Department of High Standards: “And The Winnah Is……”

February 8, 2011, 3:20 am

This is a tenure clock.

Give me just a little more time/And our love will surely grow:  The Brown Daily Herald reports another reason to take a job at this trendy Ivy, other than the school colors and the terrific little Italian food shops:  you get eight years for tenure instead of the canonical seven.  The legislation is not yet final, since the faculty “has yet to vote on the wording of the amendments” (so it could take….a…while….) However, the extended tenure clock recognizes that publishing is a little more difficult in the current environment and grants more competitive.  Other reforms of the tenure process up in Providence include things that I won’t even mention because they mean nothing to the rest of us, but apparently they are a big deal at Brown and claims are being made that tenure procedures are now “more transparent.”  Somehow I doubt this, but I’m sure the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) means well and has labored hard.

There are, of course, doubters.  As one former Zenith colleague used to point out dourly when we considered changing one departmental rule or another, “Things could get worse, you know.”  In the case of Brown, theories abound that either a) Higher rates of tenure will demonstrate hte senior faculty’s expertise in picking new people well; or b) Higher rates of tenure will make it look like senior faculty have gone soft in the head and are keeping anyone who can get paper stapled between two boards in eight years.  One concern is that candidates for tenure can choose three referees out of eight, thus introducing the possibility that promotions will will be skewed by people who will drive down the quality of the Brown faculty with their dotty, biased, candidate-centric opinions. 

Jerome Sanes, professor of neuroscience and chair of the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee, said that although he approved of many of the changes, he wished the administration had more input on the final list of references.

“I think that — and this was my opinion — it was of some importance to have the administration involved in the selection of the letters that are being requested,” Sanes said.

Well, everyone’s got an opinion.  And tenure-track faculty?  Don’t waste that extra year, you hear me?

Outstanding explanations for the lack of racial diversity in academia:  Speaking of transparency, I guess DePaul University just can’t catch a break in its own effort to maintain high standards.  Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports that the school that fired Norman Finkelstein in 2007 because Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz wrote an unsolicited letter condemning Finkelstein’s work on the Palestinian question, has another little tenure problem.  According to reporter B. Denise Hawkins, “The university is now facing claims of racism and racial bias after it denied tenure to six professors — two Blacks, two Asian-Americans and two Latinos — but accepted all of the White tenure applicants.”  Members of the faculty are demanding an internal investigation of two of the cases which, without some serious push back from the AAUP, is going to get exactly nowhere if DePaul is like other universities I am familiar with.

A nasty business, isn’t?  Thinking about some issues closer to home than that (why is it that when disproportionate numbers of faculty of color stumble on the road to tenure the idea of institutional racism seems inconceivable?) I tried to look up the comparative rates of tenure for white faculty and faculty of color.  It’s not so easy, and I can’t come up with any figures for Latino/a faculty at all because there are so few that no one is tracking them. I did find this article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which reports recent figures showing that only 5.4% of full-time faculty in higher ed are black.  This number is, sadly, inflated by the fact that at Historically Black Colleges (HBCs), over 60% of the faculty are black.  But dig this:

Black progress in faculty posts is even more disappointing when we look at numbers and percentages of tenured faculty. In 2007 there were 13,338 blacks holding a tenured faculty post at degree-granting educational institutions in the United States. They made up 4.6 percent of all tenured faculty. Thirty-five percent of all black full-time faculty members in 2007 held tenure. For all white full-time faculty members, 44.6 percent were tenured.

According to one illustration, with the current rate of progress, black faculty should make up 14% of full time faculty in higher ed by the year 2150.  Does that make you feel better?

A second study also shows that claims by some ideologues that white men are the objects of new prejudice in the academic hiring process have no basis in fact.  As I suspected, such claims seem to be arising from the fact that white men are being treated exactly like everyone else, since employment outcomes for different groups disaggregated by race and gender differ by only a couple percentage points. This equality looks good for racial diversity on campus, however, only if you clump all self-identified non-white men and women in groups labeled “of color.” According to Diversity Web, if colleges and universities are doing a poor job of tenuring faculty “of color,” they are doing an even worse job of diversifying candidate pools, even though they nearly all say they are EEOC employers. “Claims that faculty of color are in great demand and subject to bidding wars are greatly exaggerated,” Debra Humphreys reports, in a study sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

  • Only 11 percent of scholars of color were actively sought after by several institutions simultaneously, which means 89 percent of scholars of color were not the subject of competitive bidding wars.
  • Twenty-four percent of white men, 27 percent of white women, 26 percent of men of color, and 25 percent of women of color were among those in the study who had the most job options, which suggests a nearly even distribution of access between men and women and across race, again undercutting contentions that people of color (and especially women of color) are advantaged on the job market.
  • Contradicting the notion that campuses are so focused on diversifying faculty that heterosexual white males have no chance, white men in the study had a variety of experiences, from the 20 percent who did not receive regular faculty appointments to the 24 percent who had a favorable result in the labor market.

I understand that the professional associations are reeling from the decades-long bad job market, but why are they not getting involved in these questions and setting standards for what constitutes a fair tenure review process?  It’s time to stop worrying about throwing the baby out with the bath water and make
it possible for talented young people to continue working as intellectuals even — and especially — after they make their elders anxious.

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