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Tenure in the American university system is a lot of things, and they are not always easy to reconcile. It is a form of job protection, one that differs fundamentally from the protections offered by unionization. It is a safeguard for the freedom of academic inquiry — related to but not identical with a larger and peculiarly American commitment to free speech. (At public universities, tenure is part of the armor protecting faculty members for controversial political speech, even when that speech is unconnected to their teaching or research.) And it is a professional prize, a badge of authority, in the university’s hyper-hierarchical symbolic economy.
It is also disappearing. In 1993-94, more than half, or 56.2 percent of faculty members at institutions with a tenure system had tenure. By 2018-19, that number had fallen to 45.1 percent. These declines are driven in part by declines in the percentage of full-time faculty across the university. In 1970-71, almost 80 percent of faculty members were full-time. By 2018-19, that number was under 55 percent.
To politicians, especially red-state politicians at a time when trust in universities among the public is very low, tenure is an easy target. “What other job in the U.S. has protections like that?” as State Sen. Rick Brattin, a Missouri Republican, put it. “If you looked around, you’d come up short.” Meanwhile, an evaporating academic job market and rising adjunctification have severely diminished the ranks of tenure’s potential stakeholders. As Ed Burmila asked last summer in these pages, “Are there enough academic workers with a stake in the tenure system left to defend it?”
With the help of Carolyn Dever, a professor of English and a former provost at Dartmouth College, and George Justice, a professor of English and former dean of the humanities at Arizona State University, we’ve gathered 12 scholars from across fields to address hard questions about the future of tenure. Besides these 12 new pieces, we’ve also included four previously published essays on tenure and its maladies. Our authors don’t always agree with one another — but no discussion of the future of tenure can afford to ignore them.
William Deresiewicz | Derrick E. White | Sian Beilock | Greg Afinogenov | Anthony C. Ocampo | Daniela Garofalo | Marlene L. Daut | John R. Thelin | David John Helfand | Kimberly A. Hamlin | Corey Miles | Lynn Andrea Stein | Carrie Wolinetz | Caitlin Zaloom | Teresa Mangum | Holden Thorp
An Immodest Proposal
Academics — all of them — should unionize.
Imagine what would happen if tenure were abolished. Governors and legislators in Republican-dominated states, increasingly unhinged, would seek to fire leftist professors en masse. Students at leftist-dominated institutions, increasingly extreme, would (with the encouragement of “allies” on the faculty and the acquiescence of quislings in the administration) pick off ideological deviants one by one. We needn’t guess about this. Even with tenure, professors have been ousted — Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Bret Weinstein from Evergreen State. How many adjuncts are simply “disappeared” because they’ve become politically inconvenient — not fired, just not rehired — we will never know.
The other major argument for tenure has to do with the structure of the academic career, especially as it exists today. There are already lots of powerful disincentives for talented students to enter the profession: undergraduate debt, the long slog of graduate school, the opportunity costs of forgoing a more lucrative career, the abysmal state of the job market, the second slog of an assistant professorship. Tenure, however unlikely at this point, is the one big incentive that makes people willing to give it a shot. Who in their right mind is going to try to run that gauntlet if the best they have to hope for is a three-year contract?
Yes, tenure allows dead wood to accumulate. I don’t see any easy fix for that, but here is a suggestion: If someone is “retiring in place,” then cut their salary, and keep cutting it until they take the hint and call it a career. At the same time, we need to redefine performance. The general level of undergraduate teaching, across institutions, is mediocre at best, and frequently much worse than mediocre. Students know it, colleagues know it, everybody knows it. It is one of the open secrets and chronic scandals of American higher education. Older professors, who may no longer have much of a research program, are often the best teachers, the only really dedicated teachers, in a department. More broadly, teaching needs to be elevated, at long last, to equal status with research among criteria for advancement in the profession. The research-university model that emerged around the turn of the 20th century was never designed to apply to every institution, or even more than a few. Indeed, the preponderance of significant work is still produced at a small fraction of institutions, which means the vast majority of all work — uncited, undistinguished, uninspired — is a waste of everybody’s time. What’s not a waste of time, or of tuition dollars, is developing young minds and mentoring young souls.
