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.
Like most young faculty members, I began my first job with my eyes on the prize six years ahead -- tenure. Even though I was coming out of University of the Elite and heading Rural College, I was under no illusions that it would be easy. Amidst the bucolic surroundings and relaxed environment of my new institution, I knew I would be buried under a 4-4 teaching load, the pressure to produce a book pre-tenure, and the usual service work and personal attention to students that small institutions expect.
I believed that I would need to prove myself to my colleagues every bit as much as I had had to prove I belonged in my graduate program. And since I was lucky enough to land the job ABD, I was even more concerned that my performance would be under close scrutiny. I felt I had to catch up with my colleagues. So I immersed myself in my work the way I had in graduate school -- as though my professional life depended on it.
Over my first year and a half, I worked very hard -- 70-80 hours a week on my teaching, as well as keeping up with professional activities. I was getting a sense of my reputation among the students. “Tough but fair” was what most said. “Best professor I have ever had,” said some. “Too hard!” said others. I expected as much. I kept a close eye on my assignments, student performances, and my evaluations, and as long as their work was good, a few students got A’s, and the positive comments continued, my growing reputation as the toughest professor in the department didn’t bother me. And even if it had, I wouldn’t have known how to teach otherwise.
But at my second-year review, I got a shock. My chair, Professor Fuddydud, said, “There’s a problem. I don’t know what it is. Just fix it.” Panic and confusion! I began searching my mind for what I could possibly be doing wrong. I approached senior colleagues for advice. Professors Queenbee and Bullykid told me that it was very important that my students know that I like them. Was that in my job description? Does tough love count? For lack of any other solution, I worked harder. I would make it impossible for them to say that anything I was doing was substandard. It would all be stellar!
By the time of my third-year review, I was feeling confident about my performance. My file was huge. In six semesters not only had I finished and defended my dissertation, I had prepared eight new courses from scratch with myriad tailored assignments and teaching aids, created a new concentration for the college curriculum, and spent hours mentoring students, including taking them to conferences and on field trips. But not to be over-balanced in the teaching area, I also had written nine articles and papers of various sorts, participated in over a half-dozen conferences and symposia around the country, served on college advisory boards, committees and panels, pulled strings from my graduate days to bring in important speakers, received five awards from top research libraries to work on my manuscript as well as interest from top presses, and got rave reviews from students and colleagues alike, inside and outside the college.
I wasn’t nervous when Fuddydud told me she wanted to meet so she could convey to me the sense of the department about my performance. Again what she said astounded me. But now she had pinned the problem down a bit more. I was working “too hard,” I didn’t know how to “prioritize,” and what I was producing was “too good.”
I couldn’t fathom what she meant at first. I pressed her for explanations and examples, but got only vague and unsatisfying answers. Clearly there was an issue of “fit.” I had heard about fit. When a department can’t or won’t be explicit about what they don’t like about a candidate for tenure, it’s about fit. So I didn’t fit well with the department, but I didn’t know why.
On paper at least, the fit looked great. I had all the requirements covered and then some. I got along well with my colleagues and had a growing following of devoted students. But as I pondered the few hints Fuddydud gave me and began to think seriously about the culture of the school and the department, the problem began to come into focus. It was exactly that I was exceeding expectations that was the trouble, especially in my teaching.
Then I took a good look around me and saw things clearly for the first time. I had colleagues who showed movies several times a week, some who routinely came to class 20 minutes late or not at all, and others who freely admitted that they prefer it when their students don’t show up. Students said that when Professor Slackjob assigned a 20-page paper, they usually wrote five pages and printed them four times. They got A’s and B’s.
When I had a class full of upper-level students who didn’t know how to cite their sources, I consulted with Fuddydud. She told me without compunction that she didn’t teach her intro-level students to cite their sources because she “just didn’t want to deal with it.” She explained that students should learn to adapt to a variety of professorial styles. I was suspicious. The responsibility would naturally fall to those of us who thought it was important. I found this interesting since some members of the department had accused me of placing the burden of teaching on them. My courses were too hard, they said, and too many students were defecting to their classrooms. I clearly only wanted to teach the “good students” and they were getting all the “stupid” ones. I supposed my style was not one to which students should be compelled to adapt.
