Desperately Seeking Tenure

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


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

Tenure
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

 

Scott Lilienfeld What do you see as some of the big controversies confronting Emory with regard to tenure?

John Snarey I think, with Emory’s vision of remaining a great university and becoming a destination school, a frontal attack on tenure doesn’t stand a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding here.

There are, however, side attacks that can undermine and weaken it, so we need to be careful about those, weighing the advantages of some of these proposals but also being very careful not to link them with tenure.

For instance, let’s take post-tenure review. Many departments have a review every five years after tenure. This practice can be very effective and useful, as long as it’s not coupled with tenure. It’s about providing a person feedback, a forum for reflection, where they’re going with their work and how they can improve it. It can support faculty development, as long as it is decoupled from tenure.

Another issue is the differing standards for tenure across the departments. That’s not only expected but to be desired. That is, the standards of the humanities are different and should be different than they are in the biomedical sciences. And that’s why peer review is so critical. Disasters sometimes occur when someone from one discipline doesn’t understand the standards in a different discipline, and then tries to apply their disciplinary standards to the person under review.

SL What would you say to critics who would argue that without some kind of stick, post-tenure review may not have any real power?

JS Tenure is granted on the assumption that the person is highly competent—that is, they’re highly intelligent, they’re good citizens, and they’re doing productive work in research, teaching, and service. So tenure shouldn’t be granted if those assumptions aren’t met. I don’t think universities like Emory attract professors who really just work hard to get tenure and then sort of say, Well, I’m done. Many research breakthroughs aren’t sprints. They are the products of long-distance runners. Post-tenure review can contribute to becoming a more effective long-distance runner, but it shouldn’t require the same kind of sprint that may have occurred before tenure. In some sense, that’s the point, to relieve people of that constant pressure so they can go after the bigger prize.

SL What about the issue of external funding? In some fields external funding is pretty much de rigeur; in other fields, it’s almost unheard of. How does one deal with that issue in terms of expectations for tenure?

JS In different fields, the opportunities aren’t the same, and the needs aren’t the same. Besides, grants are not a very good indicator of a person’s quality of research. It’s the fruit of those grants, the fruit of those research projects. Furthermore, the purpose of tenure is not to guarantee the university a certain income from its faculty. The purpose of tenure is to protect academic freedom. Tenure is sort of like the shell of an egg. It’s there, its firm, it’s important. But what it’s protecting is the yolk of academic freedom. And so when people
come along and want to crack the shell, they forget that this freedom is going to start seeping out all over the place. Can you imagine a university really carrying out its mission of challenging common beliefs, of opening up new frontiers in terms of ideas, research, and practices, without tenure? It wouldn’t happen because we wouldn’t have the protection to ask, What are the important
questions and how do I go about answering them? Without tenure, the administration would tell you what the important ideas are and how you should go about addressing them.

SL How, if at all, should collegiality be weighted in tenure decisions? Is there a danger in making “avoidance of disruptive behavior” a partial criterion for tenure, as Emory College does in its standards for tenure?

JS I have come to value those very idiosyncratic persons who just don’t quite fit in. In some sense they are to be prized because they have the courage not to quite fit in. When someone brings a challenge to certain practices on campus, the way it’s formulated may seem a bit extreme or even outrageous. Yet my reaction is, Thank you, because it makes the rest of us look moderate. And frequently, they’re on to something. By bringing our attention to these issues, they serve a very important social function. 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.