As for the R1s, and the still smaller circle of leading research universities, their undergraduates deserve effective teaching, too. There’s long been talk about the creation of separate tenure-eligible teaching faculties, and that’s a good idea, but what may be an even better one (though the two are not incompatible) is the creation of separate research faculties with no teaching responsibilities at all, or none, at least, for undergraduates. There is no shortage of brilliant scholars and scientists who are utterly incompetent as teachers, and utterly indifferent to their incompetence, and there is no reason to continue torturing all concerned by sending them, year after year, into the classroom. In short, the criteria for tenure should not be one-size-fits-all. They should be a variable mix of teaching and research: all of one, all of the other, or some of both.
But the biggest problem with tenure as it currently exists is that there’s not enough of it to go around. The immoral adjunctification of academic labor is rotting the profession from within. What will it take to reverse it? Here’s a suggestion that takes advantage of two developments, one old, one new: the decline of shared governance and the election of Joe Biden.
Instead of trying to reclaim shared governance in the face of an increasingly corporatized, managerial university, a task that is probably hopeless, why not make the best of a bad situation? Acknowledge that professors no longer have much power within their institutions and use that fact to argue, to what will presumably be a new, more labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board, that they do not qualify as managers and should be allowed to unionize: at every rank, in every state, at private and public institutions alike. And instead of separate “craft” unions for each type of faculty — adjuncts in one, professors in another, full-time instructors in a third — establish one big “industrial” union at each college. Even better, one enormous national union, a million-plus strong, covering all 4,000 schools. Then negotiate for fair and decent working conditions, starting with an end to adjuncts and a replenishment of the tenured ranks.
The American faculty has been ceding power for many decades. It’s time to start to take some back.
William Deresiewicz is the author, most recently, of The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech (Henry Holt, 2020).
Diversity, Inclusion, and Tenure
The service tax and an inability to evaluate work on marginalized communities harms scholars of color.
Will the 2021 initiatives produce different results? I suspect that most of these efforts will fail. The failure will be institutional, because the emphasis will be on diversity at the hiring stage and not on inclusion at tenure.
Two institutional barriers related to tenure prohibit long-term success in diversity hiring. First, universities have no meaningful ways to account for and credit the unique demands on diversity hires. The adjustment to the tenure track is challenging for most junior scholars — but scholars of color are additionally burdened by a “service tax.” They are expected to engage with students of color, serve as the diversity representative on too many committees, and engage with the broader local community.
As the sounds of the tenure clock grow louder, scholars of color are often told by chairs, deans, and provosts to “close their door” to these communities and focus solely on scholarship. In most cases, scholars of color perform admirably under these circumstances, excelling in research, teaching, and service. The problem is that white colleagues have to only really excel in scholarship and teaching. Scholars of color who manage only their service commitments and one other category can be on shaky ground at tenure.
For scholars of color, diversity tasks only increase after promotion. This trap is particularly pernicious at elite institutions where full professors have tremendous institutional power. The inability to ascend to full professor means that scholars of color function as middle management on diversity issues, and are not in a position to foster institutional change. The data shows that while Black scholars make up 8 percent of assistant professors, they are only 4 percent of full professors. Hispanic scholars are 6 percent of assistant professors, yet only 3 percent of full professors. On the other hand, the representation of white male professors increases as you go up in rank: Only 34 percent of assistant professors are white men, while 53 percent of full professors are white men. These numbers suggest that service expectations are not being equally distributed.
A second problem area facing diversity initiatives is the evaluation of scholarship on marginalized communities. Tenure committees are overwhelmingly white. Recently, a Black scholar at the University of Virginia was denied tenure. During the review, the committee raised questions about the “representativeness” of the scholar’s research. The very question reeked of racial bias, and ultimately, the tenure denial was overturned on appeal.