So I thought I would try to fit in better. I compared my reading load and teaching style with that of Professor Queenbee, whose pedagogy I respected, who was popular, but who also had a reputation for being rigorous. The page count was the same. I couldn’t understand what the problem could be, so I resorted to asking a student why her peers objected to my reading assignments. “You expect us to answer questions about them!” she said in their defense. “Professor Queenbee just tells us what they say.” I guess I just don’t like my students enough to do that for them.
Students complained. Colleagues disapproved. I was a troublemaker.
In retrospect, I should have seen the bizarro review coming. Much earlier when I told Fuddydud that I usually worked weekends, her response was: “What do you want? Brownie points?” I guess merit pay was out of the question.
Fit is important for new faculty. It can mean a happy career or no career. To “fit” in academia means to conform to the culture of the institution. It is in your interest to assess it carefully before you take a job. The logical way to go about this is to read the institution’s mission statement, check out the web site, look at rankings, and talk to faculty members, administrators, and students.
But what you learn this way and what the true culture of the school is may be very different things. What I heard when I interviewed for the job was that Backwater prioritized teaching. It considered its aspirant peers to be the top liberal arts colleges in the country. All the signs indicated that these priorities and aspirations were sincere, and even if they weren’t yet realized, there was great potential. So I accepted the job because I was serious about teaching and wanted to devote my efforts to undergraduates.
And the department seemed serious about me. Not only did they hire me ABD from an institution known for its academic rigor, they made me an early offer that didn’t allow me to explore the nine other schools with which I had interviews. At the time, I felt I had made a sound choice. The fit seemed excellent.
But what most small colleges won’t tell you -- not even in the fine print -- is that teaching and students often really don’t come first. And for the professors, they can’t. Once upon a time teaching colleges taught and research institutions researched. But these days, with the market for students competitive, and teaching schools scrambling for recognition, they have shifted their priorities. Now they market what is measurable -- not good teaching, but big names and publications. They look to hire new faculty from top research universities who will embellish the faculty roster and bring attention to the school by publishing. And they can do this, because even job candidates who don’t really want to be at places like Rural College (although it is ranked quite well) are grateful to get a tenure-track position.
And here is where the problem is compounded. Small schools want books instead of teaching; and many new faculty -- even the mediocre scholars -- want to publish instead of teach. In the new small college, both win. Everyone looks the other way while courses are neglected for the sake of publications. What few devoted teachers will admit -- because to do so would be impolitic -- is that it is impossible to teach a 4-4 or even a 3-3 load effectively and publish a book pre-tenure without working “too hard.” What’s more, when you suggest that a small teaching college should prioritize teaching over publishing, what your colleagues hear you say is, “I am not good enough to publish.”
Sadly, many of the students also think they win in this scenario. They get good grades with little work. Once a culture like this is established, a new faculty member who is serious about teaching rocks the boat. And if she still somehow manages to excel in all the other required areas, she might be sunk. Unfortunately for the small schools, the best solution for her might be to jump ship.
Alison Wunderland is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of history at the University of Midwestern State.
I recently had a discussion that led me to a basic question: Why is the concept of academic freedom as a semi-protected activity limited by custom to people who teach in universities? Why doesn’t it apply to any person engaged in research and publication on issues important in our lives? What is the theoretical underpinning of the argument that non-faculty don’t have academic freedom in the same sense that faculty do? What is it that faculty actually do that is different from what I do, at least part of the time?
Is it that faculty need to be free to publish important books and articles? I have published four books as author or contributing editor (three with a university press), one of which is a five-pounder and is considered the definitive modern work in its field. I have published chapters in other major books, 36 articles or commentaries on education issues, 75 on ornithology (mostly in non-refereed outlets) and another two dozen that don’t fit neatly into categories. This doesn’t count work that I produce in my job as a college evaluator. I’m also the new book review editor for a small, well-respected refereed journal and a glorious but undiscovered poet.
