Desperately Seeking Tenure
Controversies, Concerns, and Consensus

Scott Lilienfeld, Associate Professor of Psychology, Guest Editor

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


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The exact meaning and intent of this so-called tenure policy eludes us. Its vaporous objectives, purposes, and procedures are lost in a fog of nebulous verbiage.

Worzella v. Board of Regents,
77 S.D. 447, 93 N.W. 2d 411, 412
(S.D.S. Court, 1958)

Aside from the perennial dearth of parking space on campus, no issue is more likely to arouse the ire of the inhabitants of the academy than tenure. For if there is one thing on which faculty members can agree, it is that tenure is one issue on which faculty members cannot agree. Few topics in academia are as controversial, and few are as poorly understood.

Yet despite the often acrimonious disagreements surrounding tenure and its implementation, precious few faculty members seem willing to abandon it. Instead, the view of most academicians toward tenure seems to parallel Winston Churchill’s view of democracy—it is the worst system in the world except for every other system. Criticisms of the tenure system have been plentiful, but constructive alternatives to it have been hard to come by.

Moreover, few experiences so universally evoke the angst of young faculty members as does the frequently grueling tenure process. Like veterans swapping war stories, recently tenured faculty members revel in sharing their tales of tenure. The song lyrics in the sidebar on page 2, composed by Brandeis University associate professor Robert Pollack and modeled after Bob Dylan’s classic song “Señor,” embody many faculty members’ attitudes toward tenure.

Protect and provide

Tenure is a distinctively twentieth century institution and, with the exception of the judiciary, a distinctively academic one. Most historical analyses trace its origins to several high profile cases early in the century, including the infamous case of economics
professor Edward Ross at Stanford University. In 1900, Ross criticized Asian immigration to the United States on the grounds that it could “dilute” the gene pool; the Stanford administration, mindful of the Stanford family’s heavy reliance on Asian workers for their lucrative railroad business, forced Ross to resign. A number of Stanford professors in turn resigned in protest over the sacking of Ross, and a formal investigation followed. For the first time, the concept of academic freedom received widespread recognition in the halls of the academy.

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was born, one of its earliest missions being to safeguard academic freedom. And, in 1940, the aaup issued a formal statement outlining a dual rationale for tenure: (a) protection of academic freedom—that is, an impenetrable firewall ensuring that faculty members can pursue controversial research topics and present controversial viewpoints in the classroom without fear of retribution, and (b) provision of sufficient economic security to entice intellectually talented individuals into academic settings.

Still, many critics charge that the tenure process is broken or at least in need of a full scale overhaul. A few even believe that it should be abolished and that academia should adopt the ruthlessly Darwinian model of the business world, in which only the most productive survive. This small but vocal band of critics seems unlikely to prevail in the foreseeable future. Still other critics, who have gained momentum in recent years, believe that
all institutions of higher learning should adopt formal procedures for regular post-tenure review.

For these critics, tenure is a valuable protection that is all too often abused by complacent
or irresponsible faculty members. Over the past decade, an increasing number of institutions, especially state universities, have instituted post-tenure review systems. In this issue of the Academic Exchange, Mark Bauerlein mounts an impassioned defense of such systems. Nevertheless, the precise shape that post-tenure review should take remains in dispute. When, if ever, should the tenure of unproductive or indolent faculty members be revoked? If tenure should be revoked only under extraordinary circumstances (such as gross dereliction of duty or sexual harassment of students), what should be the consequences for poor post-tenure performance?

Hard questions

For the substantial majority of faculty members who believe the future of the academy depends in part on preserving the concept of tenure in some form, significant questions remain. For example, how should the three great pillars of academic performance—research, teaching, and service—be weighted in tenure decisions? When, if ever, should exceptional performance in one domain compensate for suboptimal performance in another? In this issue, Claire Sterk examines the question of how research quality should be evaluated, and how meaningful it is to compare candidates’ scholarship across widely disparate areas of research, such as comparative literature, theoretical physics, business, and cardiology. Sterk touches briefly on at least two other difficult questions. To what extent should external funding be considered in tenure decisions? As Emory and its peer institutions strive to increase their international prominence, what are the implications of “raising the bar” for scholarship?

Bob McCauley next asks the question of what constitutes good teaching, and to what extent student evaluations of teaching, which some critics regard as scant more than proxies for instructor popularity, should be weighted in tenure decisions. Ann Hartle addresses an increasingly controversial question: What makes a faculty member a good academic citizen, and to what extent should collegiality receive weight in this determination? More broadly, in an era of shifting standards and shrinking budgets
in which certain faculty positions can effectively be eliminated, what does tenure really mean? We’ll examine this question with particular reference to medical schools in a brief interview with Judith Fridovich-Keil.

These and several other unresolved questions regarding tenure came to the fore in 1999 during a series of Emory Town Hall meetings hosted by then-President William Chace and then-Provost Rebecca Chopp. In many respects, this issue of the Academic Exchange can be thought of as continuing and expanding this university-wide discussion.
Our goal in this issue is not to answer any questions concerning tenure, but rather to stimulate healthy debate. We will not attempt to present all sides of all issues. Instead, we will present a sampling of informed opinions from a range of qualified Emory faculty members. For readers who disagree strenuously with any of the opinions voiced here, we encourage you to share your views with us in writing. We hope to publish at least a subset of alternative points of view, either in a forthcoming issue of the Exchange or on our web site. We very much look forward to hearing from you.