Desperately Seeking Tenure

Peer Review and the Public
The thorny question of post-tenure review

Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English

Desperately Seeking Tenure
Controversies, Concerns, and Consensus
Scott Lilienfeld, Associate Professor of Psychology, Guest Editor

You could gauge the health of a university community by how well it handles the unconventional individuals. It’s an unhealthy university that can’t tolerate or deal with those sorts of folks.
John Snarey, Professor of Human Development and Ethics, President of the Faculty Council

The tenure process doesn’t have to manage you; you can manage it.
Sandy Jap, Associate Professor of Marketin

Tenure in the Medical School
What is it, and what does it mean?

By Robert Pollack
(To the tune of “Señor” by Bob Dylan)

Peer Review and the Public
The thorny question of post-tenure review
Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English

Exploring Tenure and Research at Emory
A view from the inside
Claire E. Sterk, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health

Teaching and Tenure
Conceptions and misconceptions at Emory
Robert McCauley, Professor of Philosophy

“Collegiality” a Criterion for Tenure?
Why it’s not all politics
Ann Hartle, Professor of Philosophy

Return to Contents


For this issue of the Academic Exchange, Scott Lilienfeld has asked me to address a straightforward policy question: Should Emory require post-tenure review? The answer is, of course it should. That the university debates the issue at all, and (in the humanities at least) so rarely conducts such reviews, betrays a disregard of academic duty. We usually think of duty in relation to students, but part of our standing rests upon a wider responsibility. The moment we claim to be professionals, earning a doctorate and taking a faculty post, we assume a public trust and promise to mind our subjects. In practice, that means we exercise community vigilance, examining each other’s work, judging it by scholarly criteria, and censuring cases that don’t measure up.

It sounds harsh, but guild judgment is a constructive process—and a mode of self-preservation. Rigorous peer review sustains not only the intellectual integrity of the field, but also the esteem the field wins from the outside. Scholarship and teaching have their broad social effects, of course, but peer review is the crux of the professionalism of the profession. Internally, it keeps standards high and training programs selective. Externally, it ensures the discipline’s status and warrants the extraordinary privileges that professors enjoy.

The first of these privileges is academic freedom. Academic freedom is neither a right nor a matter of conscience. It is an entitlement, one guaranteeing that inquiry shall be secured from threats by the state and citizenry, but only on condition that inquirers maintain a discipline-based self-surveillance. Political objections may not jeopardize the livelihood of professors as long as they observe standards and submit their work to colleagues.

Another privilege is tenure. On campus we take the reality of tenure so casually that we often forget how it appears to others. Tell a layman that you have a lifetime paycheck as long as you teach six hours a week twenty-eight weeks a year and you attend the occasional meeting, and the responses range from astonishment to awe. People wonder, what could justify such leisured security? Only that professors improve their teaching and pursue meaningful research, working as hard as they did pre-tenure.

Finally, many professors get to work with the highest products of human endeavor. Scientists explore the mysteries of life and matter, rehearsing the discoveries of the past and conceiving the future. Humanists talk about Falstaff and Phèdre, Bernini’s four rivers and Church’s Niagara. Again, however, closeness to beauty and truth entails a responsibility. Professors don’t just study art and principle—they are stewards of them. Humanists are charged with the maintenance of culture. They keep Homer and Milton alive and well. Scientists are charged with explaining nature and society and reducing the suffering caused by them. The public honors academics for that, but it expects them to safeguard their materials.

These linked privileges and obligations set up an uneasy relationship between academe and the public. Outsiders recognize the professors’ knowledge but envy their working conditions. Professors acknowledge their comforts but bemoan the public’s indifference to their ideas. In the last thirty years, ever since the adversarial culture of the 1960s spilled into the faculty ranks, tensions have increased. Many have accused professors of forging an insular, accountability-free environment, and certainly the culture wars revealed how mismatched the professoriate is to the general population. Whereas Leftist, progressivist ideologies form but a small portion of the national spectrum, they dominate most campuses, especially the humanities and social sciences, and the range of opinion on such controversial issues as racial preferences is more narrow and strict than it ever was during the Bad Old Days. Most professors don’t realize their biases because they’ve spent their careers among the like-minded. At this point, their liberalism is like water to a fish.

Safe and self-assured, the faculty isn’t likely to admit outside criticism and adjust its politics. On these grounds, because of tenure and academic freedom, their posts are intact. But they are vulnerable on other grounds, namely, their adherence to peer review. If professors are lax in their self-scrutiny, they will have broken the compact that maintains them. If negligent faculty are not cited, then why should the public trust and tolerate the profession at large?

All of this is to say that post-tenure peer review is essential to the standing of academics. The objections to it ultimately hurt the profession. When the aaup criticizes post-tenure reviews, it cites threats to academic freedom, scarce resources, and loss of collegiality. But this is more of a union statement than a principled opposition. Yes, in some cases post-tenure reviews might be abused by administrations, and it could lead to bad feelings among faculty members and strain department staff. But the AAUP’s main objection paradoxically makes the case for post-tenure review. It says that we already have “many traditional forms of continuous evaluation utilized in most colleges and universities” (e.g., student evaluations, manuscript submissions, annual salary determinations). Would that it were so! In truth, in the humanities evaluation has become a lax and loose process, filled with corruption and cynicism. It is precisely because the “traditional forms” of assessment have crumbled that post-tenure review has become necessary.

If we don’t do it, somebody else will, and a few blocks from where I now work legislation is pending in Congress to demand greater Federal scrutiny of university practices. Cases of professors lying to students, of favoritism in the manuscript review process, of colleagues praising work that turns out to be fraudulent—such episodes damage the entire field and embolden outsiders. The correct response is to announce, “We blew it,” and to do better next time. That doesn’t mean that post-tenure review should ever involve a revocation of tenure—tenure once granted is permanent—or even apply the same criteria as for tenure review.

Departments may decide that there are other ways to improve education than to publish research, especially in the humanities in which almost all work sinks into oblivion soon after it appears.
But today we live in a climate of accountability, and departments need to exert some form of assessment if they are to shore up their credibility beyond the campus walls.

Editor’s Note: Professor Bauerlein is currently on leave from Emory and serving as an adviser on arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts. John Bugge, head of Emory’s AAUP chapter and professor of English (who is on leave) declined to be interviewed for this issue of the Academic Exchange.