Because I work as a college evaluator and routinely review faculty qualifications, I can say that my actual output of what would normally be considered scholarly work is quite similar to what I would expect of a mid-career professor at a mid-level college. In short, in terms of tangible product, I do what they do.
Is it that faculty teach? Let us define teaching. Let me know when you’re done -- with luck, I will have retired by then. I suppose we have an obligation to at least attempt to answer the question, but allow me to argue that teaching and learning take place all the time in all parts of society, whether or not a traditional cage is constructed around the putative teachers and learners.
Is the difference that I as a non-faculty member have been classified by society as fit for some tasks but not for others? By whose order? Under what theory? With what brief? Certainly as a state employee I am obligated to perform the tasks that are in my job description, and likewise obligated not to go about publicly trashing the goals of my employer. Beyond this, am I not free to pursue the truth wherever it may take me?
Universities have traditionally been assigned by society the role of pursuing truth and transferring knowledge in a semi-protected setting, if not beyond the reach of interfering powers, at least having some defenses against those powers. This is a good thing, but doesn’t it seem strange that a special kind of institution in society must be set aside for this purpose?
I do not think that the traditional collegiate cloister as our sole reservation for academic freedom works very well any more. The ability of independent scholars to operate outside institutions has increased along with the utility of the Internet. The Supreme Court wrote, in an era before the personal computer, PDA and cell phone (to say nothing of iPhone), that:
“Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” (Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 1967)
Where, and what, is the classroom today, 40 years downstream from Keyishian? If a friend of mine publishes a detailed study of hospital spending practices, molt strategies in the American Wigeon or the perfidy of Donald Rumsfeld on a blog, Web site or other nontraditional venue, and invites comment from all comers, isn’t that just as much a classroom as an enclosed space in which one human is bleating in person at a roomful of (mostly) younger humans? Certainly the gray area is taking on more and more layers and shades with the advent of more varieties of distance-learning.
To spend a moment longer in the relatively cramped legal arena, the Supreme Court has also granted certain kinds of academic freedom protections to universities themselves, under a theory that they as institutions have a special role in society and need to have some protection from unseemly attempts to influence their work. Yes, to be sure, that is true, but there are other institutions in society, e.g., publishers, think tanks, foundations; whose role is, if not the same in structure, surely overlapping in goal and function.
At a time when more and more people of all ages get their news and information off the Internet, and when young people of traditional college age do a vast amount of their fact-gathering online (whether the facts are, if you will, true, is another question), the argument that universities need a special protected status as our principal conductors of information and values to young adults has been losing weight for years.
We see more and more corporate sponsorships of research or faculty positions and degree programs that, as a practical matter, relate solely to the products of one or two companies. The idea that the university is separate from the pressures of the outer world (and therefore that people who work there should have a special status for themselves and their work) is getting harder to sustain. Should people employed by banks, supermarkets or governments who publish academic work be afforded protection under an academic freedom theory from retaliation by their employer if the employer happens to dislike the work? I can’t think why not.
When we have resources as good as, for example, Reginald Shepherd’s teaching-blog on poetry, the argument that the traditional classroom is necessary as a baseline for the theory, practice and legal protections of academic freedom begins to look like an argument that a sufficiency of draft horses is necessary for national security.
Norms move forward. I argued a while ago ("Accrediting Individual Instructors," The Independent Scholar 18(1):10-12, Winter 2004) that we need to stop accrediting colleges and start accrediting teachers. The fact that a top-flight poet like Shepherd now contracts with students privately and engages in significant dialogues on poetry and culture via a blog is but one example of an educational trend that militates toward recognition that academic freedom, in its purposes, results and legal classification, needs to be decoupled from the nature of an individual scholar’s employment.
Academic freedom adheres to the purpose and function of academic inquiry, not to technicalities of institutional affiliation. Anyone who engages in inquiry and publication according to the norms of academe is entitled to the scholar’s woolen cloak. It may not protect against all enemies, but it serves to reduce the chill of unpopular thought.
Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon, where Article 1, Section 8 of the Oregon Constitution allows him to publish what he pleases. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. He blogs at oregonreview.blogspot.com.
