New Push for a Shift in Promotion and Tenure

Should innovation and entrepreneurial achievement be considered as part of teaching, research and service?

September 30, 2020
( Trade)

Academics from 67 universities nationally have unanimously voted to approve a set of recommendations for recognizing innovation and entrepreneurial achievements among the criteria for higher education faculty promotion and tenure.

The proposal is not to add a fourth prong to the traditional three of teaching, research and service. Rather, it is to place innovation and entrepreneurship within the three prongs.

In addition, the proposal aims to be noncontroversial by saying that colleges and universities could let faculty members decide whether to be evaluated on that basis. But judging from the reaction of the American Association of University Professors, which was not consulted on the proposal, there is a controversy.

The proposal came out of a National Science Foundation grant to Oregon State University to study whether it should add support for innovation and entrepreneurship into its tenure and promotion guidelines. That led to the creation of the Promotion and Tenure, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Coalition, which includes officials from the 67 universities. And while they unanimously back the idea, they are not in charge of tenure and promotion at their universities. The universities include Arizona State, Brown, Emory, Michigan State, New York and Purdue Universities and the Rochester Institute of Technology; the Universities of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego; and the Universities of Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi and Washington.

The recommendations are outlined here and called by the organizers "a seismic shift in promotion and tenure."

For instance, under research, the proposal states that it could reward "intellectual property," such as "patent applications, patents awarded, copyrights (including software), trademarks, tangible property (e.g. cell lines), trade secrets and know how, germ plasm protection, invention disclosures, novel data products, novel processes and procedures, installation of creative works, commissioned works." Faculty members could also be rewarded for "entity creation" of "startup/spinout organizations."

Under teaching, the proposal states that people could receive credit for the "creation and/or incorporation of curricular content that connects the subject matter to societal impact through innovation; support and instruct students in commercialization and innovation and entrepreneurial service activities, including developing collaborative approaches to solving complex world problems."

The report added, “Inclusion of wording such as ‘Effective advising helps create an environment which fosters student learning, student retention and career resiliency’ in the initial description would encourage faculty to move away from a purely numeric evaluation and towards more qualitative measures of their effectiveness in advising. In addition, inclusion of explicit mention of advising work around experiential innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities including facilitating internship opportunities for students is advisable.”

Rich G. Carter, a professor of chemistry and faculty lead for innovation excellence at Oregon State, said he saw the proposal as "a real opportunity" for universities to move forward -- without putting those who oppose it at a disadvantage. That is because the new system would be optional. "We're not trying to make faculty do this," he said.

He gave an example of a professor who makes a discovery in science that could lead to a cure for some type of cancer. The discovery itself would get credit for tenure and promotion under the research criterion. But what about the innovation? Right now, if the professor was particularly speedy in finding a way to bring the discovery to market, that would not count. But the proposal would let it count toward the research criteria.

Carter stressed that the system is not only for the physical and biological sciences.

A professor of public policy might do work with the government to reform some area of policy that overlaps with the professor's work. This would not currently be rewarded, but it could count under the service criterion under the proposal.

Or a professor who spends a lot of time advising students and making sure they're getting sufficient academic support might count that under teaching.

"We are not trying to hurt anything else," he said.

Carter also said this was an "academic freedom issue" in that "someone whose work has a societal impact" should receive credit for that work.

But Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, has a different view.

To the AAUP, "tenure has never been about rewarding achievement, but about protecting academic freedom," he said. That is because "anyone who works for" the probationary period stays on with tenure. "It's not a badge of honor," he said.

Reichman said that "my guess is that the overwhelming majority of faculty" would favor keeping the current triad of criteria.

He said he is mainly concerned about the proposals about entrepreneurship. "I'm deeply troubled by that," Reichman said. "It's basically about making money."

"It reflects the notion that business is a model for everything, including education," and the AAUP does not agree, he said.

"It seems to me it would turn faculty against each other," he said.

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