• April 17, 2014

Huntsville Killings Suggest Tenure Process Should Be Changed

To the Editor:

The account of Amy Bishop's recent alleged killing and maiming of departmental faculty at the University of Alabama has left me, an English professor for nearly 40 years, speechless ("In Huntsville, a Dull Afternoon Meeting Turns Deadly," The Chronicle, February 15). Having been a chair of an English department and a senior faculty member over many years, I have always been sensitive to the potential for extreme violence by someone who has been rejected for tenure or promotion—though sensitive to it, until now, only as a notion. Violent episodes at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and other institutions of learning have always been in the background of my consciousness, but those were grounded in situations different from the Bishop debacle. The Huntsville incident cries out for a revision of the process by which appointments, tenure, and promotions are awarded.

The period of seven years in which an assistant professor remains on tenure track before being evaluated for tenure is unconscionable. Over that time, some applicants who equip themselves well through research may evoke the personal dislike of those who are responsible for decisions regarding their futures. I am not saying that this was the case with those at Huntsville who allegedly denied Ms. Bishop tenure, but if it was, it is horrific and detestable that they should have been killed and/or maimed for it.

My comments relate to the overall tenure-track experience as I have been aware of it from both sides during my years in the academy. Putting aside the expense and time spent acquiring a doctorate, I cannot think of other professions where higher-level employees have to wait seven years for promotion. Also, the seven-year path to tenure is strewn with political minefields: "Outspokenness," "lack of collegiality," "single-mindedness," and "nonconformity" are all terms I have heard used in an effort to justify an otherwise qualified applicant's being declared "not a good fit for the department." Few have examined the psychological implications of having someone go through—even in the friendliest of academic environments—the seven-year anxiety of wondering whether his or her scholarly efforts would be justly rewarded by job stability in the end. The whole process is a serious discouragement to younger academics who hope to make a career of scholarship, and it should be shortened.

The decision whether or not to award tenure should not be made by a group, some members of which may not be as qualified as the applicant being evaluated. The human potential for spitefulness and pettiness sometimes assumes surprising vitality in a group, particularly one whose discussions are assumed to be confidential. The decision for or against tenure should be made by the department chair, who would have observed and closely mentored the applicant, in close consultation with the dean of the school or college. I am not saying that such a change will end violently deranged outbursts of applicants who feel that they have been unfairly dealt with. Unfortunately, it seems that such people will always walk among us. These changes, though, will certainly render the whole process more humane and perhaps elicit a corresponding humane response from those who go through it.

Brenda DoHarris
Professor of English
Department of English and Modern Languages
Bowie State University
Bowie, Md.

It was a very sad day when I heard of the recent shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and my heart goes out to the families who are grieving for their loved ones. Yet, as a college professor, I am extremely offended by "Professor Had Raised Concerns About Accused Shooter's Mental Health" (The Chronicle, February 16), and especially this sentence: "Academe is often home to oddballs. Choosing to spend your life in a library or laboratory is, by definition, out of the ordinary."

Does this mean that we are all to be afraid of the weirdos teaching at the college down the street? I am so tired of defending academia. From Sarah Palin's idiotic anti-intellectualism to writers like yours who assume that professors as a whole are odd and not ordinary people. This smacks of Ms. Palin's remark pitting "pro-America" parts of the country against areas that are presumably filled with subversive intellectual elites. I know I am not the only professor tired of this propaganda.

College professors go to our children's Little League games, attend rock concerts, support the local PTA. We teach people how to teach science, history, English. We teach future doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers. We are the lowest-paid people on earth with terminal degrees; and we are the engine behind much of the job creation in this country. We are fundamentally a service profession. To believe that a life spent in libraries or labs conducting research is "odd" is beyond my comprehension. That same research helps us to discover best practices in our classrooms, new cures for disease, and assistive technologies for disabled children. When a person snaps and harms someone, it has nothing to do with academia, but with mental illness—no matter what profession.

Clair Berube
Assistant Professor of Science Education
Hampton University
Hampton, Va.


1. chrisr - February 28, 2010 at 08:50 pm

"scholarly efforts would be justly rewarded by job 'stability' " - surley Ms.DoHarris is a master of the understatement.

2. chrisr - February 28, 2010 at 08:53 pm

Sounds like Berube has more of a problem with Sarah Palin than with Amy Bishop.

3. goxewu - March 01, 2010 at 09:20 am

The increasing scarcity of tenure-track jobs--not to mention tenure itself--has resulted in a clash of cultures. Tenure-track jobs, and especially tenure itself, are now highly competitive, especially on the research/publications front. (Much like, it should be noted, students' gaining admission to very selective colleges; a 3.5 high school GPA, a couple of extra-curriculars and maybe a year of a sport, just don't cut it anymore. Additionally these days, kids have to work in soup kitchens, intern at corporations, win a science fair or solo with the local chamber orchestra even to get wait-listed.)

But most newly minted Ph.D.'s don't want that kind of competitive life. They want to be kind of academic civil servants, high school teachers without the teaching overload; they'd like maybe a year or two "probationary" period, after which it's clear sailing unless they get caught stealing bake-sale money. When getting tenure in a college teaching job doesn't turn out to work that way, they think the system is, as a commenter on another CHE thread puts it, brutal, corrupt, nepotistic us-versus-them, etc.

