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Must the tenure process really be like this?

February 14, 2010, 10:35 pm

Like a lot of people in higher ed, I’ve been following Friday’s deadly shooting at the University of Alabama-Hunstville. (Click the link for background in case you missed the story. I have no idea how much press it is or is not getting in the national mainstream media.) It’s known that Amy Bishop, the UAH biology professor being charged with the shooting, was denied tenure in April and had made an unsuccessful appeal regarding her tenure denial. It’s not clear that the shooting was related to the tenure situation, but the speculation — especially in the article at the second link — is that there’s a connection.

What is clear, at least from my perspective as a professor and as somebody in the fourth year of a five-year appointment to my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee, is that something is really badly wrong with UAH’s tenure system, and perhaps with tenure as a concept. Listen to this description of Prof. Bishop’s situation from William Setzer, chemistry department chair at UAH:

As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn’t secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on “bizarre” rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand — “left-field kind of stuff,” he said. [...]

While there were those who supported her tenure and promotion, Mr. Setzer said, he didn’t believe she had any friends in the department.

There was no doubt, however, about her intelligence or pedigree. “She’s pretty smart,” said Mr. Setzer. “That was not a question. There might have been some question about how good of a [principal investigator] and mentor she was. Yeah, she knows her stuff, and she’s a good technical person, but as far as being the boss and running the lab, that was kind of the question.”

Mr. Setzer might not be giving an accurate description of how people get tenure at UAH, but is this really what tenure is all about? Publication records? Grants? Personalities? Whether or not you have enough friends, or the right friends?  UAH does state up-front that it is a research-intensive university, but where is teaching in all of this?

Now look at the depressing remarks of  Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, about the realities (?) of tenure:

“The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching,” said [Nelson]. “You probably can’t get another job.”

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the review is a period of great stress for even the most likely candidates. They feel judged. Denial can lead to isolation.

“If you have underlying problems,” Nelson said, “then there’s a good chance that they will surface during the tenure process because you are under so much stress.”

We do not know, yet, just how much Prof. Bishop’s tenure denial contributed to her actions, which (I stress) are not justifiable under any circumstance. But honestly — if this is what getting tenure is like at your school, then your school is doing it wrong.

The tenure process can, and should, be an open and transparent process whereby junior faculty are guided in their professional development by senior faculty with a view towards making positive contributions to their institution for 30 or 40 years or more. Done right, tenure can be a transformative and powerful experience for faculty, institutions, and students alike. Done as it is described above, though, it is bound to be petty, political, focused on all the wrong things, and producing professionally unbalanced faculty who have merely learned to play the game properly. No wonder so many schools are considering dropping tenure. But isn’t there some middle ground where tenure can be redeemed?

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