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April 22, 2008

Tenure, Scholarship, and the Slow, Slow Turn

Satan_and_his_son_goya My home institution is now in the midsts of a tenure controversy (not involving the law school, which had no candidates up for tenure this year).  All the usual tenure-controversy events are playing out:  overheated meetings with the administration, anguished cries from those denied tenure and their supporters, and a fair amount of befuddlement about how the process worked and is supposed to work.

What surprises me is that these controversies occur so often within the broader academy.  You would think that by now the tenure process would be rationalized and normalized to the point where it was no longer seen as something akin to Goya's painting of Saturn devouring his children (depicted here).   

In short, it seems to me that there are three groups involved in the process-- the teaching faculty, the deans/department chairs, and the upper administration (provost/president).  As long as they all have the same expectations, tenure considerations seem to go relatively smoothly.  It is when there is a disjuncture in the expectations of these groups that trouble arises.

One way those expectations get out of whack is when innovation comes from the top down.  For example, consider the simplest (and most common) of innovations-- the expectation of more scholarship.  If this innovation is decreed by the upper administration, there is a time lag before those expectations can fairly be made a part of the tenure process, or else the rules are being changed as people are approaching tenure decisions.   Such patience is difficult, though, when pressure for better numbers are being placed on those administrators by their own bosses, the trustees.  This is especially true where the senior faculty and even the deans resist the change, often because the innovation is seen as a rejection of the values or practices that have informed their own careers. 

The battleship turns slowly, as too many institutions have learned the hard way.

-- Mark Osler

April 22, 2008 | Permalink


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I've only been teaching for a year, so I know next to nothing about tenure dynamics. Thus, I have to revert back to my undergrad training in public policy which says (to me at least) that the disjuncture will never go away because the parties involved want leeway to deny tenure to candidates who might otherwise be qualified.

It goes back to the old rules v. standards debate - when we are talking about lifetime employment, we do not want over-inclusion. As a result, standards are used to deny tenure to borderline or unlikable candidates where a bright line rule might have allowed them in.

Because the non-tenured candidate has no power, the institution of a clear rule is unlikely to happen. Those with tenure certainly have little incentive to make it so, even if there are a few uncomfortable cases; after all, even if one contingent wants tenure in a given dispute that side may not want tenure in the next dispute.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 22, 2008 7:11:11 PM

On a side note, the above comment doesn't mean I disagree with the conclusion of this post. If expectations change, among those who get to make the decisions, they certainly wouldn't want to set rules that make it more difficult to quickly change expectations.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 22, 2008 7:13:37 PM

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