Give Me A T For Texas: Tuesday Tenure Report

April 12, 2011, 11:38 am

Another take on the path towards tenure

Where, oh where, has the Radical been?  Well, many places, but the most recent impediment to posting has been the end of honors thesis season, which requires time-consuming, line-by-line scrutiny of all outgoing chapters.  But by today, the little birds will have flown the coop once and for all and I am once again left to my feckless ways.  A good scrounge through my Google reader shows that others have been busy out there, however, so with out further ado:

Just in Case You Were Curious:  According to the campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, Trinity University of San Antonio Texas is making the institutional case for tenure.  In an article that does a good job of explaining to students what tenure is and how faculty achieve it, Michael Fischer, vice president of Academic Affairs, “There are very good historical reasons for tenure and particularly in this political environment, there is even a greater reason for tenure, because tenure allows academics to say things that are unpopular,” Ahlburg said. “Without the protection of tenure, it would most likely lead to their removal, and that could be at a state institution by shutting off funds.”  John Huston, chair of the economics department, argues in the same piece that tenure has other advantages for a teaching institution. “There are great advantages of having your faculty tied to your institution,” he says; “So that their interests are aligned more with the institution’s interests.  I know that I am going to be at Trinity for a large chunk of my career, so I have Trinity’s interests at heart and I think that’s a real plus of the tenure system.”

Other college administrators might want to take a page out of Trinity’s book.  My faith in the electorate’s ability to reason is currently at an all-time low.  But perhaps if colleges, universities and public school systems went on the offense and explained what tenure actually does, and why the ideal, mobile workforce that neoliberal and conservative policy makers imagine is not good for education it might make blowhards pols like Chris Christie and Scott Walker look like the anti-labor, anti-education governors that they are?

Update on DePaul University Tenure Bias Case:  Back in February, I reported on the personnel troubles at DePaul University in Chicago, where 22 white faculty were awarded tenure last year and all six scholars of color were denied tenure.  Those denied tenure, and a large number of their supporters on the faculty (who I’m guessing are white, if these numbers represent a trend) say there is a pattern of discrimination, and lawsuits have been filed.  Philosophy prof Namita Goswami got the AAUP involved (excellent move, in my experience) and a summary of their summary of the case follows:

Goswami, who has a PhD from Emory University, was hired by the DePaul philosophy department in 2003 to teach “critical race and feminist theory.” Between then and now she’s published numerous journal articles, written a book that’s under contract with SUNY Press, and won DePaul’s highest teaching honor, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award, along with two competitive research fellowships. In spite of all that, somewhere along the way, the philosophy department decided she wasn’t such a good fit.

Two years ago an ad hoc committee of the department made an attempt to get her terminated before her probationary appointment was even over. Among their complaints, according to the AAUP report: she didn’t attend enough department events during a one academic year, “has interests other than continental philosophy”—notably, women’s studies, which is integral to what she was hired to teach—and isn’t fluent in German, though she speaks five other languages.

According to the AAUP report, written by Saint Xavier University history professor Peter N. Kirstein, this ad hoc committee essentially sought to “cashier Dr. Goswami for engaging in research that a majority find objectionable: Mainly doing her job as a scholar in postcolonial theory, critical race and feminist theory, and linking them to the discipline of philosophy.” The AAUP concluded that Goswami was “excelling,” and that her academic freedom had been violated by her department, in which “there appears to be a club-like atmosphere and a narrow perception of the discipline.”

I’ve seen this story over and over again.  It is the fundamental flaw of top-down diversity polices by administrations who refuse to also reform the tenure process.  Departments that have historically failed to see the value in new scholarship are given all kinds of enlightenment points for hiring candidates that meet university criteria for diversity, but are then given a free hand to harass and dump them according to internal “standards” that have been left undisturbed.  Someone could do the profession a great service by providing the comparative tenure data on this across institutions.

It’s Only Good If You Can Get It:  In Discover magazine, science blogger “Julianne” recently posted  “How To Get Tenure At Almost Every Other Research University,” a response to her colleague “Sean”‘s  “How To Get Tenure At A Major University.”  Sean’s piece includes helpful hints under subheadings like “Be a productive genius” ($hit!  That’s where I went wrong!)  As Julianne writes,

Personally, I found Sean’s advice really really dispiriting, and it probably would have freaked me out to read it as a postdoc. And yet, I find myself with “tenure at a major research university” without ever having lost sleep to fears about achieving seemingly impossible standards. I worked steadily, but not insanely. I had a couple of kids. I “dabbled” in other research areas, some of which turned into major research areas down the road. And it worked out (although, it likely wouldn’t have “worked out” if I was at Chicago or Caltech).

Julianne’s advice follows more along the lines of demonstrating that you have “traction,” as she calls it, which is imprecise but I think some of the best advice I have heard in any field.  What she means by this is:  have a research program, do it well, demonstrate that you are moving forward in a substantive way.  Every once in a while, she suggests, it isn’t such a ba
d idea to take a risk. While establishing a whole parallel track that isn’t likely to pay off in any discernible way, a risk could amplify the direction you are already taking. “A colleague and I have had many discussions about the fact that, because we were more than willing to leave academia, we were more willing to take risks,” Julianne writes. ” These risks paid off in more interesting research than the path we were headed down as young postdocs.”

You Might Not Want To Try This At Home:  Techdirt reports that Michel Aaij of the Department of English and Philosophy at Auburn University Montgomery added his Wikipedia entries to his tenure dossier and they were a hit.  Aaij has apparently been doing some on the ground work to persuade his colleagues that on-line media represents important scholarly contributions, and voila, they became believers.  “It certainly would be nice if the overly broad anti-Wikipedia bias in academia was starting to fade,” Techdirt notes. “Of course, it’s important to point out that it wasn’t just Wikipedia edits on his application [for tenure], but either way, it appears that his colleagues are gaining increasing respect for work done on Wikipedia in addition to traditional journals.”

One caveat:  I love Wikipedia, but it isn’t a journal.  Adjust your vita accordingly.

And now, to start your day on a happy note, in honor of Trinity College, here is 1976 concert footage of Lynyrd Skynyrd doing an old Jimmie Rodgers standard (“woman made a fool out of me.”)

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