Wanting More Say

Presidents overwhelmingly say they should have more input in faculty hiring and tenure decisions. But just how much say should they have? 

March 13, 2015
 

Do most presidents really want a bigger role in faculty hiring and tenure decisions? Inside Higher Ed’s annual Survey of College and University Presidents suggests they do. And some of them are playing a larger role than faculty leaders might find reasonable. Ten percent of private college presidents, for example, say they've blocked the hire of scholars whose views they strongly disagreed with. While those findings didn't shock shared governance experts, some were uncomfortable with presidential sentiments.

According to the poll, some 55 percent of presidents say they should take a more active role in decisions about which faculty members to hire. Two-thirds agree or strongly agree that they should take a more active role in deciding who gets tenure. Just 8 and 5 percent of presidents strongly disagree with those statements, respectively.

The extent to which presidents currently get involved in such decisions varies widely. At many campuses, such authority is effectively delegated to faculty committees and academic administrators, while at other campuses, presidents interview everyone. Generally, faculty leaders tend to prefer a more minimal role for presidents in these matters -- and public interventions have been controversial. 

Desire for more input is strongest among presidents of associate degree-granting institutions, with 64 percent saying they want a bigger role in hiring decisions, compared to about 40 percent of presidents at public, doctoral-, master’s- and baccalaureate-level institutions. Some 54 percent of presidents at both research and undergraduate-focused private institutions say so. There is more agreement among presidents regarding tenure: about 60 percent of respondents across institutions types say they want more of a role in tenure decisions, except the 70 percent of associate’s-level presidents who say so.

All institutions by sector

 

All

Public

Private

nonprofit

Presidents should take a more active role in faculty

hiring  decisions

5-Strongly agree (%)

23

24

22

4

32

31

33

3

20

18

23

2

17

19

15

1-Strongly disagree

8

9

7

Presidents should take a more active role in faculty

tenure decisions

5-Strongly agree (%)

33

33

30

4

33

33

33

3

18

14

23

2

11

13

10

1-Strongly disagree

5

7

4

That doesn’t mean presidents aren’t already involved in faculty personnel decisions, however. Some 58 percent of presidents say they have blocked the hiring of scholars whose competence they questioned, and 54 percent say they’ve blocked scholars from getting tenure for the same reason. Interestingly, presidents at doctoral-level public institutions were the least like to say they’ve blocked someone from getting hired due to concerns about competence (42 percent), but the most likely to say they’ve blocked someone from getting tenure over such doubts (76 percent).

Some 62 percent of presidents say they largely defer to departments in faculty hiring decisions (versus 38 percent of presidents who say they conduct their own reviews). Presidents get more hands-on for tenure decisions, with about half (48 percent) conducting their own reviews and the other half (52 percent) mostly deferring to department-level decisions.

Some 5 percent of all presidents say they’ve blocked the hire of a scholar or scholars with whose views they strongly disagreed. Presidents of private institutions are most likely to say this: 12 percent of presidents at private, doctoral- and master’s-level institutions versus zero presidents of public research institutions, for example. Some 2 percent of presidents -- mostly those from private, master’s- and doctoral-level institutions -- say they’ve blocked a candidate from getting tenure for having views with which they strongly disagreed.

All institutions by sector

 

All

Public

Private

nonprofit

Have you blocked the hiring of scholars whose views

you strongly disagree with?

Yes (%)

5

1

10

No

95

99

90

Have you blocked granting tenure for scholars whose views you disagree with?

Yes

2

0

4

No

98

100

96

Have you blocked the hiring of scholars whose competency you question?

Yes

58

59

56

No

42

41

44

Have you blocked tenure for scholars whose competency you question?

Yes

54

56

52

No

46

44

48

Do you conduct faculty reviews in hiring or do you largely defer to departments?

Yes, I conduct reviews

38

32

46

No, I defer to departments

62

68

54

Do you conduct faculty reviews in tenure decisions?

Yes

48

45

54

No, I defer to departments

52

55

46

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The survey, designed with Gallup, is out today. Responses are based on 647 web surveys completed by presidents and some other top executives representing 338 public institutions, 262 private institutions (excluding Bible colleges and seminaries), 26 college and university systems, and 21 for-profit institutions.

The questions on shared governance were particularly illuminating, given the precarious status of tenure across academe and recent, high-profile tenure and hiring cases -- such as that of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In that case, Chancellor Phyllis Wise intervened at the last minute in Salaita’s tenured hire to the American Indian studies program, citing his “uncivil” remarks on Twitter about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Wise was widely criticized for the move (while others applauded her), and the case raised larger questions about the role of presidents in faculty hires.

Carol Christ, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, who earlier in her career was a tenured faculty member of English, has served as provost at Berkeley and president at Smith College. She said she was “not at all surprised” with the findings, and agreed with many of them.

“The president should have an independent role in reviewing the case, in the sense of looking at the department’s case, whatever outside faculty letters have been written and the recommendations of any committees involved,” Christ said of faculty personnel decisions. “It’s an important safeguard for the quality of the institution.”

