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To Reform Tenure, Consider Breaking Confidentiality: A Novel Approach

February 26, 2011, 1:08 pm

Following our discovery that Brown University is proposing to extend the tenure clock for probationary faculty to eight years, we learn that the University of Michigan is considering a similar move.  The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) is, according to the Michigan Daily,  considering extending the maximum probationary period.  Currently it is eight years, and SACUA is proposing an optional ten year clock.  Additional items on the table included weighting the decision more heavily towards faculty evaluations of the candidate.

In a proposal that appears, on the face of it, to be driven by concerns in the sciences and at the medical school, Professor of Statistics Ed Rothman told the Daily that:

this is only a short-term solution to a larger, long-term problem — ill-defined standards for obtaining tenure. Rothman said externally generated standards, like publishing requirements for faculty members, diminish quality of work. He said tenure should be determined by internally generated standards like peer reviews of faculty members’ performances.

“Long-term, I think what we need to do is come up with a standard that we have control over,” Rothman said.

He added that since faculty members have no control over fluctuations in the economy, tenure shouldn’t be determined by economically-driven factors such as obtaining research grants or publishing materials.

One similarity with Brown’s approach to tenure reform seems to be recognizing the effect of the economy on the traditional markers that signal professional achievement.  Racking up numbers — grants, books and articles — are virtually the only indication untenured faculty have that they are making material progress towards a positive tenure vote.  We urge them to think this way, in part because publishing demonstrates a broader recognition that this person’s work is significant to others outside our own little world.

One problem with this, however, is that numbers only provide the frame for a decision, whereas probationary faculty tend to think it is the whole ball of wax. In tenure decisions, no one talks about numbers for more than a second or two.  It is what people think of the quality of the work that is crucial.  Very often other things matter too:  did this person write a prize-winning book, but do so at the expense of showing up for class irregularly and unprepared?  Ideally, a tenure decision not only grants a guaranteed seat at the scholarly table for past achievement, but also recognizes that there will be future promise that justifies that person’s employment over three decades or so.  In other words, in any field, tenure is an opportunity, not a reward.  It grants access to important and increasingly scarce resources:  a positive tenure vote is a vote of confidence that this person is going to use this opportunity well over the course of a career.

In this sense, an extended clock recognizes that not all people can demonstrate their promise adequately in the same time frame, and that life circumstances can intervene to prevent that. In this sense, the Michigan and Brown reforms should be applauded.  But I wonder if giving departmental faculty more power over tenure is, in the absence of other reforms, a truly benign development.  Depending on the dynamic of the individual department, it does not necessarily mean that those with the best knowledge in the candidates field of study will actually have the most influence over the decision.  In fact, it is not unknown for faculty who are hostile to particular fields and specialties within the department, or who associate certain methods and subject matters with political positions to which they are hostile, will acquire more influence than they have already without any guarantee that the decision will be more fair.

What seems to me to be a a genuinely useful direction for tenure reform — one that would make these other reforms more meaningful — would be to dismantle the sacred cow of confidentiality.  It is an ancient belief that secrecy in these procedures makes honest evaluations more likely, but we know that this is not true.  Mean people write mean letters about good people; generous people write “do no harm” letters about mediocre scholarship that allows a department to tenure for its own reasons and not have to overcome a bad letter in the process.  Myself, I never write a tenure letter that expresses criticisms in a tone I could not imagine the candidate reading, and I never say anything in a meeting that I don’t imagine the candidate hearing.  Indeed, even in the case of a positive decision, leaks in the meeting develop almost immediately, metastasizing into gossip about who voted in which way and why.

So, why are tenure procedures confidential?  To protect the university from legal action, that’s why.  A secondary concern is that the faculty making the decision would prefer to have some control over their own images, prefer not to be known for taking negative stances on a case even if they believe they have voted correctly, and are fully capable of re-crafting their own positions following a negative decision to distance themselves from the damage.  Doing someone dirty in a confidential atmosphere, even if what you are saying is true and supported by evidence, permits faculty to control the process in a way that may do structural damage to the community in the long run.

Therefore, in my view, any real tenure reform has to address the problem of high-stakes evaluations that are done in private.  Secrecy actually permits institutional inequality to thrive, because no one ever “sees” it; alternatively, it allows a larger, skeptical public to believe that a negative tenure decision might be an outcome of prejudice when in fact it has resulted from an honest evaluation of the case.  Breaking confidentiality not only forces people to explain why they believe what they believe, it also creates a far more textured picture than probationary faculty currently have of why some people are tenured and some people are not.All of these things are bad for faculty morale over the long term, and they are bad for how a larger public views the tenure system. 

  • Making all materials in a tenure case available to the candidate. 
  • Allowing the candidate to respond to questions about hir scholarship that have arisen in the letters and in the departmental discussion.
  • Making minority and majority opinions on each case available in some kind of public document.
  • Allowing all departmental faculty who have voted in the case to identify themselves to the candidate and explain why they voted the way they did.

Breaking confidentiality would have a generative role in positive tenure cases too, since positive decisions are sometimes weighted down with the baggage of negative votes that have been successfully overcome.  These negative votes not infrequently arise from critiques that, although they were not sustained by the majority decision, should not be allowed to disappear either.  Candidates inevitably hear rumors about them, but are justified in not taking them seriously because they are c
onveyed (often inaccurately) by their “friends” and have been articulated by “enemies.” Flaws in scholarship that are not fatal at the level of the monograph might have serious ramifications down the road if they are not addressed, while originality and risk-taking that has been deliberately muted in pre-tenure scholarship so as not to offend could be usefully cultivated in the post-tenure years.

Will there be a “Wikitenure” scandal down the road?  My guess is yes.  But let’s think about the possibility of breaking confidentiality in a more positive light.  What could openness in tenure decisions, that made them more like evaluations done in non-scholarly fields, do to improve the process?  How could it educate young scholars better to what we expect of them, and how they will be asked to function as senior members of the faculty?  How might those who perceive personnel cases as part of an ongoing, factional struggle within departments be marginalized in favor of those who want to see departments grow in a healthy way? Could that intervene in decades-long grudge matches that create a toxicity for the newly tenured to manage?

And might it make probationary faculty feel, even when they are disappointed in a decision, that they had an opportunity to be heard in the process of deciding their own futures?

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