Now that we’re almost halfway into the fall semester, it’s an ideal time to stop and evaluate your progress. I encourage you to do so this week by gently asking yourself several important questions: How is my semester going so far? How much writing have I completed? Have I developed a daily writing routine? How am I progressing towards my semester goals? and How do I feel about my answers to the previous questions? Let me be clear, this is NOT an invitation to beat yourself up!
Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.
The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.
In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels. Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.
Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?
Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.
University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”
When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.
Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.
The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.
The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.
In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well).
The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.
At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.
The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.
The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.
The Modern Language Association’s recent report from its Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion offers an opportunity to review some of our commonly accepted notions about the role of research in the definition of faculty productivity. The report is worth the considerable effort required to read through its 100 pages of survey data, evaluations, prescriptions and recommendations. Most of us will find its conclusion about tenure reassuring: The rate of tenure acquisition for tenure-track faculty is high and stable. We may be less sure about the significance of its findings about the growing number of non-tenure track faculty (part and full-time) in our institutions.
More interesting, however, is the extensive discussion of the nature of scholarly productivity. The MLA task force clearly struggled with this issue, and it is this struggle that makes the report so interesting. The report explicitly addresses what it calls the gold standard of the research monograph, which means a book length, usually single author publication that presents original research to an expert public, frequently through the medium of a university press. The report worries that this method places too restrictive a burden on young faculty, devalues the research-based article, and may result in overlong articles being presented as books. University tenure committees, the report indicates, may be off-loading the responsibility for evaluating research onto the editors and reviewers of university presses. At the same time, the report’s surveys do not yet support a conclusion that the current method of evaluating research has disadvantaged young scholars in the tenure process.
One of the great strengths of the MLA task force report is its effort to distinguish among different types of institutions, recognizing that the importance of research publication for tenure varies significantly by type of institution and that the patterns of evaluation that characterize the top research universities tend to propagate to other institutions with different missions. The report endorses the well-known case for redefining scholarship to include activities in addition to original research -- editorial work, translations, bibliographies, textbooks, essays, pedagogical writings and even exceptional classroom teaching. Although this is not a topic easily resolved, the common expectations that drive this research focused behavior warrant a closer look.
Departments in colleges and universities, where most of the critical decisions about tenure and promotion are made, reflect the goals and expectations of their scholarly guilds (in the case of the modern language departments, these scholarly guilds are represented by the MLA). These guilds, while they speak expansively about broadening the definition of research to include other forms of scholarship, tend to focus their attention on the rarest of academic talents. Original research appearing in scholarly monographs published by university presses is valued because it is difficult to produce and therefore rare.
College and university prestige (whether established by ranking organizations or popular culture) rest on the acquisition of the individuals capable of producing these rare and difficult works on a constant and consistent basis. The best universities in the world have the highest number of faculty capable of producing works of original research. This is not restricted to the guilds associated with the MLA, although the MLA report is a wonderful testimony to the process. Even as the report argues for the expansion of the definition of scholarship to include many other activities not precisely defined by original published research, it reinforces our understanding of the high prestige associated with the original research publication.
Many commentators worry about the increased competitiveness of colleges and universities, each institution seeking to purchase for higher and higher prices a greater share of the limited supply of high quality students and research capable faculty. Yet the marketplaces that support universities -- parents, students, faculty, legislators, donors, funding agencies, corporations -- all express a strong preference for the presence of these rare talents in academic settings. The issue for academics is not really whether faculty members should develop a broad portfolio of accomplishments in teaching, scholarship of all kinds, public service and civic engagement. Rather, the issue is whether universities can avoid concentrating on identifying and acquiring faculty whose skills will make their university or college campus most competitive. This perspective, ruthlessly businesslike though it is, provides a clear explanation of the behavior of colleges and universities and their academic guilds, and it highlights some characteristics of the academic environment that we might prefer were different.
Colleges and universities have few ways of defining and demonstrating their excellence other than presenting various measures of scarcity. The market assumes that if a campus attracts a large share of scarce, high SAT and high GPA students, its overall quality is better than another campus with lower SAT and lower GPA students. The market also assumes that a campus with a large share of the scarce faculty who consistently publish original research is a high quality campus. These indicators of scarcity are highly reliable measures, even if we can debate at great length whether what they measure is of greater intrinsic value than something else we do not measure as reliably.
Longtime observers of the academic scene know that original research talent is much more fragile than teaching or scholarship or civic engagement talent. Over a 25- to 30-year career, more faculty will sustain consistently good performance as teachers than will sustain consistently productive careers publishing original research. At the beginning, we do not know which of the recently tenured, research productive faculty will sustain that productivity for the next 25 or 30 years. The institution, understanding the importance of these research-productive faculty in validating their external competitive reputations, places extraordinary emphasis on improving the results of the tenure process by focusing intensively on the quantity and quality of published original research. The result is what the MLA observes: increased standards for published research productivity for tenure.
To some extent the excellent recommendations in the MLA Task Force report lose some of their persuasiveness absent a recognition of the powerful marketplace forces that drive all colleges and universities to emulate the competitive standards of the most prestigious research institutions. Whether we view the marketplace influence on college and university values as pernicious or not, we still must recognize that the primary participants in this marketplace are our faculty, students, alumni, trustees, donors, and other friends. Their preferences, expressed through their marketplace choices, reinforce the academy’s intense focus on original published research.
