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.
As written in Genesis, Esau, exhausted from his labors and faint from hunger, sells his birthright for a pottage of red lentils. We are reminded of Esau’s bargain through the seemingly unending revelations of distasteful contracts between higher education and the corporate world. These contractual relationships raise the question: Has the modern university, in its quest for resources, likewise sold its birthright?
It is a question not easily answered, for the concept of a higher education birthright is nebulous. Yet it is clear that society, through elected representatives, personal philanthropy, and religious authorities, has accorded to the Academy great autonomy, and deferred to the judgment of faculty and administrators on weighty issues expressed in policies, programs and the tenets of academic freedom. The public’s support of the Academy is rooted in its belief that colleges and universities are altruistically motivated and have at heart the best interests of students and society.
It is that premise that has been shaken by revelations that several student financial aid offices have sacrificed the best interests of students for operating dollars and personal aggrandizement, and that some alumni affairs offices have sold student and graduate addresses to credit card companies and loan consolidators. To many it appears that university officials have abused the public’s trust.
Three recent news stories, months removed from the New York attorney general’s revealing investigations, illustrate higher education problems. The president of Iowa State University acted forthrightly in calling for an end to the practice of selling undergraduate names and addresses to Bank of America’s credit card marketing division. For this and other contractual considerations, including higher credit card interest rates for students than for alumni, Bank of America annually gives the Alumni Association $500,000 and a guaranteed $40,000 to the University. Not surprisingly, none of the $40,000 goes for student financial aid; the full amount is directed to intercollegiate athletics.
In contrast to Iowa State’s call for corrective action, University of Miami officials seek to justify the university's transmission of private student information (including Social Security and driver’s license data) to the Sallie Mae Corporation, which in turn personalized student loan applications and mailed them to incoming students. Miami steadfastly has refused to reveal the financial compensation it receives from Sallie Mae for facilitating this marketing ploy, except to acknowledge that the firm controls approximately $70 million or 95 percent of the University’s federal loan business.
Now comes the NCAA with a proposal to permit companies contracting with collegiate athletic programs to use images of individual student athletes for commercial usage. Of course, none of the revenues or royalties from these contracts will reach student athletes, but will undoubtedly benefit their coaches, athletic officials, and conference coffers. NCAA officials shamelessly deny that the proposal constitutes an exploitation of student-athletes -- which, of course, is precisely what it is.
Rather than bringing this controversial proposal to a January vote, it has now been referred to a committee of presidents for additional study. It may or may not surface again, but the fact it had the support of the NCAA Academic and Eligibility Committee in order to provide “greater flexibility in developing relationships with commercial entities” bespeaks the values dominating the current state of intercollegiate athletics. Esau may have favored a pottage of red lentils, but today’s preference is green.
We have not arrived at this ethical crossroads through greed or mal-intent. Economic pressures born of diminishing revenue streams, the counsel of Boards and advisory bodies to be more entrepreneurial, and the desire to enhance the stature of institutions we serve have facilitated higher education’s commercial embrace. We are now paying the price for imprudent decisions, ineffective oversight, and diminished commitment to serving students and society.
Rebuilding the public’s confidence and trust in our institutions must occur in the same settings where that confidence and trust were eroded: on individual campuses and through higher education’s governing structures. The historic values of the Academy must be reaffirmed both by governing boards and by campus presidents and chancellors. Comprehensive, clearly enunciated conflict of interest policies are part of the answer, but in a larger sense those who work for and those who work with our colleges and universities need to inculcate ethical guidelines and community values and see them reflected in decision-making throughout the University. Processes by which proposed contracts and agreements, particularly with external vendors, can be reviewed prior to effectuation, and an enhanced internal auditing function will likewise be needed. Of course, institutional funding must be found for those important functions which have become financially dependent on questionable external arrangements.
Most importantly, each college and university will need to clarify its priorities and reaffirm its core values. I would expect that most institutions will incorporate three principles in its credo. First, transactions and relationships with external entities must be public and transparent. It is not enough for the public to have access to information, external relationships should be explicated in a way that salient information is readily recognized and understood—and presented in a manner that permits knowledgeable discussion and accountable decision-making.
Secondly, affirmation is needed to insure that the best interests of students will be a primary consideration in all external arrangements. (One could persuasively argue that this principle should be extended to faculty and staff as well, though it is clear there is a special relationship born of tradition and public expectations between the college or university and its students.) Formal agreements and informal arrangements which adversely impact students presumptively should be eschewed. It is difficult to justify any external agreement which consciously increases student costs, limits student choices, disseminates private records, or exploits individual students for individual or corporate gain.
Lastly, there must be a recognition that the integrity of the decision-making process and an institution’s reputation are intertwined. Irrespective of whether the college or university is public or independent, its foundation is built on public trust. The institution should never engage in any activity or execute any external agreement which erodes the public’s conviction that the Academy has society’s best interests at heart and so conducts its affairs.
Reclaiming the public’s trust (truly the Academy’s historic birthright) should be an overarching goal for all higher education.
Constantine W. Curris
Constantine W. Curris is president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.