Professionalize Promotion and Tenure

Brian Taylor

February 18, 2010

The killings of three faculty members at the University of Alabama at Huntsville are not (yet) part of any trend. As several online commenters have noted, such workplace killings are still called "going postal," not "going professor."

That the deaths were at the hand of an assistant professor who had been denied promotion and tenure is coincidental but not necessarily cause-and-effect. Nevertheless, as details about the reported killer and her situation emerge, we should ask the same kinds of questions about the nature of our labor system as did the U.S. Postal Service after a number of its employees acted in a similar manner.

Such scrutiny is useful because the circumstances of promotion and tenure have changed radically in the past few decades. Existing bureaucratic machinery and "gentlemen's agreements" that support its application are creaking with age.

To begin, let me answer a question I was asked by a reporter from The Huntsville Times who is covering the story. Can denial of promotion and tenure cause the kind of rage that drives people to violence? Yes, in context and not as an excuse. The pressure to get tenure today is felt deeply for good reason. Although denial of tenure is not the end of a career, the safety net of other academic tenure-track positions is growing smaller, and the stigma of tenure denial is great.

Voluminous research has found that the quest for tenure is a significant source of stress in the lives of assistant professors. As one said, "It's like you know that on a certain date, a few years down the road, people will vote on whether you live or die."

It can certainly seem that way, and to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being executed—even if it is six years in the future. As the deadline approaches, many a probationary faculty member develops a Manichaean dichotomy about the senior professors: those for me, those against me; good versus evil. The tenure process encourages paranoia and incites obsessive suspicion.

Does that mean that the "system" is in any way at fault for a bloodletting? Absolutely not. No more than high-school shooters can justifiably blame bullying or video games when so many millions of others graduate from school with egos bruised but homicidal impulses untapped.

Insisting that the tenure system is not to blame for the Huntsville murders, however, is not the same as asserting it is without flaws. The tenure track leaks with anachronisms and contradictions for both the candidates and the tenured faculty members who oversee it:

Training. The premise of my monthly column on promotion and tenure in The Chronicle is that most disciplines do an excellent job of training their doctoral graduates to be researchers, and a reasonable job of training them to be teachers, but a spotty to indifferent job of training them to be professors. Over and over again, I have met, talked with, heard from, and read about assistant professors who may be brilliant in their subfield but are clueless about the human relations, politics, planning, bureaucratic, and time-management aspects of our profession.

Worse are the cases in which a young professor gets terrible or contradictory advice from people who don't deserve the status of "mentor" or "adviser." In one instance, a young scholar who had been denied tenure described how the committee report evaluating his scholarship had criticized several of his choices of publishing venues. Half of the committee members, however, had conveniently or intentionally forgotten that they had advised him to publish in those journals in the first place.

At the same time, one meets many assistant professors who stubbornly refuse to listen to almost any advice, however practical and useful. They don't understand that good advising is useless if they won't be good protégés.

I remember an e-mail exchange with one who said he was being "unfairly" pressured to improve his teaching. By whom? I asked. His answer: the entire P&T committee. However, he did not plan to respond by changing anything about his pedagogy, because "I don't like people telling me what to do." It didn't seem to occur to him that, a few years down the road, the same committee was indeed going to tell him what he could and couldn't do about his career.

Respect. Another issue that splinters the tenure process is generational esteem. Tenure standards everywhere—not only at elite research institutions but also at regional public universities and liberal-arts colleges—have risen in the past two decades. So have the publication demands for doctoral candidates and postdocs seeking their first tenure-track jobs.

The result is a clash of mind-sets and measurements. Many in the older generation of scholars were tenured with standards that, while not necessarily lower in quality, were lesser in terms of frequency of publication. Likewise, numerical metrics of teaching evaluation did not exist. There is widespread simmering umbrage by highly accomplished, highly specialized, and publication-intensive young scholars aimed at, as one of them put it, "old guys—who couldn't get tenure today—judging me on whether I should get tenure."

In fact, that is an apples-and-oranges contrast, sort of like insisting that the army of Norman Schwarzkopf could defeat the army of Napoleon. If the senior scholar who won tenure in the 1970s with a single published article were 27 today, maybe he would have adapted to the present and published heavily. Moreover, senior professors argue that a single seminal article of yesteryear is probably the equivalent of dozens of current "least publishable units." I would also add: You don't have to be a superior scholar to know what the CV of one looks like.

But those arguments have never resonated with any assistant professor I know. They compare the CV's side by side and wonder why people whose publishing history they don't respect are going to be determining their future. The pot of resentment bubbles all the more because the complaint is rarely spoken aloud, except via pseudonym on blogs, forums, and wikis, and when the senior scholars are out of earshot.

