Teaching and Tenure: Part II

Higher education institutions must offer multiple roads to recognition for faculty -- not just one, writes E. Gordon Gee.

March 29, 2021
 
 
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This is my 40th year as a university president. I have been a faculty member throughout that time and have continued to teach and research even as I have faced immense challenges leading a university. The reason that I do so is because I believe that the teaching mission of our universities is absolutely vital to their success. I wholeheartedly endorse the views in the opinion piece by Lisa M. Di Bartolomeo and Pablo García Loaeza, my colleagues at West Virginia University, and am grateful they asked me to add my voice to theirs.

One of the things that I have learned over this time is that the reward systems that we have in higher education, particularly among major universities in this country, have outlived their usefulness. I have seen how the current tenure system rewards mediocrity in teaching and service in favor of research rather than rewarding excellence in the faculty member’s strengths, whatever those strengths may be. I have long contended that universities should offer multiple roads to recognition for faculty -- not simply one. We have made McDonald’s hamburgers of our faculty, expecting sameness and repetition even as what we truly need is creativity, engagement and innovation. Instead of stamping out more hamburgers, we need to break the mold.

The idea of expanding tenure recognition to faculty members whose primary duty is not research may be seen as disruptive to the current academic environment. But, even though this idea may seem revolutionary and may cause distress for some people, ultimately the rewards outweigh the drawbacks. Indeed, this moment calls for some disruption; it calls for major transformation.

We have known for a long time -- and the pandemic has brought this into sharp relief -- that teaching and service are central to our mission and central to the success of our students. At a time when higher education is under attack for being out of touch, when the public questions the value of what we do, recognizing and enfranchising teaching and service faculty members by awarding them tenure makes clear that we are living our mission. Our students, their families, our states’ voters and the general public may not understand the meaning of tenure, but they understand the direct impact our teaching and service have on their education. Making that connection is crucial at this juncture in higher education in America.

Tenure is an important, though imperfect tool for faculty incentives and rewards in our system of higher education. It is meant to recognize a faculty member’s value to an institution, and it demonstrates the institution’s commitment to intellectual vitality and freedom of thought. Over the course of this pandemic, I have watched my faculty colleagues, time and again, rise to the challenge that we have all had to face. And I have seen a stronger university emerge. As my colleagues assert in the linked piece, added to the current health crisis, the political and economic environment has brought to the fore the importance of our teaching mission. I therefore encourage West Virginia University’s Faculty Senate and faculty leaders throughout the country to consider expanding the criteria for awarding tenure. I have also asked a number of my colleagues who are presidents of American universities whether they are similarly urging their institutions’ faculty leaders to take up this issue more seriously. I personally believe that one of the greatest challenges we face in this time of the pandemic is how to develop a reward and recognition structure that values the good work being done by all our faculty and staff.

As the president of a major research and flagship land-grant university, I need maximum flexibility when it comes to rewarding the people who have given so much of themselves for the success of our students. I need creative ways to incentivize their continued commitment to our success. Recognizing faculty with the process to gain tenure when their primary duty is teaching or service is simply the right thing to do. To not do so creates a class system in higher education that does great harm to the academy -- and all those whom we serve.

Bio

E. Gordon Gee is president of West Virginia University.

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