10 Years to Tenure at Michigan

New policy, adopted over faculty objections, gives divisions the option to extend probationary periods.
April 25, 2011

Professors at the University of Michigan could face a possible wait of up to 10 years for tenure thanks to a new policy adopted Thursday by its Board of Regents -- over the objections of faculty.

The change to a university bylaw, as Michigan administrators are quick to point out, is not mandated. It gives schools and colleges at Michigan's campuses the option to extend the maximum allowable pre-tenure probationary period (including the terminal year) by two years, from the current maximum of 8 years to 10. In practice, each college and school sets its own policy through its governing faculty body, and this would not change. For example, in Ann Arbor, while the law school currently has a five-year probationary period, 13 other schools and colleges set a six-year period; five maintain a seven-year period.

The regents’ vote Thursday came as a blow to many faculty members in Ann Arbor, whose governing body, the Senate Assembly, in January voted nearly unanimously, 54-1, against the plan. “I think a lot of us are disappointed,” Edward Rothman, professor of statistics and chair of the assembly, told Inside Higher Ed. The faculty had wanted, he said, to take more time to examine the problem “carefully and numerically” and to explore options that were “consistent with a win-win atmosphere since we’re all part of the same university."

Despite the faculty resistance, Phil Hanlon, who serves as provost and as the Donald J. Lewis Professor of Mathematics, decided to move forward with proposing the measure to the regents after “much consultation and thought,” he wrote in a letter to faculty last week. “In seeking advice for this decision, I have consulted with the faculty in ways that are both broad-based and deep."

While acknowledging the opposition of the Senate Assembly, Hanlon said that other sources of faculty input were very much in favor of the change. These were reflected, he wrote, in the public comments that had been submitted to him and the dozens of informal conversations he’d had, as well as the advice from leaders of other committees on university and academic affairs, among other bodies.

The existing policy had been on the books since 1944. Hanlon argued that the probationary timeline needed to be extended -- particularly for clinical faculty at the medical school -- because it has been taking longer for faculty to amass a body of research. Subject matter is growing more interdisciplinary and the research process more time-consuming, he said, as regulatory and compliance requirements have become more complex. Scarce grant money is proving to be a hindrance as well. “As funding gets tighter it can take longer for young faculty members to achieve initial research grants,” Hanlon wrote.

Another reason for the change, as cited by Hanlon and by the measure’s supporters -- particularly those from the medical school -- relates to the changing demographics of the professoriate. The growth in two-career and single-parent households -- coupled with longer postgraduate training periods -- has strained junior faculty who are trying to juggle personal and professional obligations.

For many, the tenure clock and the biological clock tend to sound their alarms at the same time, forcing some to feel they have to choose between advancing in a career and starting a family. While Michigan, like many other institutions, allows faculty members to temporarily halt the tenure clock without penalty, very few faculty in medical schools actually take advantage of such policies, according to recent research published in the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The lack of acceptance of the practice within academic culture, particularly at medical schools, was one reason the study’s authors thought the policy was not used more widely.

Rothman said that some faculty members had expressed worries that extending the allowable probationary period would cause tenure requirements to expand as well. And, despite the power of individual schools and colleges to set their own pre-tenure periods, individual exceptions can be made. Many faculty members remain concerned that the new policy will create situations in which faculty members are made to wait 10 years only to find out they won’t get tenure.

The American Association of University Professors' 1940 statement of principles on academic freedom and tenure stakes out the position that the probationary period should not be longer than seven years, and later statements have favored the option to temporarily stop the clock without penalty. The process by which the new policy was decided at Michigan displeased Cary Nelson, the president of the AAUP. "It is, to say the least, regrettable for the Board of Regents to undermine shared governance by ignoring the professional judgment of the faculty about how tenure should be regulated at Michigan," Nelson said.

That's also what troubles Rothman. “I do think there is a basic question about faculty governance and whether faculty governance has any role at a university where decisions are made that contradict of the will of the majority of the faculty,” he said.

The university countered that the decision to change the probationary period will ultimately belong to the governing faculty in each school or college, as it already does. “That's faculty governance,” said Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the university.


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