Although it is far from the norm, a few colleges pay their assistant professors more on average than they do their tenured professors. Although such pay scales might harm the egos of tenured professors, they can benefit colleges.
Organizations often pay high salaries to (1) attract new employees, (2) keep existing employees, (3) compensate workers for unpleasant working conditions and (4) compensate workers for taking on risks. These four criteria support colleges giving relatively higher salaries to assistant professors.
Consider a college that has some extra money to spend on faculty salaries. In many fields, this college competes intensely with other schools for talented assistant professors. So the college could increase the quality of its faculty by using its extra money to boost assistant professors’ salaries.
Compared to assistant professors, tenured professors rarely switch jobs. Our hypothetical college probably won’t lose a significant number of its non-superstar tenured faculty if it doesn’t allocate its extra money to raising their salaries. (And the college can always cut separate deals with it superstars.) So to maximize the quality of its faculty, the college should create a pay structure in which tenure-track assistant professors earn more than tenured professors. As the following example shows, a college can do this without ever decreasing a professor’s salary even if the professor is promoted.
Tenured Professor’s Salary
Assistant Professor’s Salary
[If an assistant professor were promoted at the start of 2010 he would make $83,000 in both 2009 and 2010.]
Assistant professors in many ways have harder jobs than tenured professors do. They have more pressure to publish. They usually spend more time on class preparation because they have taught their classes relatively few times. And, keeping in mind their looming tenure bids, they often feel compelled to be more deferential to their senior colleagues than they would prefer. Those who care about economic fairness consequently should support the idea of assistant professors making more than tenured professors. And those who care about markets should understand that the less pleasant the job, the higher salary you must pay to attract top talent.
Job security is a large part of tenured professors’ compensation. So even if a tenured professor has a somewhat lower monetary salary than an assistant professor does, he probably, over all, receives more total compensation than his non-tenured colleagues. After all, I suspect few tenured professors who are not superstars or close to retirement would agree to exchange, say, $3,000 in extra salary in return for abandoning tenure.
Markets compensate intelligent risk takers. For example, investing in the stock market yields a higher average return than investing in safe government bonds does. Up or out tenure decisions foist enormous risk on tenure-track assistant professors. Ph.D.’s in practical fields in which many non-academic jobs are available should be willing to take on tenure risk only if they are suitably compensated for it. In contrast, however, being a tenured professor is one of the safest jobs on the planet, and consequently you would expect markets to pay tenured professors a negative risk premium that reduces their salary.
It’s relatively less risky for a college to increase its assistant professors’ salaries. For reasons economists don’t fully understand, employers almost never decrease their workers’ nominal salaries. So if a college gives a raise to a tenured professor, it is stuck paying this raise until the professor retires. In contrast, if an assistant professor becomes too expensive the college can simply not reappoint him.
I’m actually surprised that the academic market doesn’t induce more colleges to pay greater salaries to assistant professors than to non-superstar tenured professors. Tenured professors, however, have on average vastly greater bureaucratic power than their untenured co-workers and perhaps such power discrepancies explain why at most colleges tenured professors earn more than assistant professors.
Some might claim that not rewarding tenured professors for their long experience would harm their morale. But I wonder how many talented assistant professors have had their morale damaged (or indeed have even voluntarily left academe) because they are paid less than some of their less talented and less hardworking senior colleagues.
America is up in arms about bonuses for AIG executives who raked up astronomical losses that have (almost) brought our economy to its knees. While most Americans have to deal with the fear of (or actual) job losses, declining values of their homes, evaporating retirement funds, they see hundreds of millions of their tax dollars being paid to the very individuals who created this mess. Compensation practices at AIG and other Wall Street firms not only violated a common sense of fairness, they also turned out to be self-destructive: they rewarded excessive risk-taking and disincentivized responsible risk underwriting at AIG or responsible banking practices at Citibank, Bank of America and others.
Seduced by the enormous rewards associated with betting on derivatives, AIG executives (and the bankers at the other firms) sabotaged their ability to perform the important but more mundane tasks of insuring the homes and retirements of the average tax payer or lending to the businesses that employ them. And they never realized they were cutting off the branch on which they sat until they dropped.…
In higher education we might shake our heads over the insane amounts of money involved, but when it comes to warped reward systems that sabotage an entire profession’s ability to perform its most important function, we don’t have to look far.