Work/family imbalance. Dissertations and scholarly books written in the '50s and '60s often included in the acknowledgements, "I want to thank my wife for typing up this manuscript." Today many fields have a majority of female scholars; others are approaching gender parity. Studies testify to the tension that female academics experience in balancing careers and home lives.

Janice Witherspoon Neuleib, a professor of English at Illinois State University, in an essay titled "Special Challenges Facing Women in Personnel Reviews," wrote, "The required trick [for getting tenure] which one of my young probationary friends seems to be carrying off, is to speak boldly but with reserve, walk the halls unobtrusively although she is eight months pregnant, and publish madly with a 2-year-old helping out at the computer." Those are some deft acrobatics, and many tenure-track women resent the Wallenda-like demands on them at the office and at home.

But mothers on the tenure track are not alone in those challenges. At a national panel on promotion and tenure in my field, several women talked about the strains of having and raising children while working as assistant professors. Then a chorus of "me too's" broke out from the audience: The single male scholar with two elderly parents with Alzheimer's, the childless teacher whose dogs "were just as much family" as any human, the middle-aged tenure tracker who suffered a debilitating illness.

So we have a perfect storm: a medieval system of bureaucracy, a set of rising expectations for performance and productivity, and a generation of young faculty members who fantasize about having a quasi-normal domestic life.

Economics. A commenter on a Chronicle forum learned that he would be denied tenure despite exceeding his department's promotion guidelines, getting near-unanimous support from his colleagues, and receiving universal praise from outside letters. I contacted the writer and gathered that he was the victim of surreptitious "economic denial." Administrators at his college simply did not want to have to pay for someone teaching in his area for the next 40 years. In their view, it was wiser to let the position go vacant and replace it with a hire in a "hot" subfield or, better yet, to drop the tenure-track line altogether and hire an adjunct.

In other words, we are encouraging young scholars to be narrow specialists, despite the fact that, just like in the corporate marketplace, one-trick ponies are an endangered species. Tenure committees are the perpetrators of the system even if we oppose it in principle. Tenure candidates who explore multiple research topics are perceived as "unfocused." They don't establish a "clear trajectory" or "delineate a tight subspecialization." Preach interdisciplinarity; build the silos taller.

Culpability. When someone is denied tenure, the failure is technically listed as the individual's. But the host department and the tenure system itself must bear some blame. The purpose of yearly evaluations and three-year reviews should be to give accurate and unvarnished criticism of a candidate's work. Mentoring systems should likewise closely monitor a probationary faculty member's progress (or lack thereof), which in turn should be reported to everyone on the committee and the candidate in a timely and clear manner.

Yet such safeguards and checks are only fitfully applied. On many campuses, the third-year review is cursory and mealy-mouthed. A common outcome is the "problem" candidate whom nobody wants to deal with until the tenured faculty members and chair get a chance to hide behind an anonymous vote. I heard one lawyer practically boast that suing universities was often made ridiculously easy because year after year, fearful, indifferent, or incompetent committees and rotating chairs provided positive evaluations for someone with whom everyone found significant fault. Then those departments voted no on tenure, and the candidate was stunned (and incensed).

Few of us are happy with such collisions of culture, economics, and expertise. A senior colleague of mine who has sat on several dozen tenure committees and written hundreds of letters of evaluation said, "No task fills me with more fear than having to judge a P&T packet." In an age of litigation and, unfortunately, of the potential, albeit rare, for violence, many of us share his feeling.

Thus we face an urgent need for the professionalization of faculty hiring and tenure committees. Academics have accepted the cult of the amateur for far too long. Read the academic-job wikis, blogs, and forums and you will find many tales of incompetent, rude, fumbling, and oblivious search committees. Promotion-and-tenure committees receive the same kinds of criticisms.

In a majority of those cases, it is ignorance that is often the cause, rather than malice. No professor would argue that you can haphazardly stumble into becoming a good researcher; most would not say that teaching just comes naturally without any planning or preparation. But we are expected to become excellent and efficient at hiring and promoting, as if by osmosis or luck. Usually a committee chair will merely advise the other members to peruse the department's promotion guidelines or the university's human-resources protocols. When faculty members serve on committees that hold so much sway over young scholars' careers, is it too much to expect that they be properly trained for the task?

Some people will react to failure by causing mayhem. That Amy Bishop was an assistant professor may have affected only the location of the crime, the timing, and the identity of the victims—not its commission.

But that doesn't mean we can declare promotion and tenure to be a healthy institution. It needs collaborative, detailed, nuanced, and sensitive exploration and reinvention. Those of us who purport to be its guardians should lead the way.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.