I have never heard, nor heard of, an unsuccessful candidate for tenure saying that the decision was fair or just. Everybody who doesn't get tenure, it seems, "wuz robbed." Remarkable, isn't it, that in all the judgments of candidates' peers, the checks and balances of multiple committees and administrators, and appeals, not one fair decision ever results.

Personally, I think tenure should be abandoned in favor of increasing multi-year contacts, e.g., 3, 5, 5, 10 and to retirement, with rigorous intra-term reviews with real impact on salary. Tenure's original rationale of protecting academic freedom has been greatly superceded by tenure's actually protecting deadwood, sinecured faculty. (Don't get me started. If you think I'm severe, try listening to students who have to take courses from all those tenured faculty merely going through the motions who face no penalty for doing so.) And nobody outside academe, except priests and Federal court judges, have the kind of unreal job security that tenure at a university affords.

Those who favor keeping tenure but who think the current system of awarding it is brutal, corrupt, nepotistic, us-versus-them, etc. should propose specific reforms. Presumably, they'd want to keep the peer-review, faculty-self-governance aspect of it, In that case, how to keep their colleagues who sit in judgment from becoming brutal, corrupt, nepotistic, and us-versus them? No, Prozac in the watercooler, or simply awarding tenure to every last candidate won't work.

4. jdm0007 - March 01, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Wow, talk about mentally unbalanced. Blaming Sarah Palin for the Huntsville shooting. You forgot George Bush he was involved also.

5. johntoradze - March 01, 2010 at 12:52 pm

I think tenure should be granted (if at all) by people whose income depends on their decisions. That is how venture capitalists do it, and it works fairly well. Venture capital has similar problems awarding cash - very competitive (orders of magnitude more competitive than tenure-track), overstatement of qualifications and ideas ranging from puffery to outright fraud, lack of control after handing over the money, and fundees who become arrogant or unmotivated after they have got theirs. (What I am pointing at here is that most people, if they make $10 million to $50 million for themselves aren't hard-charging anymore.)

In the venture capital world, a manager might have 5 or 10 years to show that they can make money. If they don't, they are out, and they never get another shot usually. It is extremely competitive for their job too.

I'm not sure if it can be done, because unlike venture capital, the economic connection would be artificial. But I suspect it would work better than the current system. The key would be establishing what the criteria should be for performance of those on tenure track advanced by that individual. After answering that question, one could envision a system of tenure deans for each department. Nobody can bat 1000. But based on a reasonable rating formula, with detractions for both hires and tenures that don't work out, and positive points for hires and tenures that do work out, the tenure deans could keep their jobs that carry a premium payment based on ratings over some target level.

I could imagine patent values, citations, teaching, and publications (balanced out for area) as input for such ratings. It would be important to balance the area, because, for instance, in the vaccine world, publications are relatively few. In some areas publications are easy to achieve.

My 25 cents.

6. dr_aj - March 01, 2010 at 07:33 pm

Amen to your concluding paragraph, Dr. Berube!

7. donkulasiri - March 02, 2010 at 06:05 am

I agree with Profesor DoHarris's comments. We need to seriously think about ways of protecting academic freedom, and at the same time, developing cultural environments in which the academics can do their best work. I am a chaired professor at a New Zealand University. We have a system similar to that of UK with a probationary period of three years at the lecturer level (equivalent to assistant professor), and a reasonably good academic could be expected to be permanent. After that every increment is based on the peformance in teaching and research. This goes on until you retire. This makes us to be productive but as the academics belong to the unions who bargain the collective employment terms with the Vice chancellors and the ministry, there is a dynamic stability in the system. I do not believe that you have to be exceedingly competitive to be creative. We can do that through a lot of good will and good faith bargaining, and we can create a system in which all the academics can do their best. We have laws related to good faith bargaining between the employers and employees. I have been a member of the union for academics for the last twenty years, and we certainly see the advantages and disadvantages. Our system may not produce Ivey league colleges but it will certainly be much more humane at the same time accountable to the tax dollar. We have a nationwide research performance exercises every six years. certainly the pressure is there to perform well, and our salary structure and life style is internationally competitive. However, one of the disadvantages is that the academic positions are hard to come by, and the promotions up the ladder are tough to win. I used to think the american system is better than ours in general, but during the last few years, I have changed my mind about it.
The incident at Alabama is most unfortunate but we can not draw conclusions about the systems based on such extreme events.
In my university, it is common to have discussions in the tea rooms to sort things out, and I would have thought if the discussions, debates and mentoring over cups of tea would have put a lot of issues to rest. It is sad that draconian measures are in place to inspire and create.

8. john_d_foubert_phd - March 02, 2010 at 11:15 am

I wonder how many more murders have occured in our nation since this tragedy. Indeed it was a tragedy; it was also Amy Bishop's decision. She can't blame it on her faculty colleagues. We also shouldn't provide fodder for her defense attorney and say the tenure system made her do it, lest others make such decisions and attempt to take a walk afterward by saying "oh the pressure of the tenure system made her do it." Nonesense. By all signs Amy Bishop is and was struggling with a form of mental illness, but was also holding down a job (albeit barely) and keeping up with family responsibilities. If what has been reported is true, she got a gun, took target practice, and mowed down her colleagues. Time to isolate her in a prison cell where she can do no further harm and lay off the tenure system. It has its stregths and weaknesses, but Amy Bishop has nothing to do with it.

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