A few weeks ago I talked with the provost of a large research university. When the conversation touched on faculty priorities, the provost explained the parameters that determine career progression and remuneration at her institution. They are not very different from those at most research universities in this country and might sound familiar to many. Her hierarchy (in order of importance) of what faculty should do to be considered successful and paid generously was something like this:
a) Win a Nobel Prize b) Write a research grant that attracts millions of dollars from the government (if the money comes from the NSF or the NIH instead of the treasury it is not called a bailout, but a “research grant”) c) Conduct research, publish profusely and speak on as many conferences as possible to generate publicity, win prizes and have their research quoted by others d) Secure patents on their research e) Write a textbook that becomes a standard in their field f) Sit on a few doctoral committees to attract and nurture the next generation of researchers g) Teach a basic undergraduate courses that prepare students for the more demanding classes in the junior and senior year or graduate school h) Be an effective adviser
She pointed out that while a) - e) have direct financial rewards attached to them, f) - h) do not. But then she made an important point that shows that the warped logic of AIG’s compensation system is alive and well on our campuses: “The punishment for being a good adviser is that you get more advisees. That makes sure that you have less time to do any of the activities a) - e). The more you do for student retention and success, the more you cement your status at the bottom of the pecking order. And that is not lost on our faculty.”
The result? In this case a freshman drop-out rate of 18% (which is still below the national average of 25 percent, but much higher than it should be). If faculty are focused more on research than on the success of their students, they are behaving rationally and in accordance with the metrics used by their employer. On many campuses teaching and advising are considered to be hard or impossible to measure, ergo they do not get rewarded, ergo it is considered acceptable and inevitable that too little time and effort are invested in them.
But is this more than just a lame excuse? Systems to assess the effectiveness of teaching have been around for a while. And now there are systems that measure the effectiveness of advising, too. Yes, the effectiveness of teaching and advising can be measured! The true reason they are not seems to be that it is a lot sexier to chase the fast rewards of large research grants than to focus on the mundane tasks of making students successful.
Faculty embrace the value system of their employers as much as the executives of AIG’s Financial Products Division used to. Similarly, their bosses in the cabinets of their institutions seem to have lost focus on their core missions as much as the management committee of AIG had during the derivatives bubble. The coming lean years will show how much of the branches that support our higher ed institutions have been cut away in the past by a compensation system that incentivizes failure not only of students, but maybe also of entire institutions.
Christoph Knoess, is a higher education consultant and founder of Engaged Minds, a services company focused on increasing student retention and success. His Web site is at http://www.engagedmindsinc.com.
The financial sector catastrophe and consequent worldwide recession are a crisis of “ethic” proportion, in Vanguard founder John Bogle’s words. Higher education’s own responsibility for the failures of ethical leadership in business, the gatekeeper professions, and government should trigger a careful self-assessment. Could it be that the academic profession, whose members both educate and serve as role models in the formation years for leaders in business, government, and all the other peer review professions, is falling short in its own ethical responsibilities?
A major theme of "The Future of the Professoriate: Academic Freedom, Peer Review, and Shared Governance," the first in the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new Intentional Leadership in the New Academy series of essays, is that the academic profession has been failing for many years in its ethical duty to acculturate new entrants into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The central argument in "The Future of the Professoriate" is that members of a peer-review profession cannot aggressively justify and defend their control over professional work when they do not both understand the profession’s social contract and internalize their responsibilities under the social contract. The social contract of each peer-review profession is the tacit agreement between society and members of a profession that regulates their relationship with each other, in particular the profession’s control over professional work. Essentially, in order for the public to grant a peer-review profession more autonomy and control over the work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations, the public must trust that the profession and its members will use the autonomy at least to some degree to benefit the public in the area of the profession’s responsibility, not abuse occupational control over the work merely to serve self-interest.
