Emory Report

Mar. 22, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 24

Faculty pack Winship to discuss tenure at Town Hall meeting

Provost Rebecca Chopp presided over a standing room-only, impassioned and sometimes contentious Faculty Town Hall meeting March 15 devoted to a subject sure to grab the attention of any college or university professor: tenure.

Several hundred people crowded into Winship Ballroom to hear a panel of faculty give their views on tenure, followed by an open forum. "This is meant to be a discussion of the many issues connected with tenure in today's academic world," said Chopp, who added that Emory has long held to the tenure principles formalized in 1940 by the American Association of University Professors. She then explained the tenure review process at the University, saying it is one designed "to maintain the overall excellence of Emory while remaining sensitive to the specific cultures of schools and departments."

President Bill Chace headed the four-person panel that followed Chopp. Also speaking were Luke Johnson, Woodruff Professor of Theology; Vicki Hertzberg, chair of biostatistics in the School of Public Health; and Vanessa Siddle Walker, associate professor of educational studies.

"Nationally, tenure is imperiled," Chace said. "There are nontrivial forces at work that, if put fully into effect, would significantly undermine tenure as it has traditionally been understood." One such force, he continued, is the opinion of influential people outside the academy, such as business leaders. "A recent report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that more than eight out 10 business executives (83 percent) think that phasing out tenure would improve higher education. I believe that such animus toward tenure is partly derived from an animus toward higher education in general," Chace said.

A second force, perhaps even more threatening, is an increasing national trend of appointing faculty to non-tenure-track positions. "However, at Emory the situation, if not immune, is largely distant [from these trends]," said Chace, adding that in the Emory-AAUP cohort, the percentage of non-tenure-track faculty in Emory College actually fell from 9 percent in 1991-92 to 6 percent in 1998-99. "The protections traditionally provided by tenure including, most importantly, the freedom to speak and write in an untrammeled manner, are in excellent shape here, are appreciated by the Board of Trustees--and I vow to keep them that way."

Johnson spoke as a recently appointed member of the President's Advisory Committee (PAC), the non-legislative body that counsels the president and provost on matters of tenure review. PAC is in the process of formalizing guidelines for tenure packages as they are submitted to the provost for consideration. Johnson cited several factors affecting tenure's evolution, including the "raised bar" for tenure approval, higher consequences of not receiving tenure and the complexity of family structures in the modern world.

Hertzberg opened by saying she found "two truths about tenure to be self-evident: that tenure and academic freedom are the cornerstones of American higher education, and that change is inevitable. But we need to manage change rather than have change manage us. Change is good; departments that grow old together become stale together." She cited two more issues affecting tenure: the general aging of faculty nationwide and the increased dependence on "soft money" in today's universities.

On a panel of administrators and decision-makers, Walker said she represented the "normal faculty member," and that most of her important experiences in earning tenure happened at the departmental level. It was there she was informed of expectations, received oral and written evaluations of her work, was extended helpfulness instead of isolation and, in short, "given a voice." "I was taken seriously," she said. "It was my department that most directly, most tangibly, moved me from skeptic to scholar. 'Emory' has no meaning for the young academic. I am an example of a person who quite easily could have been lost [in the tenure process]."

As one would expect with a subject as incendiary as tenure, there was no shortage of strong opinions expressed when Chopp opened the floor for discussion. Faculty posed direct questions about soft money, the perceived precedence of published research over good teaching in tenure evaluations, raising the bar for tenure approval, the tenure clock and other issues.

"I feel like tenure is a big, black cloud hanging over my head," said Joyce King, an assistant professor in the nursing school. "I could be the most creative teacher in the world, an excellent clinician and community server, but if I don't bring in the grants, I won't get tenure.

"Does anyone else feel that way?" King asked, drawing laughter and applause from the audience.

Responding to some of the questions, Johnson said "the tenure package is an act of persuasion by which the school makes the case that this person is valuable to us. That rhetoric of persuasion is very important, and it starts the moment the faculty member is hired."

Patrick Allit, a professor in history, asked Chopp, "Are you trying to raise the bar? And, if so, who will that benefit?"

"In short, yes," Chopp responded. "Emory is trying to hire better and better faculty. But we're not trying to raise it above what the people we're trying to hire can achieve."

--Michael Terrazas

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