October 30, 2003

Trustees of Tenure

Every year professors at colleges around the country come up for tenure -- and, inevitably, some of them miss the mark. But what has made the decisions here so unsettling and unusual, some people say, is that by all accounts each of the four professors excelled in teaching, research, and service -- the traditional standards by which tenure candidates are judged. Nonetheless, Carroll's president and trustees simply decided that it didn't make good business sense to keep them.

-- Robin Wilson, "4 Fateful Letters"

The above-linked Chronicle piece details a tenure battle at Carroll College, a small, private, Presbyterian-affiliated college in Wisconsin. Six faculty members came up for tenure last year; four of the six were denied. "What has angered people most," reports Wilson, "is that the college plans to fill at least three of the four jobs with instructors who will not be eligible for tenure."

Critics contend that the decision was financial. The remarks of the college president, Frank S. Falcone, seem to concede as much:

'Carroll fits into the profile of many small schools in that we don't have a lot of financial flexibility, and so we've become very cautious on long-term commitments.'

Offering tenure, he says, is an expensive proposition: 'If somebody gets tenure at 35, then you're thinking about 30 more years at least.' For each professor, he says, 'our calculation is that this represents a $2-million financial obligation.'

While Carroll students are increasingly interested in its professional programs, five of the six professors who were up for tenure last semester were in the liberal arts, where enrollment has been slipping. And all six were concentrated in just three academic departments, meaning that if Carroll granted all of them tenure, it risked 'tenuring up' some departments, says Mr. Falcone.

Outside obsevers view the decision as a general attack on the principle of tenure. Thus a letter from the AAUP states, "'We believe that withholding tenure for qualified candidates in order to replace them with non-tenure-track faculty is inimical to the principles of academic freedom which tenure serves.'" And Cathy Ann Trower, "an expert on tenure" and a senior researcher at Harvard's Graduate School of Education,

predicts that the denials will raise doubts about the stability of tenure, particularly because the decisions follow the layoffs of tenured professors at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln amid budget problems last spring.

'It only takes something like this, that gets a lot of recognition, to spark a whole new wave of questioning,' she says.

Reading the above article, I immediately thought of something I came across yesterday at Critical Mass: in KC Goes to Washington, Erin O'Connor reports that KC Johnson -- of the now infamous tenure battle at Brooklyn College -- testified yesterday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on the subject of "intellectual diversity." His testimony can be found here.

Given his own, much-publicized battle (briefly recounted in his testimony, with a more detailed account to be found here), it is not surprising that Johnson has some concerns over the tenure review process. And let me make it clear (so that the following criticism is not misconstrued) that I was happy to learn that he won his battle and now has tenure.

That said, I am not persuaded that the actions of some of his senior colleagues in the history department at Brooklyn College can be attributed to a general takeover of American history departments by "advocates of the new social history," which is what Johnson suggests, or strongly implies, in his testimony. Nor am I convinced that his "representative sample of history departments" indicates that students are not being offered courses in "topics that most in the country consider crucial for students to learn." I am certainly open to persuasion on this point, but Johnson's brief and highly anecdotal characterization is not enough to persuade me. One rather dubious move that he makes is to cite areas of faculty research specialization as an indication of what kinds of courses are offered:

At 20 of these schools, less than a quarter of the Americanists address such topics in any aspect of their scholarly work. The University of Michigan has 25 full-time department members teaching U.S. history: only one publishes on political history, as opposed to 11 professors examining race in America and seven specialists in U.S. women’s history. Of the 11 Americanists in the University of Washington’s history department, only one studies politics, the law, or foreign policy—and he specializes in American socialism and communism.

That seems at least potentially misleading. Do the U.S. history faculty not teach anything outside their own areas of research specialization? Do these history departments not offer courses (though perhaps taught by other, ie, adjunct, faculty) in political history, legal history, and foreign policy? Perhaps not. But I have to say I'm just a little sceptical. To be sure, I could find this out if I cared to dig, but that would require more time and energy than I am willing to devote to the matter at present. This is just a blog, and I'm not testifying before the Senate. But in any case, I would need to see some concrete information on course offerings before accepting Johnson's claim.

Anyway, that's not my main point. The main reason why the Chronicle article on the tenure battle at Carroll College made me think of Johnson's Senate testimony is the following quote from said testimony:

With faculty unwilling or unable to create an intellectually diverse campus, administrators and trustees must step forward, as my case suggested. Chancellor Goldstein used my case to affirm his previously stated commitment to improving standards and promoting intellectual diversity. Several trustees likewise used the matter to articulate the basic principles under which CUNY personnel policy would operate. In the contemporary climate, responsible administrators and trustees should require careful accountings of hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions coming from academic departments. These same administrators and trustees should be ready and willing to act when such decisions prove to have been made to satisfy personal ideological wish lists rather than educational and scholarly needs.

