Desperately Seeking Tenure

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

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


In 1992, Daniel Kirschenbaum received the surprise of his life. Kirschenbaum was a tenured psychologist in the medical school at Northwestern University. There, he ran an eating disorders clinic and conducted research, much of it published in well regarded peer-reviewed journals, on obesity and weight regulation. Nevertheless, for some time Kirschenbaum’s clinic had apparently been running at a net financial loss.

One day in 1992, Kirschenbaum arrived at work to find himself locked out of his office. Adding insult to injury, Northwestern had removed him from his job as clinic director and eliminated his salary. Kirschenbaum was left with nothing but tenure and title.

In 1998, Kirschenbaum filed suit against Northwestern, but he lost on the grounds that he had a “zero-based salary” contract, meaning that the medical school was legally obligated to pay him nothing. Northwestern officials further argued that the Kirschenbaum case represented no threat to the concept of tenure.
Nevertheless, this case raises troubling questions. If tenure technically guarantees nothing but a title, what does it really mean? Moreover, does not the Kirschenbaum case suggest that the dual raison d’être for tenure outlined by the American Association of University Professors, namely, the protection of academic freedom and the assurance of economic security, is largely illusory?
Is the Kirschenbaum case an aberration, or is it a harbinger of dire things to come in medical schools and perhaps other university units?

To obtain some insight into such questions, I spoke recently with Judith Fridovich-Keil, a tenured faculty member in the Emory School of Medicine Department of Human Genetics. Fridovich-Keil admits that when she arrived at Emory twelve years ago, she had “never really thought about what tenure means.” Instead, she remembers, “All I knew was that I wanted to pursue an academic career in biomedical science and assumed that if I did a good job, tenure would follow.” She adds that “all of my previous mentors had tenure at their institutions, and they told me that I should only apply for tenure-track positions, which is what I did.”

Fridovich-Keil explains that most of her colleagues at Emory are, like herself, intrinsically motivated. That is, they are doing their jobs because they genuinely like what they do, rather than because they fear punishment from the administration. She notes that she has never observed a faculty member in her department “abuse” the tenure system. Nevertheless she acknowledges that the true meaning of tenure remains unclear, given the apparent lack of a legal guarantee of salary, lab space, or office. As many universities tighten their financial belts, she muses, will the original concept of tenure become increasingly endangered? And if so, what will that change mean for faculty?

The other question Fridovich-Keil raises concerns expectations for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. In her department, faculty members are on one of three tracks: tenure track, clinical track, or research track. As a member of the Emory “Passages” faculty mentoring program, she is frequently asked by junior faculty members on one of the latter two tracks whether it would be advantageous to try to move onto the tenure track. She says she often feels stumped by this question, not really knowing what the different expectations and rewards are for the different tracks. In short, is “life better on the tenure track?” For example, are tenure-track faculty members expected to publish more papers and secure more extramural grant funding than are non-tenure-track faculty members? Are tenure-track salaries higher than non-tenure-track salaries? Again, Fridovich-Keil contends, for many faculty colleagues with whom she has worked, the differences in expectations and accompanying reward structure are not always clear.

When asked how the tenure system could be improved, Fridovich-Keil returns to the issue of communication. She feels it is unrealistic for departments or units to generate specific “immutable lists” of requirements for tenure. Instead, she maintains, regular—ideally, annual—performance reviews and meetings with departmental chairpersons should be mandatory. In her own case, she says, regular performance feedback and communication have proven invaluable. S.L.

Interested readers may also wish to consult “Tenure in the Medical School,” Academe, January-February 1996, 40–45.

Tenure, tenure.
Do you know where it’s hidin’?
How many papers am I gonna be writin’?
How much external cash must I secure?
Will there be any spark left by tenure?
Tenure, tenure
They say publish or perish
Committee work makes it hellish
Teaching well leaves time for nothin’ more
Higher education fails due to tenure
Well the last thing I remember
‘Fore I stripped and kneeled
Were the full professors in black leather and high heels
The chairman says “I’m sorry, there’s no vacant slot
And besides we want to hire somebody young and hot.”
Tenure, tenure.
True freedom of thought
Can’t be federally bought
After six years your co-option is for sure
Do you think we should abolish it?