Interdisciplinary and Out of a Job

Professors worry about falling rate of tenure success at the University of Texas at Austin.

March 8, 2013

Liberal arts professors at the University of Texas at Austin are worried that too many interdisciplinary scholars are losing their tenure bids. Meanwhile, these professors fear that future budget cuts to the university system could further endanger the ethnic studies centers and institutions many of these scholars rely on for programming and research.

Of the 14 instructors up for promotion to associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts this academic year, only eight were recommended for tenure -- the lowest rate of promotion in nearly a decade. ​About 81 percent of the instructors up for tenure review last year were promoted to associate professors. The rate has fluctuated between 64 and 95 percent in the last eight years before dropping to about 57 percent this year, according to UT-Austin data.

According to professors familiar with what happened, five of the six faculty members not recommended for tenure represent interdisciplinary fields. All six are minorities.

In a letter to UT-Austin President William C. Powers Jr. and Provost Steven W. Leslie, 32 faculty members in the liberal arts expressed their concerns about the methods used to determine whether an instructor is granted tenure.

“[W]e deeply regret that a large number of the cases that the College Tenure and Promotion Committee did not recommend for tenure involve scholars of color whose research is rooted and invested in interdisciplinary methodologies and areas of study,” the letter reads. “In our view, the recent promotion and tenure decisions affecting several colleagues will negatively affect the diversity of our academic community.”

Faculty members at UT-Austin go through a four-step process in order to be granted tenure, and must receive the recommendation of their department, dean and the provost before their case reaches the president. But at no point during that process are interdisciplinary centers and institutions able to voice their opinion as a formal part of the process, the professors argue.

“In these deliberations, important venues of interdisciplinary and ethnic studies, such as Centers and Institutes, did not have the opportunity to contribute their views and enrich the discussion and decision-making of the College Tenure and Promotion Committee,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, this process remains limited by the boundaries of disciplines and departments; while at the same time the University publicly highlights the value of innovation and interdisciplinary research.”

At least half of the instructors who were denied tenure had the backing of their departments, the professors said. While the institution’s tenure assessment guidelines list interdisciplinary teaching as one of the “special circumstances” to be considered during the process, interdisciplinary centers are only allowed to submit letters in support of an instructor -- not conduct their own reviews.
A review of the tenure process revealed no bias against interdisciplinary scholars, said Tara Doolittle, the director of media outreach at UT-Austin, who described this year’s results as an “aberration.”
“We value our interdisciplinary scholars,” Doolittle said. “It’s ... a priority of the university, and it brings a lot to the College of Liberal Arts. It’s very important for those faculty members to have an identifiable career track.”
The University of Texas System has over the last few years been embroiled in a battle with the state’s legislature over its funding. Facing a deficit in the tens of billions, the state has made several attempts to cut UT’s budget, triggering protests across its nine campuses. 
At the College of Liberal Arts, interdisciplinary centers and institutes are in the middle of a four-year process to shrink their budgets by more than $750,000 and consolidate their business operations. Some, like the Center for East Asian Studies, have seen their college funding evaporate. While no centers or institutes were spared from the cuts, David Ochsner, director of public affairs at the College of Liberal Arts, pointed out that some -- including the Center for Mexican American studies and the Center for African and African-American Studies -- have larger budgets today than they did five years ago.
A professor who spoke to Inside Higher Ed on condition of anonymity said the university had performed something akin to a bait and switch, recruiting interdisciplinary scholars when the economy is booming, then slashing their programs when times get tough.
“This has been a tension that’s been going on for a long time in academia, and now it’s starting to show itself because of the budget crunch,” the professor said. “This is the way they’re cutting faculty.”
Doolittle disagreed with the instructor’s claim, and said the university will continue to mentor its assistant professors to better prepare them for the tenure review process.
“We assess each case on their merits,” Doolittle said. “While there are certainly budgetary pressures at play, that’s not a tool we use.”


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