In 2015, I was denied tenure by a committee that included no scholars of color. Although no official reason was given, these scholars were confident enough to overturn a unanimous department vote based on outside letters from leading scholars in the field. Perhaps my work on Black history was not seen as sufficiently representative. Little beyond anecdotal evidence exists, but do questions of representativeness apply only to folks working on marginalized communities?
These institutional problems have a significant effect on inclusion and retention. Tenure denials, especially when they are steeped in controversy, have a lasting impact on the ability to recruit other Black scholars. Colleges often blame their location, the scholars of color, or some amorphous concept of “fit.” In reality, the problem is university culture — and the decision makers therein.
Derrick E. White is a professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. He is the author, most recently, of Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
How to Create More Equitable Tenure Policies
Ensure that women have an equal chance.
At the time, the advice seemed like an unfortunate result of a system that had been slow to move out of the “old boys’ club” mind-set of the past, but looking back at it now, as a college president, I worry that the policies in place at many of our institutions are still not enough to surmount the systemic barriers facing female academics.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a popular argument has emerged that stopping the clock on tenure would help take some of the pressure off junior faculty during this difficult time. While I agree that we all deserve some extra grace at the moment, giving faculty more time before tenure review does little to address the added challenges people are facing when trying to manage the burdens of life during the pandemic, especially when those burdens are overwhelmingly affecting women.
Research shows that mothers with young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during school and day-care closures last spring. We’ve already begun to see the negative consequences of this trend play out across industries. A recent study on manuscript submissions to academic journals found that women submitted proportionally fewer manuscripts than men during the first wave of the pandemic, with the most significant deficit seen among younger groups of female academics.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on challenges working mothers face, the reality is that domestic responsibilities have always affected women’s abilities in the workplace, including how women experience the tenure process. In fact, studies have shown that gender-neutral tenure clock-stopping policies to support new parents in some fields (e.g., economics) actually increase men’s tenure rates at a university, while decreasing women’s. Male professors are often able to take advantage of the time a paused tenure clock provides to get a leg up on submitting and publishing work. In contrast, female professors don’t show this same increase in productivity – perhaps because they are spending more time recovering from childbirth and raising a new baby.
In Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, researchers found that women’s early academic careers were negatively affected if they chose to have a family. Men’s careers were not impaired; in some cases, they were improved. By not creating policies that focus on and rectify the unique challenges facing female scholars, we risk women dropping out of the work force at a higher rate than men (young female professors with children, in particular, leave academe in greater numbers than do their male colleagues), and colleges lose the opportunity to choose from a more diverse pool of tenure candidates.
It is imperative that we recognize that female faculty members need additional support from our institutions in order to have the freedom to make basic decisions about their family and personal lives, without hurting their professions. At Barnard, we’ve extended child-care and elder-care benefits, allowing faculty members to use their own providers. We’ve deployed hundreds of work-study students to tutor the children of faculty members and serve as preceptors in their classes, and we’ve also expanded our mental-health support services to reach the faculty and staff, as well as students.
Policies like expanded child care and elder care, and employee programs that help with stress or burnout, can ensure that women don’t have to make the decision between having a family and pursuing tenure, while also supporting the creation of a more equitable culture overall. By building institutional policies that are family friendly, we can create a more even playing field for men and women.
Sian Beilock is president of Barnard College, Columbia University.
Tenure Is Not Worth Fighting For
Labor protections need to cover everyone.
Historically, the justification for tenure has rested on a subtle, even unacknowledged, conflation of the intellectual or civic roles of faculty members on the one hand, and their desire for secure employment on the other. The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which continues to define tenure in the United States, invoked the need to protect teachers as “citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution,” but it carefully defined the limits of the speech it protected by warning against the introduction of “controversial matter” into the classroom and reminding its beneficiaries that “the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.”