We would like to see the next MLA task force review the language of academic quality as represented in college promotion materials, in the endlessly popular commercial ranking systems, and in the references to quality visible in the popular culture of news magazines, movies, television, and Internet chatter. As is often the case, we are likely to find that the enemy of the good practices we recommend is us.
Conventional wisdom among tenure track faculty members is that nobody was ever denied tenure for being a bad committee member or not getting elected to the strategic planning committee. Service -- by which we mean service to the college through participation in faculty governance and on institutional committees -- before tenure is often seen as subtracting time and energy from the teaching and research that gets an instructor promoted and recognized by peers off campus.
But this is wrongheaded and unrealistic. It not only undervalues service, it denies the realities of the typical college’s needs. Service can be rewarding and, more importantly, it is the way faculty can most effectively shape teaching and learning.
Yet this is the area that is least discussed in graduate school, for which no training is typically provided, and that the interview process rarely brings up. Furthermore, while tenure and promotion evaluations pay homage to the trinity of "Teaching, Scholarship and Service," service surely gets the least amount of attention. It is very rarely rewarded either monetarily or in terms of prestige. In fact, the view of some faculty is that service is to be given grudgingly, if it all.
In liberal arts colleges, advising, club sponsorships, determination of academic policy and the execution of that policy require deep commitments of time from faculty. Many tasks, such as organizing pre-law advising or guiding students through graduate applications -- assignments many large universities fill with a staff member -- are elements of service for faculty at smaller colleges. Organizational realities may encourage this on the one hand, but on the other, there may also be better student outcomes in having a teacher-scholar actively engaged in these roles.
Many faculty feel pulled in multiple directions by trying to balance teaching and scholarship, but most recognize that both elements of the academic life offer unique rewards. Too often, the rewards for service are overlooked. In service roles a faculty member can utilize and continue to hone valuable skills such as organization, leadership, policy development, writing, critical thinking and analytical ability. Many, if not all, of these skills are used in the classroom and in research, but the results are often different when they are applied in service. An excellent writer who has labored through years of graduate school may well be appreciated by her students and by peers in her scholarly field, but her carefully crafted prose may also serve all her faculty colleagues, as well as current and future students, when she drafts important policies while serving on the Academic Planning Committee.
How important is institutional service, and does service truly improve educational outcomes? It is possible to imagine a college where faculty have no service role. Issues such as college governance, curriculum development, determining degree requirements, participating in resource allocation decisions, playing a role in admissions, participating in tenure and promotion decisions could be left to professional academic administrators while the faculty role would simply be to teach and do research.
We believe, however, that active faculty participation in institutional governance is not only the historic right of the faculty, but also improves educational outcomes. Such faculty involvement is critical even when it’s painful. And some do find it punishing, such as a senior faculty member who bargained: “if you promise that I would never have to serve on a committee again I will gladly teach an additional course every year.”
It would surely be less time consuming for the faculty if they could shed their committee work, but the quality of education would surely suffer without the insight of the faculty who are in daily contact with students. How many times have faculty heard an administrator or trustee say something like, “Why doesn’t the faculty just do ____?” Fill in the blank with any one of the many impossible things people who do not teach think it is possible for faculty to “just do.” (To be fair, faculty in some fields could make the same criticism of their colleagues in other departments: “Why don’t the English faculty just teach those students how to write [in one semester]?” is our personal favorite.)
Though many colleges and faculty members might not see it this way, institutional service can be viewed as a way to improve education and keep professors involved and connected to their colleges. Albert Hirschman’s classic work Exit, Voice and Loyalty offers an interesting insight on the topic of how different kinds of social mechanisms promote quality outcomes. Hirschman points out that economists have historically focused on “exit” as a corrective instrument. Exit is the logic of competition. If a college doesn’t produce good outcomes, students will leave. The pressure to keep students from leaving will force the college to pay attention to the desired student outcomes. (This is the argument for school vouchers in K-12 education.)
Hirschman identifies “voice” as an alternative corrective mechanism. There may be circumstances in which desired outcomes will be restored faster and better if customers or employees of organizations have the opportunity to speak openly or complain about the ways in which the firm or organization fails to produce quality outcomes, instead of just taking their business or services elsewhere. Simply put, a college or university will produce better educational outcomes for students if it provides its faculty with the opportunity to express their views and participate in decision making on matters of curriculum, enrollment management, promotion and tenure, etc.
Service is not misuse of faculty energy. The system of higher education depends on it. Each faculty member has already been the beneficiary of the service given by faculty at their own alma maters. Every professor in the world owes a huge debt to faculty unknown to them who helped create and sustain conferences, journals, professional associations, and who acted as peer reviewers and received precious little credit for it.
Liberal arts colleges need to see service for the vital element it is and credit faculty accordingly for using their time and talent in this area. Faculty participation in college and university governance contributes significantly to the quality of higher education in the United States. The evolution of a system of higher education that does not accord significant voice to faculty will surely erode educational quality.
And the importance of service to individuals, to institutions and the academy at large, makes it imperative that colleges and universities create a climate that encourages faculty to serve committees great and small.
Jim Lakso and Jim Tuten
Jim Lakso is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., where Jim Tuten is assistant professor of history and recently completed a five-year term as assistant provost.