Again, I understand why Johnson believes faculty have too much power over the tenure review process, and can appreciate why he would argue that faculty decisions should be accountable to some other body. But what I find almost shockingly naive about the argument that adminstrators and trustees must step forward to require "careful accountings" of the tenure process is the confident assumption that said administrators and trustees are as committed to the institution of tenure as the faculty who are, in Johnson's view, "unwilling or unable to create an intellectually diverse campus." What makes Johnson so sure that administrators and trustees are willing and able to create an intellectually diverse campus? And even if they are willing and able, why assume that their attempts to diversify wouldn't involve, say, a more diverse range of categories of nontenurable faculty? Apparently it has not occurred to him that administrators and trustees might not begin to demand another kind of "careful accounting," of the type that apparently led to the denial of tenure to the 4 out of 6 at Carroll College.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 30, 2003 10:22 AM

I tend to agree with you that Johnson is overstating the curricular problems in history departments.

As to oversight of departmental decisions like this one by responsible administrators - I think what Johnson is trying to convey is something simpler than what you have in mind - - he's mainly noting the importance of an outside, relatively objective third party to review departmental actions that anyone with an smidgeon of sanity and a dollop of disinterestedness would recognize as insane.

Posted by: charlotte at October 30, 2003 10:40 AM

The University of Washington online course guide (which, I've got to say, is somewhat clumsy). In any event, they seem to be teaching everything from military history to race & ethnicity.

Posted by: Miriam at October 30, 2003 11:41 AM

In the interests of fairness and balance, let me defend the Carroll president. He had made it absolutely clear to all that only two of the three Chemistry tenure candidates would get tenure. It was certainly clear to Ms. McMahon, who accelerated her schedule so her packet could go forward at the same time as the two others, to be considered on all fours with them.

It seems to me the Department has a duty here to recommend which two. It's supposed to exercise choice. It didn't. Failing that, the college-wide P&T committee could have made the decision. It didn't. So the president made the decision. It may have been the wrong decision. Who knows. But if the faculty won't take responsibility, someone's got to decide. In the end, that's what presidents get paid to do (that and raise money).

It is hypocritical for the Chemistry chair to bemoan Ms. McMahon's denial of tenure. He (and his colleagues) could have ensured it. But to do so, they'd have had to denied tenure to one of the others.

Tenured faculty are, quite literally, irresponsible. Whatever they do, unless it leads to the closing of the college before they retire, has no effect on them. And the administration has the right and duty to prevent them spending money the college doesn't have or (in the KC case) indulging personal spite.

I'm overstating for effect, of course. Just as the AAUP is.

Posted by: jam at October 30, 2003 05:26 PM

I've posted on the original article on my blog, which you can click to. But a response to jam: I am a department chairman myself, and I cannot imagine enforcing a departmental recommendation to deny tenure to someone based on my president's decision on a budget. I don't control the budget. If I did -- to the extent that I could actually hire additional faculty based on the likelihood that I could turn the university a profit from the increased course offerings or the grantwriting of the additional hires-- then you'd be right to roast me for refusing to make the decision. But I am treated as a cost center. Any additional seats in courses I generate do not change my budget one whit. Therefore, why should I have to rank-order candidates for tenure? The institution does not vest me with any interest in doing so.

I agree that the president had to do it in this case. But I disagree that the faculty *should* have. Administrators do not treat faculty as partners in those types of decisions.

Posted by: kb at October 30, 2003 05:37 PM

These comments point to a HUGE problem with tenure decisions: they are typically made by departmental colleagues who, as KC Johnson right says, may have agendas that are not in the best interests of the students or the institution as a whole. But to turn the process over to administrators is to put potentially career-ruining decisions in the hands of people who have minimal, or at best incomplete, understanding of faculty members' disciplines -- and who may have their own less-than-admirable agendas as well (cf the Carroll College situation).

A possible alternative, it seems to me, is to put these decisions in the hands of members of one's own discipline who teach at another institution -- people who are disciplinarily well-informed but who have little vested interested in how a particular decision goes. There are obvious problems with this plan as well -- e.g., how to insure that people take the task seriously, how to make sure that they are well enough informed about the details of each case (including whether or not a given candidate is, in Tim Burke's term, a mensch), etc. -- but I could imagine it working better than the current systems. . . .

Posted by: Ayjay at October 30, 2003 06:50 PM

If presidents at similar schools take a page out of the Carroll handbook, as mine seems to be planning to, then tenure will soon become as much a relic of the past as the 8-track.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 30, 2003 09:07 PM