The weakness of the tenure system for protecting heterodoxy became clear after World War II, when professors around the country lost their jobs in anti-Communist purges (though untenured faculty members fared worse). While it is rare for tenured academics today to face career-ending consequences for political speech, administrations have found ways to make controversial faculty members’ lives miserable without dismissing them outright. For most others — whether because their views are uncontroversial or because they are in a position to clearly separate their public and professional identities — tenure is far more relevant for its guarantee of employment than for its speech protections.
Even at its height, tenure covered only about half of full-time faculty members and an even smaller proportion of faculty members as a whole. Within and beyond the academy, workers are routinely fired and harassed for political speech or for organizing. The unique status of certain academics has become harder to defend on intellectual or political grounds now than in the mid-20th century: The tenured professoriate is much richer, whiter, and more male-dominated than the rest of academe, let alone the population at large. Humanist academics today recognize in a way their 1940s predecessors did not that socially marginalized groups have often developed ideas and political platforms that only later came to be legitimized by credentialed intellectuals. There is less justification than ever for treating the latter as a community in need of special privileges.
Even in institutions where tenure has been weakened, its status institutionalizes a hierarchy of privilege and impunity whose chief victims are other academics — as in the case of John Brady, a Ph.D. student in engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison driven to suicide in 2016, apparently in part by his abuse at the hands of the professor in whose lab he’d worked. Despite a profusion of reports confirming his behavior, the professor received only a brief suspension.
When we advocate for increasing tenure-track hiring, we do so in the hope of breaking down at least some of this hierarchy. But why should graduate students — who have been leading unionization drives and campaigning against abusive and harassing faculty members around the country — be left out of the charmed circle of academic freedom? What about other campus workers, such as janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running and know more than most faculty members about what goes on behind the scenes? The idea that there is a neatly bounded group of people whose occupation entitles them and only them to speak to civic concerns is hard to sustain.
Critics of tenure have often made similar points, but mostly with the intention of making universities more “dynamic” and “entrepreneurial” — in other words, not bringing up other workers to the level of tenured faculty members, but eroding tenure so that everyone is equally powerless. It is no surprise that we are often reflexively suspicious of any challenge to the tenure system, so much so that we become blind to its most glaring failures. It’s important to be mindful of the ways our arguments can be misused, but we should not ignore the weaknesses of the system. They have harmed all of us in one way or another, whether as students, junior scholars, or advisers.
Our defensiveness about the status of tenure finds little resonance outside the academy. The prestige of academe is at a nadir, thanks to generations of right-wing demonization, to which the standard academic response has been to issue endless rebuttals heard only by our colleagues. Academics, even tenured ones, now lack the organized political and economic power to carry out the expansion of tenure-track hiring they demand. Reversing the cancer of academic neoliberalism and upending the increasingly rigid hierarchy of faculty positions would require the kind of financial and political investment that can only be produced by a broad-based social movement with a much more sweeping agenda. There are signs that a movement like this is building today, but it is hard for academics to take part in it as long as we demand privileges that other workers won’t share.
Instead, we should fight to ensure that the employment conditions we consider our due — such as just-cause instead of at-will dismissal — become the norm for the economy as a whole. For instance, we should work to repeal right-to-work laws and ultimately the Taft-Hartley Act that enables them and makes labor solidarity more difficult in innumerable concrete ways. Closer to home, we should pressure administrations to recognize graduate and campus-worker unions. We should lend our resources and bully pulpits to citywide battles for labor and tenant rights — after all, colleges are often among the largest employers and landowners in their towns. Many academics are already involved in this work, but as a whole, faculty members have been slow to recognize that these struggles are part of our own collective self-interest.
In countries like Britain, academics already benefit from just-cause protections extended to broader categories of employees. Yet, as many British academics are all too aware, such systems can protect job security while sacrificing the autonomy afforded by academic freedom to rigid oversight by external bureaucracies. As we work to generalize the working conditions of tenured faculty members to the work force at large, we should ensure that we organize to gain or retain professional control over how we spend our time — without limiting that control to certain privileged categories of faculty members. Undermining the exclusivity of tenure should not be seen as in conflict with this goal, but rather as integral to it.