In line with the survey finding that presidents direct more attention to tenure decisions than hiring decisions, Christ said presidents provide an especially important “check” on faculty tenure recommendations, since a positive decision is a kind of “lifetime commitment that this person is going to be an extraordinary faculty member. It’s a very solemn responsibility.”

A president might, for example, think that even a faculty-backed candidate “is just not up to standards for the college or university,” Christ said. “He or she might not think that the research case has been made, or teaching.”

Beyond being a backstop, Christ said the president also plays a critical role in promoting the institution as a desirable place to work to potential hires. “You’re assessing the candidate, but it’s also about trying to persuade the candidate that this is an incredible place, and to be enthusiastic about this job.”

Christ said any president who wants to get more involved in hiring and tenure decisions has a variety of models across academe from which to choose. More important than any one “right” model, though, Christ said, is “having a very carefully defined procedure set out for what the president’s role is in tenure or hiring decisions.” (Although Inside Higher Ed’s survey did not ask about Board of Trustees involvement in faculty personnel decisions, Christ said she strongly opposed any independent evaluation at that level.)

Of course, establishing a new, buffed-up role for presidents could be a hard sell to the faculty members who might have to approve any new shared governance structure.

John K. Wilson, coeditor of the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog and the author of several books on academic freedom, said he found some of the survey results concerning. He also disagreed with Christ’s stance, saying that the only right role for presidents in hiring and tenure decisions is to “make sure that the process is fair and correct.” He said he wasn’t sure, for example, what the point of interviewing prospective faculty members is if presidents -- who are in most cases not also experts in candidates’ fields -- “can’t judge their qualifications.”

“The problem is that most presidents will readily agree to the idea of taking ‘a more active role’ in almost anything,” Wilson added via e-mail. “And it’s possible that some of them might be taking an active role in assuring that faculty hiring and tenure decisions are made fairly, without bias or discrimination.”

But the survey suggests that there also is “a strong danger of thought control,” Wilson said, citing the finding that 10 percent of private, nonprofit college presidents say they’ve blocked the hire of someone they disagreed with ideologically. “And the fact that a majority of college presidents admit to have blocked hiring as well as tenure due to ‘competence’ is particularly alarming, since it is doubtful that college presidents have the scholarly competence to judge faculty competence.” (Wilson argued that that’s what happened in the Salaita case, and that it was apparently happening elsewhere was a “matter of great concern.”)

Steven Bahls, president of Augustana College in Illinois, described his own involvement in faculty hiring and tenure decisions as somewhere between being hands-off and the ultimate gatekeeper. Bahls -- who has been president of the private, Lutheran Church-affiliated liberal arts college for 12 years -- said he spends about 30 minutes with each faculty job finalist. At up to 10 openings per year and 3 or 4 finalists per job, that’s a lot of time. But it’s worth it, he said.

“I engage with them about the mission at Augustana and, frankly, assess whether they’re a good mission fit or not,” Bahls said. “I also plant the seed in the minds of prospective faculty about obligations, meaning that Augustana is more than simply about great teaching and research, but also shared governance and advising and mentoring students and participating in the life of the college.”

Meeting with the president during an interview also gives the impression that he is “accessible” -- which can sometimes “seal the deal” for a desirable hire, Bahls said. “They’re interviewing us, and we’re interviewing them.”

During his interviews, Bahls is looking for basic kinds of competence, too -- but as a former law professor himself, he says he’d never judge a physics professor applicant’s portfolio, for example. He called that kind of presidential oversight “dangerous.” The same goes for tenure.

Ultimately, Bahls said, “I have more traditional views regarding shared governance, in that faculty members are primarily responsible for promoting and tenuring faculty.”

What does that mean, in practice? Bahls said he usually communicates with the hiring department through the provost about his faculty interviews. He sometimes shares an opinion about his favorite candidate, or sometimes is asked his opinion when the department can’t decide between two finalists. Sometimes he doesn’t express any opinion at all.

Bahls said that he’s only intervened in a faculty hire once in his tenure, when the candidate’s background seemed more appropriate for a top research university (he declined to be more specific). Luckily, he said, the department was willing to start the professor out on a one-year contract to assess fit, and the candidate agreed. In tenure decisions, Bahls said he almost always concurs with the faculty recommendation, looking most closely at cases where the vote is deeply divided.

“I don’t want to be heavy-handed,” he said.

Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of its main campus, said she strives to be hands-off -- unlike many of her peers. Even though the "job of president is becoming more and more external," she said, "people feel they need to be more involved in tenure."

Khator guessed that's because leaders know that "talent drives everything else," but said she didn't think getting personally involved in tenure decisions is the best way to drive talent. She said she does that by "setting expectations" for the institution, including that "when we hire people, [we] want to make sure they do have love for students, for teaching." 

Bahls's best guess as to why so many presidents want more control was that it's a natural response to the many big, open questions about higher education’s future. “That’s where so much of the nervousness is -- ‘I’m nervous, and I need to control more.’”

But he cautioned against acting on that impulse, again calling too much presidential interference in faculty affairs “dangerous,” based in part on personal experience. “There have been candidates at Augustana that I’ve really wondered about who have turned out to be leaders of this institution, because the faculty saw so much more in them than I was able to see in the half-hour I spent.”

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