Tenure and Incompetence

January 7, 2014

Want your colleagues to remain effective teachers and researchers after tenure? Then prioritize quality over quantity in publishing during the tenure process, avoid collegiality as a tenure criterion and make sure your administrators aren’t rubber-stamping faculty tenure recommendations. That’s according to a new study out in this month’s PS: Political Science and Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

“When Tenure Protects the Incompetent: Results from a Survey of Department Chairs” (an abstract of which is available here), is based on results of a survey of 361 responding political science chairs at doctoral, master’s and baccalaureate institutions regarding faculty incompetence and tenure. The author, John Rothgeb, a professor of political science at Miami University, in Ohio, said in an interview he was inspired to explore the topic in light of recent state-level debates, including in Ohio, about the value of tenure and whether or not it made faculty members less effective as researchers and educators. And most of those debates happen without empirical data to support arguments on either side, he said – partly because data are hard to come by. 

“I was concerned about tenure because of the many claims you read about all the time [that] tenure is destroying higher education, and blah blah blah,” Rothgeb said in an interview. “And if you serve on tenure committees, as I do at Miami University, we’re always talking about what tenure means, but I wondered, do you really know what you’re talking about what you say all these kinds of things?”

In the survey, Rothgeb asked chairs to report whether or not tenure “has shielded incompetent faculty from dismissal” at their institutions – not just within their departments. Some 62 percent of chairs said it had. Rothgeb followed up with a series of questions about institutional characteristics and the tenure processes at those colleges and universities, to try to identify when and how tenure may shield incompetence.

Advanced statistical analysis revealed some surprising correlations. The independent variable with the strongest link to tenure as a shield for incompetence – defined by the study as “failure to meet the teaching, research and service expectations at [the] institution” – was a previous reversal of a faculty recommendation for tenure by an administrator. Where that has occurred, probability of reported incompetence dropped by 30 percent.

At institutions where collegiality is an acknowledged criterion in the tenure process, respondents were 12 percent more likely to report faculty incompetence.

Rothgeb said administrators have a duty to thoroughly review all faculty committee recommendations for tenure before advancing them to the next level or ultimately approving their application, given the close relationships that can evolve among faculty members and perhaps influence their votes – particularly where collegiality is used in tenure decisions. But the data don't mean that administrators should override faculty recommendations without good reason, he added. (Faculty advocates, including the American Association of University Professors, maintain that personnel decisions such as tenure and promotion are the primary domain of professors.)

The author said he was most surprised by the data on publishing, which showed that more is not necessarily better. A one-unit increase in the number of articles demanded from tenure candidates (from one to two, for example) increases the probability of reported incompetence by 8 percent, while a one-unit increase in the “prestigious” article variable (such a publication in a top journal) decreased the probability of reported incompetence by 16 percent.

“If you’re publishing in lower-ranking journals to rack up a big total, and the chair looks at you later on down the road and says, ‘You know, you’re really not that good,’ that may be because they weren’t very prestigious publications,” he said.

Equally surprising were some of the factors that showed no positive or negative link to incompetence, such as whether the institution was public or private, or whether or not faculty were unionized. The role of external reviewers’ recommendation letters in the tenure process also had no effect on the likelihood of reported incompetence.

“Whether large, medium or small, unionized or non-unionized, rural or urban, or public or private, department chairs report that their colleges and universities confront problems stemming from tenure as a protector of the incompetent,” the study says. “These finding also show that much of the discussion in the media about the effect of unionization and privatization is misplaced, at least as far as higher education is concerned.”

Various controls were placed on the study for degree level and mission statement of the institution, such as whether it was a teaching college or research university. Rothgeb’s previous research has revealed that research institutions value teaching as much as research in tenure decisions. The controls did not affect the outcomes of the study.

Vicki Claypool, professor of political science at the University of Iowa who has written about the tenure and promotion process, agreed with Rothgeb’s basics findings that quality of publications over quantity do matter. However, the problem could be in defining "quality," she said via email.

“ ‘Quality’ journals can be and are identified by a variety of criteria,” Claypool said. “We have more debates in our department during tenure reviews over what constitutes a quality outlet for publication than just about anything else. What counts as a ‘quality’ journal can be influenced by the same structurally- and network-embedded stereotypes that affect the peer review process associated with soliciting external letters.”

Henry Reichman, chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and emeritus professor of history at California State University at East Bay, said the study held some value. For example, he said, it supported AAUP’s longstanding position that collegiality should not be a tenure criterion because it has “nothing to do” with one’s ability as a professor. But he questioned the study’s central question – whether tenure has protected an incompetent professor anywhere on campus. First, the definition of incompetence included in the study is too broad, he said. Second, the link between reported incompetence and tenure is weak.

“I would suspect, frankly, if you went to a campus where there were no tenured faculty members and said 'Are there incompetent members of your faculty you wouldn’t mind getting rid of?' " hypothetical respondents would say yes, he said.

Rothgeb agreed that there are limitations to his work, including that it assumes post-tenure competence is based on the institution making the right choice at the point of tenure. (He argued, however, that competence “gets in your blood" and compared post-tenure professors to professional athletes who typically don’t stop performing once they win that big contract.) He said that his study is an attempt to add some hard data to public debates about tenure, and that more research is needed – preferably institutional-level case studies. Such research is resource-intensive but could further inform the debate, he said.

“In an ideal world, we would get personnel files and see how people are performing, say, 10 years from now,” he said.

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