Standing Their Ground

Brown U. faculty refuse to endorse changes that would make tenure harder to earn, and that some fear would alter the teaching/research balance.
October 7, 2010

For months, as Brown University professors have debated changes in tenure procedures that are designed to make tenure more difficult to earn, proponents of the changes have suggested that the critics were a vocal minority. Some proponents still think that.

But when key portions of the plan came up for a faculty vote on Tuesday, professors first tried to chop up the measure to vote on the plans paragraph by paragraph, rather than as a whole. When administrators and some professors objected to that, the only measure that attracted majority support was to withdraw the entire proposal for further consideration by the Faculty Executive Committee. And that was seen by some critics of the proposal as significant. The tenure plan was developed by a faculty committee appointed by the provost, but the Faculty Executive Committee is elected by the faculty.

"I think it was a triumph for faculty self-governance. If there are changes to the tenure process, the Brown faculty wants to make them ourselves," said Susan Smulyan, a professor of American civilization.

Provost David Kertzer has a different perspective. "A segment of the faculty is opposed to any change in our system," he said.

The changes that were supposed to come up for a vote Tuesday are, to proponents, relatively minor. One proposal would have ended a tradition of informing tenure candidates of the outside reviewers being asked to evaluate them. Another would have increased the number of outside letters from a minimum of five to a minimum of eight (a figure commonly used already). Yet another would allow deans to add to the list of outside reviewers, in a break from the current policy of letting departments decide whom to ask. Faculty critics of the proposed changes have said all of these changes would, to various degrees, shift some of the power of tenure decisions away from departments and toward the administration.

The backdrop for the discussion -- and part of the reason many faculty have been dubious of the recommendations -- is that Brown was faulted in a recent accreditation report for having too high a tenure rate (70 percent), because many top research universities have significantly lower rates. Brown faculty members insist that they do a good job of advising those who will not receive tenure to leave before the final vote.

Further, Brown faculty critics of the changes say that they are proud of the emphasis on teaching in evaluations of faculty members and that they view the changes being proposed as raising the bar on research in a way that will force junior faculty members to focus their time clearly on writing or lab work -- and not on students.

At Brown, faculty meetings don't tend to attract even 100 of the 700 non-medical instructors. But meetings to discuss the tenure changes have attracted 200 or even 300 faculty members. (The university doesn't operate with a senate structure, but with meetings of the full faculty.)

"I think the faculty didn't like the way the report was generated and presented. I read the meeting as the faculty trying to find a way to vote in favor of some of the changes and make amendments to others," said Smulyan. Given the administration's desire to have faculty vote to adopt the package in its entirety, she said most professors didn't have any way to vote Yes.

Arnold Weinstein, a faculty member since 1968 and the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, said that he was pleased to see the faculty stand its ground, but that he doesn't view the matter as settled. "It's not over, far from it," he said.

One of the things he considers healthy about the debate is that it has led to discussion over who has "ownership of these issues: faculty or administration?"

In terms of the substance of the debate, he said he remains concerned that the changes envisioned all point toward more emphasis on research.

"My own concern has to do with possible erosion of the value of undergraduate teaching," he said via e-mail. "Efforts to ratchet up the research profile of the faculty are in some ways quite laudable, but I cannot help thinking they will come at a cost -- an unintended devaluing (in the eyes of faculty hires, in the requirements for tenure) of the 'college' itself, which is, in my view, Brown's crown jewel. We have long walked a tightrope between research and teaching -- central to the ethos of this place -- and I worry that that delicate balance may be in jeopardy."

Kertzer, the provost, said in an interview that he viewed the changes as making tenure harder to get, but not as shifting the balance between research and teaching. He suggested that there was something inconsistent with the faculty reaction.

"Brown this past year accepted 9 percent of undergraduate applications," he said, and faculty have "cheered" the ever-higher bar being set for students to get in. "We have raised the bar for students and Brown is a stronger institution," he said. "It is rather striking to me that the faculty think there is something wrong with doing the same thing for faculty."

Kertzer declined to say whether he and those who put together the proposals would try again to win over skeptical professors. But he noted that Brown trustees are also interested in the issue. "This is an issue that has attracted their attention," he said.

Further, Kertzer said he still wasn't convinced that the faculty members who refused to back the tenure changes Tuesday reflected a true majority. He noted that emeritus professors are allowed to vote, as are junior faculty members, who would face any higher standards when they come up for tenure. "It's asking a lot to ask them to approve a system that's going to make it more difficult for them to get tenure," he said.

Had the vote been of only tenured faculty members, there's "a good chance" the changes would have been approved, he said. Of the votes that did take place, he said: "Of the faculty who normally come to faculty meetings, there is certainly evidence that a significant number of them oppose any significant change in our system."


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