Decades ago, the professoriate could rely on its social prestige to protect the community of scholars from external intervention; today, as the status of faculty members moves closer to that of other service employees, like elementary- and secondary-school teachers, we need to follow their example and rebuild our power from below. Tenured-faculty work may, in the process, come to look very different — more like the job protections enjoyed by the vast majority of unionized public-school teachers than like the exclusive club of today’s academe.
In a broad-based push for economic justice, both the need and the justification for academic hierarchy will fall away. Graduate and adjunct workers have already taken the initiative in campus organizing, but it is up to tenured and tenure-track faculty members to ensure that we are not the beneficiaries of zero-sum economic calculations that benefit us at the expense of our colleagues broadly defined. Buying off some workers and pitting them against others is a time-honored tactic in the hands of bosses; we should recognize it for what it is and resist it. In the long run, we stand together or we all fall separately.
Greg Afinogenov is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power (Harvard University Press). This article originally appeared on January 24, 2020.
Junior Faculty Don’t Need More Time, Senior Faculty Need More Imagination
A template for change.
Professors who are the primary caregivers (disproportionately women) are balancing teaching college students and homeschooling kids. Professors whose research relies on in-person interaction are forced to recalibrate their studies to a virtual format (if that’s even possible). Professors conducting international research have no idea when they’ll be able to board a plane to their field site. Black professors and other professors of color are trying to write as members of their communities are being harmed or killed. The police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The disproportionate impact of Covid on Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Filipino communities. The onslaught of hate crimes against Asian Americans, especially women. On top of this, professors lost precious research time when they had to convert their entire teaching portfolio to a virtual format.
Many universities have offered their junior professors a one-year extension on the tenure clock, but no sane person can think this is a complete solution. With respect to research, junior faculty can’t just pick up where they left off.
The metrics of tenure shouldn’t just be recalibrated; they need to be reimagined. Junior faculty are in no position to do this given their precarity — this is the responsibility of senior faculty.
A few years before the pandemic, my own department reimagined the tenure process. Every fall when my department has an open position, my colleagues and I make sure to attend conferences to get the word out on our search. No matter how exciting the conversation is going with potential candidates, the energy plummets as soon as they ask about the teaching load.
“It’s a 3/3 for the first two years, and then afterward, it’s a 4/4.”
Excitement turns into politeness. The potential job applicant’s worries boil down to one thing: How am I going to get my research done?
Their concern is valid, and it was one I shared when I accepted my own position a decade earlier. When I chaired a search in the fall of 2019, my colleagues and I must have met with more than 60 potential applicants. Out of the 60, fewer than five ended up applying. We suspected our high teaching load scared them away.
Admittedly, a high teaching load is not the same as a global pandemic, but both detract from time and energy for research. My department realized that the heavy teaching load was colliding with applicants’ research ambitions.
There was nothing my department colleagues could do about the teaching load, so we asked ourselves a different set of questions: What if we expanded what we defined as a publication? What if we revised the language of our tenure-and-promotion document? Instead of focusing on “publications,” why not focus on “scholarly works’’? My colleague (now department chair) Anjana Narayan developed a rubric that expanded the definition of what counted as one scholarly work:
- One academic journal article
- Two published pieces in a media outlet
- Two submitted articles that are under review
- One external grant application
- Two internal grant applications
- Two IRB protocols
- Three professional reviews of manuscripts
Our motivation for rewarding research advancements and involvement of any kind was the high teaching load, but we soon came to see it as a way to reimagine what junior faculty life could be if untethered from the brutal “publish or perish” ethos.
We were aware that there were many brilliant sociologists out there who didn’t necessarily want to dedicate years to publishing in high-impact journals. We thought, what if we gave junior faculty members an opportunity to try something different without penalty? There are many who’d rather channel their social-science skill set to writing articles for local and national newspapers or producing a podcast on sociological topics — intellectual projects that, unlike an academic article, don’t entail years of work to complete.