The simple fact is that all the data available indicate that a substantial proportion of graduate students and faculty members do not clearly understand the profession's social contract, academic freedom, shared governance, and each professor's and the faculty's specific duties that justify the profession's claims to autonomy. Osmosis-like diffusion of these concepts and duties does not work. There must be required education on professional ethics for graduate students and entering and veteran faculty just as there is for law students in all states and members of the legal profession in many states. (Academic Ethics (American Council on Education/Oryx Press, 2002) outlines the content of this education.)
The governing boards of many colleges and universities represent the public in the social contract between the public and the academic profession. "The Future of the Professoriate" argues that the boards and their senior administrative teams have faced substantial market changes in higher education in recent decades; the current budgetary disaster driven by reduced taxpayer support for public higher education and reduced endowments is among the most difficult of these market changes. While members of all peer-review professions carry an ongoing burden to justify to the public (and the boards representing the public) the profession’s occupational control over the work, carrying this burden is particularly critical during a time of rapid market change.
The report's analysis is that during this period of market change, the academic profession has been almost totally missing in action in mounting a robust public defense of both how the public benefits from the profession’s autonomy and control over its work in the form of academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance and how the profession and its members are actively fulfilling their duties under the social contract. Paradoxically, while we are educators, we are not educating. The situation is similar to the failure of the medical profession to mount a robust public defense of its autonomy during the 1980s and 1990s when the health care market changed toward managed care that dramatically reduced the medical profession’s control over its professional work.
At a significant swath of institutions, the academic profession’s defense of the social contract has focused on rights and job security. As Eliot Freidson in Professionalism: The Third Logic (University of Chicago Press, 2001) has observed, when the peer-review professions defend their social contracts, they typically rely on a rhetoric of rights, job security, and “good intentions, which [are] belied by the patently self-interested character of many of their activities. What they almost never do is spell out the principles underlying the institutions that organize and support the way they do their work and take active responsibility for [the realization of the principles].” They do not undertake responsibility for assuring the quality of their members’ work. The academic profession’s anemic defense of its social contract confirms Freidson’s observation.
The predicable result of an anemic defense of a profession’s social contract during a time of market change is that the society and employers will restructure control of the profession’s work toward the regulatory and employer control typical for other occupations -- essentially the default employment arrangements in a market economy. This is what has been happening to the academic profession. The boards at many colleges and universities have been renegotiating a sweeping change in the academic profession’s social contract over many years to reduce the profession’s autonomy and control over professional work. "The Future of the Professoriate" details how the renegotiation is most evident with the dramatic increase in contingent faculty to the point that, by 2003, 59 percent of all newly hired full-time faculty started in non-tenure-track positions.
The academic profession must not resign itself to the current trend toward contingent faculty, but it cannot reverse the trends toward a higher proportion of contingent faculty and less occupational control over professional work by employing a rhetoric of rights, job security, and good intentions. However, professors cannot defend the social contract without both having the knowledge necessary to make the defense and actively meeting their duties under the social contract. The single most important step for the profession is improving the acculturation of graduate students and veteran academics into the tradition and ethics of the profession. The best starting point at each institution may be a simple faculty self-assessment of the degree to which the faculty is helping new and veteran faculty members understand and internalize both the minimum standards of competence and ethical conduct for the profession (the ethics of duty) and the core values and ideals of the profession (the ethics of aspiration).
If the academic profession at many institutions does not undertake these responsibilities, then this crisis of ethic proportion will continue, and the trajectory for the academic profession for the next twenty years will, in all likelihood, look like the trajectory for the last thirty years. Members of the profession will continue a slow transformation toward employment as technical experts subject to the dominant market model of employer control over work.
While many in the profession believe the battle is against oppressive governing boards, administrators, and market forces, the battle is actually for the soul of the profession. Imagine a world in which each professor at an institution had fully internalized the tradition and ethics of the profession. We are educators. From a position of knowledge and moral authority, not just self-interest, we could then convince the public -- and, most importantly, the governing boards and administrative leadership who are trustees for the public good of creating and disseminating knowledge -- that academic freedom, peer review, and shared governance best serve the institution’s mission.
Neil W. Hamilton
Neil Hamilton is professor of law and director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas.