Another Tenure Hurdle at Hopkins

Johns Hopkins is finally getting a universitywide tenure committee, but some worry it will hurt the process, not strengthen it.

March 5, 2020
 
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Johns Hopkins University

Unlike most of its peer institutions, Johns Hopkins University doesn’t have a universitywide promotion and tenure committee to review dossiers. Instead, faculty members at the famously decentralized institution deliberate cases at the school or multischool level and then pass their recommendations on to the president.

That’s about to change: starting in the fall, a group of senior professors from across Johns Hopkins’s campuses also will weigh in on tenure cases adjudicated by those other faculty committees. This new layer of oversight, called the Tenure Advisory Committee, or TAC, was designed to help the president better understand each dossier and to align Johns Hopkins policy with that of other “Ivy plus” institutions.

Unifying the institution -- to familiarize professors at the massive medical school with, say, the goings-on at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences -- was another goal. Indeed, longtime President Ronald J. Daniels has made becoming “One University” a cornerstone of his “Ten by Twenty” presidential vision, a list of goals to work toward by 2020.

But instead of unifying the university, the new process has proved divisive thus far. Many faculty members say that the change will weaken shared governance, not strengthen it.

“I don’t see how this does anything except disrupt the models of shared governance that are already in place,” said Derek Schilling, a professor of French and member of the executive committee of the Johns Hopkins chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “I think something like this committee can make sense if its primary function is procedural oversight -- that’s a meaningful function. But the way that the FACT committee report defines the TAC in fact opens up avenues for reviewing the facts of each file.”

By FACT committee report, Schilling meant the final report from Daniels’s Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure. Issued in December and approved by the university’s governing board in January, the report recommends the establishment of a committee “chaired by the provost and composed of senior faculty from across the university.”

Such a committee would advise the president “on all recommendations to grant tenure or its equivalent” emanating from school-level tenure-review bodies. “The president would then take into account TAC’s assessment in deciding whether or not to forward tenure recommendations to the Board of Trustees or to seek additional evidence or assessments bearing on that recommendation.”

Seven appointed deans and professors, including one from Krieger, drafted the report, following an April charge from Daniels. Al Sommer, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and professor of ophthalmology in the School of Medicine, led the process. With a universitywide tenure committee, he said recently, “people get a better understanding of how things work in disciplines outside their own divisions and schools. And the president would have advice provided from people across the university about how they feel as to the appropriateness of each recommendation.”

The report refers to this as a “virtuous circle whereby lessons learned at each stage of tenure review organically inform best practices for tenure across the institution.”

Sommer said his group spoke with faculty members and administrators at about 15 outside institutions and found that Johns Hopkins was the “outlier” in not having a university tenure committee. In general, he said, the outside sources said that such committees on their campuses were “useful” in getting varied perspectives on tenure cases and in exposing professors to the work being done in other units.

“We unanimously elected to recommend such a committee,” Sommer said, and to reserve slots at that table for professors who have previously served on lower-level tenure committees.

François Furstenberg, a professor of history, sits on the Homewood Academic Council, which reviews tenure cases in the arts and sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering. Furstenberg said it was unfortunate that Sommer’s committee looked to outside institutions for guidance but not to the council itself to gain members’ perspectives about how current processes are working.

Furstenberg explained that the university president has always had a seat on the council and that previous presidents did sit in on tenure deliberations. If Daniels, who does not sit in on this process, feels that he is making tenure decisions in the dark, then he is welcome to rejoin the council, Furstenberg said.

“Paradoxically and, I have to say, disingenuously,” Daniels will hold more power in tenure cases than he does now, as the new council is merely advisory to him. Moreover, Furstenberg said, Daniels will have more power than the presidents of most peer institutions, as their processes tend to empower the provost, if any administrator, and not the president.

Indeed, it is highly unusual presidents to get involved in tenure cases. Furstenberg said that Daniels has overturned one tenure case, "just before launching this process."

"I think this committee doesn’t just make it easier for him to weigh in," Furstenberg added. "It empowers him with the ability to overturn any case he wishes based on his own reading of the file and absent any deliberation with faculty."

Sarah Woodson, the T. C. Jenkins Professor of Biophysics in Krieger and a former member of the Homewood council, said her main concern is that the new committee shifts “responsibility for the quality of the scholarship farther away from the faculty who are carrying out the scholarship.”

While serving on a universitywide tenure committee might open one’s eyes to the work being done elsewhere at Johns Hopkins, it also makes that work harder to judge. There is a big difference between the inquiry-driven scholarship at Krieger, for instance, and much of the mission-driven work being done at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Woodson, Schilling and others have expressed concerns internally that this distance will cause the universitywide committee to privilege easy-to-digest metrics on citations and so-called impact over innovation and research potential.

Other professors, and junior scholars in particular, have shared additional concerns, such as how this new process will impact Johns Hopkins’s simultaneous push for a more diverse faculty.

The university referred comments about the process to Sommer.

Underscoring the recommendation in his committee’s report, Sommer said that the process will be essentially piloted for three years and then rigorously evaluated.

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