Not So Fast

Michigan provost wants to extend pre-tenure period to 10 years -- and faculty senate resoundingly rejects the idea.
January 25, 2011

The faculty senate at the University of Michigan voted overwhelmingly on Monday to reject an administration proposal that would allow the university to extend the pre-tenure probationary period to 10 years.

"I don’t know whether we will prevail, but we certainly spoke with virtually one voice," said Edward Rothman, professor of statistics and chair of the faculty group, which is known formally as the Senate Assembly. Rothman characterized the level of unanimity as surprising during an interview after the faculty senate met Monday afternoon with Philip J. Hanlon, the provost and architect of the proposal (the new policy was not discussed during their session). Hanlon left before the senate cast its votes, which are not binding, but advisory.

The faculty senate voted twice, 54-1, with one abstention, on two measures related to the proposal, which would alter university bylaw 5.09 and allow the university to extend the probationary period before tenure from 8 years to 10 years. The first faculty vote was an explicit rebuke of the proposal. The second was in favor of limiting the vote on this issue to faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track.

If Michigan extends the pre-tenure period, which is still possible, it would go against national norms for tenure outlined by the American Association of University Professors. Such a move by Michigan could transform a reasonably coherent tenure system nationwide into "a free-for-all," said Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, because other administrations would likely follow suit. "For most traditional disciplines the six-year probationary period works well," Nelson said in an e-mail. "Exceptions can continue to be made for illness and family responsibilities in individual cases. In any case, the faculty senate's will about university policy should carry the day."

The future of the proposal remains uncertain. Hanlon has said he would wait to hear the concerns of faculty before deciding how or whether to move forward. He expects to make a decision on the proposal in the next week, said Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the university. If the administration continues to move the proposal forward, it will go the university's regents. The regent's chair was not available for comment.

As Hanlon and others at the university have previously stressed in articles and statements, the proposed change would not be mandated for all divisions. Instead, it would give the various schools and colleges within the university the option to lengthen the pre-tenure probationary period. In practice, individual units at the university have established their own timelines. The law school makes a tenure determination in six years, while the school of literature, science and the arts does so in seven; the business and medical schools can make their calls in as many as eight years. "We have a variety of different tenure probationary periods on this campus and I suspect we’ll have different periods for a long time to come -- whether the maximum is changed or not," said Fitzgerald.

The medical school has been most supportive of the proposed change, said Fitzgerald, because it would give newer faculty members the necessary time to juggle clinical, research, and educational duties. Rothman of the faculty senate sympathized with the rationale as it applied to clinical staff at the medical school. But he said the proposal was flawed because it was an attempt to solve a localized problem for one group in one college that could have profound implications for others elsewhere.

The change also has been couched by supporters as a way to encourage junior faculty members, particularly in the sciences, to take on more ambitious or interdisciplinary research projects. Another intended benefit of the change is to help younger faculty members better maintain work-life balance and start a family.

The latter argument was also used during a 2006 effort at Michigan to lengthen the probationary period to 10 years. The premise at the time was that the change would give parents more flexibility to raise a family. That proposal failed, in part, because the university already had measures in place to allow faculty members to freeze the tenure clock for child-rearing or because of illness.

Some faculty members opposed to the proposal worried that, even though the new timeline was a guide and not a mandate, the changes might lead to a slippery slope in which other departments could extend their tenure clocks -- leaving junior faculty in, say, humanities disciplines to twist in the wind for a decade. Rothman said that, as a department head, he preferred telling newly hired faculty members as early as possible -- within a year -- when it is not a good match. And he expressed the most concern about those who did not pass muster at Michigan and faced larger obstacles finding jobs elsewhere. "If we were to wait 10 years to make a decision we could have faculty members who could presumably be in their early 40s and be denied tenure and not have options," he said.

For faculty members hired as assistant professors at Michigan, tenure is not a certainty. Between 1982 and 2004, 54.6 percent of those hired as assistant professors received tenure, according to Michigan's office of budget and planning.

Fears for the job prospects of older scholars are rooted in frequent claims of age discrimination in the academy. Colleges throughout the country -- from Baltimore to New Jersey to Maine -- have been sued for allegedly discriminating against staff on the basis of age. Scholars in history have also noted systemic bias against hiring older job candidates. The American Historical Association readopted its opinion on age discrimination after finding “troubling evidence of age discrimination” within the profession.


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