process.

Railsback's paper notes that some Christian colleges have been questioned by some faculty members and the American Association of University Professors about issues of academic freedom. But in an interview, he said he did not think these disputes were central to the satisfaction of most professors at the colleges because they are making a choice to work at institutions with certain requirements. These colleges "have a mission to integrate faith and learning as opposed to excluding faith as most secular institutions do," he said. "So if the institution is true to its commitments, it should come as no surprise."

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