We realized too that these research expectations were able to accommodate more than the heavy teaching load. For scholars enduring life challenges, our revised tenure requirements didn’t instill a fear that they’d lose their job if they got sick or had to become the primary caretaker for an aging parent. For a faculty member who’s about to have a child, an IRB protocol or an internal grant application may be all they can manage.
Undoubtedly, colleagues from research-intensive institutions may dismiss all of this as unrigorous. To them, I say this: I’m not arguing that you should adopt what my department has done. Rather, use it as a template to reimagine a system that rewards research progress while remaining flexible enough for the very serious professional and emotional difficulties faculty members face, especially in a moment like this. Otherwise, you can bet that the system you have in place will extinguish the brilliance — and humanity — of your newly hired faculty members, especially those who are most vulnerable and historically underrepresented.
Anthony C. Ocampo is an associate professor of sociology at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona and faculty director of the California State University chancellor’s doctoral incentive program. He is also an academic director at the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
Tenure by the Book
Revising tenure expectations is on the table. We should take caution.
But there are calls for change. As a former department chair, this raises a series of questions for me: Will changing tenure criteria lower departmental standing in the profession just as the university works its way up? Will looking different from “aspirational peers” lower our department’s clout with administrators? Will it affect the number of tenure-track hiring lines we get? Will our students have a harder time on the job market or getting into good Ph.D. programs as a consequence? What about junior colleagues? If they go on the job market, will they be competitive without a book?
In other words, how widespread is the idea that alternate pathways to tenure represent the same standard of work?
John Guillory has rightly noted that by making the book the “gold standard,” academics tend to abdicate the responsibility of evaluation. Like a sleeping giant, the task of evaluation slumbers while book publishers get saddled with the responsibility of deciding who gets tenure. If we accept that additional pathways need not constitute a lowering of standards, then we should take seriously what the tenure process requires of us. We know that important work is being done that does not look like traditional scholarship — such as digital projects, community engagement, or research whose purpose is primarily focused on administering an academic program. A benefit of changing tenure criteria would be that we wake up and do the work we are supposed to be doing, instead of taking the easy way out by offloading evaluation to academic presses.
But have we thought carefully enough about the problems that might arise from waking this sleeping giant? English departments typically house scholars working in very different disciplines, including rhetoric, literature, cultural studies, film, and writing studies. Do each of these disciplines share similar views about what constitutes a contribution to the humanities? Do they even share the same views about what constitutes knowledge? Humans are funny creatures. A “gold standard” can have the effect of creating a kind of neutral space: Got book. Got tenure. Done. No need to evaluate — the bar has been met.
In other words, opening up different pathways to tenure could have unintended consequences. Does moving away from the monograph open up the door for conflicts about value that otherwise simmer — but don’t boil over — in departments that house different disciplines? Will asking our colleagues to do the real work of evaluation lead, in practice, to split votes, contentious and anxious probationary periods, more work for probationary faculty?
In times of crisis we may be tempted to move too quickly. Departments need time to engage in thoughtful conversations about the process of evaluation. Several professional organizations offer good guidelines for how to evaluate work that lies outside the expertise of most faculty in a department. But these are broad guidelines and it rests with departments, working with their deans, to come up with useful procedures. The call for different tenure criteria responds to real problems. But we should approach it with care to avoid serious conflict and greater anxiety for our most vulnerable colleagues.
Daniela Garofalo is a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.
Full Professor While Black
My career was threatened by everyday racism.
That’s because becoming a parent on the tenure track (even a single parent) can be managed — with both institutional and social support systems — in a way that racism in academe cannot. In my own case, as a mother with an often-traveling partner, I was fortunate enough to not only be at an institution with a family-friendly leave policy, but also to live in California, a state with its own parental-leave policy. Likewise, I lived close to family and had the necessary funds for child care and other household assistance.
In great contrast, my career was threatened — from the classroom to the conference room, and from the publishing house to the foundation world — by everyday racist and discriminatory behaviors for which there are still no mitigating policies. And that holds true for many Black female graduate students and faculty members.
