Desperately Seeking Tenure

Exploring Tenure and Research at Emory
A view from the inside

Claire E. Sterk, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health

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


Receiving—or perhaps I should say acquiring—tenure is a major transition point in the life of any academic. It symbolizes the end of a “junior” status and confirms one’s promise as a scholar. Universities award tenure as a reward for past excellence and future potential. In return for this excellence, the tenured faculty member is promised security, status, and full academic freedom. Yet since the AAUP put forward the tenure principles in the early 1940s, the meaning of,
and academic requirements for, tenure continue to be debated.

This debate has been of particular concern at Emory during the past two years as, among other things, the Commission on Research at Emory has explored the implications of being a research university. One of the many lessons we learned is that for Emory to be a top research university, it must invest in its research capacity. This means retaining excellent scholars, recruiting new scholars, engaging in responsible inquiries, and ensuring a state-of-the-art research infra-structure.

Being a research university also means emphasizing the university’s strong teaching and service missions. Frequently, as Commission members, we found ourselves focusing on the connections among research, teaching, and service—thereby mirroring the three main areas of tenure requirements. Integrating those three components into a comprehensive mission of Emory as a research university is a must. It is this holistic perspective that distinguishes institutions of higher education from research institutes, in which teaching and service are either non-existent or secondary. Achieving such integration is easier said than done, given the myriad challenges and complexities of acquiring and awarding tenure.

Elaborate guidelines ensure that consistent and fair standards are applied across the university. Nevertheless, such standards inevitably remain subjective. Teaching evaluations, despite their limitations, are used to assess adequacy in teaching; service portfolios often are overlooked. Scholarship and research appear to lie at the heart of tenure decisions.

Yet measuring scholarship can be complex. Who would be ranked as the top scholar among the following three individuals: Albert Einstein, who published close to three hundred articles; Pablo Picasso, who produced over twenty thousand works of art; or Thomas Edison, who had one significant patent to his name?

The challenge of assessing and ranking scholars is at least partly attributable to the wide range of research cultures at universities. Within the Commission on Research at Emory we identified four key dimensions that distinguish cultures of research. These are (a) the mode of inquiry, (b) the nature and extent of collaboration among scholars, (c) scholarly products, and (d) the economies of research. At Emory, we distinguished three research cultures within the college (the humanities, social sciences, and sciences) and others in the health sciences, business, law, and theology. In addition, we identified several emerging cultures (for more information, see the Research at Emory report). Despite institution-wide tenure policies, each culture of research has its own norms and values for assessing scholarship. Additional evidence for tenure decisions, namely, outside evaluation, is sought from experts familiar with the relevant culture of research. Outside experts are often asked to comment, if feasible, on a candidate’s teaching and service activities, but the candidate’s research forms the core of their evaluation.

Another complexity scholars and universities face is the constantly shifting context of scholarship. For instance, recent discussions have focused on the struggle of university presses to survive as an outlet for faculty who are expected to publish at least one, if not more, books in order to be eligible for tenure. An option may be to shift from the traditional book requirement, preferably with a prestigious university press, to book publications with trade presses, electronic books, or publications in the form of chapters and articles.

Adding to the challenge is the increasing emphasis on scholarly outcomes not merely in the form of actual products but in terms of external funding. A book, article, play, or discovery supported by external funding tends to receive
a “higher score” in tenure assessments than does the same product without such funding. Of course, some scholarship only can be conducted with funding. Nevertheless, some scholarship is unlikely to be conducted because of funding restrictions—not only the unavailability of funding, but ideological restrictions associated with funding. The latter is most common when industry funding is involved, but also applies to federal funding from such agencies as the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Institutes of Health.

Further complicating matters are the constantly changing requirements for tenure. Tenure-track junior faculty confront the challenge of proving their promise as the criteria for tenure have become more rigorous. To do so, they must balance departmental expectations with those beyond the department, negotiate assessments by senior tenured colleagues who were typically socialized under different tenure norms, and develop recognition as a scholar at Emory while establishing a national, if not international, reputation.

Faculty seeking tenure for scholarship that crosses more than one culture of research face additional challenges. As research universities increasingly value interdisciplinary scholarship, evaluation criteria for such bridging research require continual Interdisciplinary scholars must fulfill the expectations of
each culture. Cross-department appointments often result in having to please two or more different audiences.

Another feature of the research university is that an increasing number of excellent scholars are appointed in non-tenure track positions, such as clinical and research tracks. The privilege of tenure is not extended to these scholars, a practice stemming from their limited involvement with teaching, service, or both. Many, however, spend considerable time in the classroom, train graduate
students, and supervise post-doctoral fellows. Research universities must consider ways to address their contributions. What are the implications if a substantial portion of the university’s scholarly capacity resides outside of the tenure domain?

It seems safe to assume that research and scholarship will remain an important component of the criteria for tenure. The constantly evolving cultures of research remain a challenge, however. Moreover, ensuring that the interconnections among research, teaching, and service are central is essential. An overemphasis on research will detract from the uniqueness of the research university and restrict the meaning of tenure.

Editor’s Note: Professor Sterk is chair of the Commission on Research at Emory.