To say that my time as an untenured Black female assistant professor was emotionally traumatic would be an understatement. I could fill volumes with tales of both the macro- and microaggressions launched by students, professors, and administrators alike. The larger point I want to make, however, is that while my promotion to full professor might signal hope for the tenure-and-promotion prospects of mothers in academe, it is not a sign of progress for Black women.
My promotion brings the number of Black female full professors in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, where I am now appointed, to a paltry three. Across the United States, Black women are only about 2 percent of all full professors. That is at least better than the situation in Britain, where the number of Black female professors at any rank stands at a total of 25, but it is still rather dismal given that Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
In short, my promotion happened — like those of all the Black women before me — not because times have changed, but because I beat the odds.
The truth is, the odds were stacked against me long before I arrived for my first day of work as an assistant professor. Having been admitted to the Ph.D. program in English at the University of Notre Dame in 2003, I found myself in a department in which some professors did not support comparative American studies, let alone African-diaspora studies. I frequently heard white male graduate students brag about not having read any of the “women or minorities” on the qualifying exam lists.
Later, I was devastated to learn that the department had labeled me and the only other woman of color in my graduate-program cohort as bad teachers (based on inappropriate personal comments made on our course evaluations by students), thus leaving us ineligible for certain kinds of internal grants. As new instructors, we had little understanding of how our students’ highly racialized perceptions of us as unintelligent, “mean,” and undeserving of their respect were affecting our teaching evaluations in ways that our white male and female peers did not have to endure.
When I chose to write my dissertation on trans-Atlantic literary cultures of the Haitian Revolution, I faced an even greater battle. I certainly had ardent supporters in both the French and English departments, but I also had many more vocal detractors.
Under the guise of concern about my ability to get a tenure-track job, I was loudly counseled to work on so-called canonical writers who wrote in English. There were several kinds of irony in being told by male, one-author, literary-critic types — acting as if they were the overlords of an archaic fiefdom called “the canon” — that working on the Caribbean was too “narrow.”
Instead of listening to them, I charted my own path. I frequently overloaded on classes by enrolling in graduate seminars in the French department. I learned to read and write Haitian Kreyòl. I took summer classes to become proficient in an additional language (German), beyond the requirements of the program.
The fact that I had done all of this extra work — which undoubtedly helped me land my first position in trans-Atlantic literary and cultural studies in the English department at the University of Miami — did not prevent various graduate-school peers from stating outright that my race made it easier for me to get a job.
The unstated requirement that I do more than the typical amount of labor, only to be continuously painted as undeserving, followed me into my second tenure-track job at the Claremont Graduate University. I outpublished everyone in my cohort, yet my third-year review stated that I needed to “step up” my scholarship. And although my colleagues were the very ones who had hired me to teach 19th-century American studies, my qualifications as an Americanist were frequently attacked and undermined by a faculty member who sent me harassing and abusive emails during my first two years on the campus. Her disdain was at first hard for me to comprehend since I was actually more of a comprehensive Americanist than her, having expertise in both Caribbean literature and 19th-century U.S. American studies.
I later came to understand that this hostile colleague was angered by my comparative approach to American studies precisely because it exposed the ahistorical and anachronistic pretension of treating U.S. literature as if it emerged in isolation from the rest of the Americas. My American-literature syllabi, for example, contained writings by Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Charles Brockden Brown, alongside Black U.S. writers like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and William Wells Brown, as well as their interlocutors from the same time period in Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and Jamaica.
Dealing with constant accusations about my teaching (not inclusive enough) and my scholarship (too narrow) caused a strange kind of cognitive dissonance to take over my mind. I had the distinct feeling of both being targeted due to perceptions about my race, and also erased as a result of what Tracy Sharpley-Whiting has called “seen invisibility,” or the condition of “being seen and not seen.”
- At one point, for example, a white male faculty member’s $5,000 internal research award was loudly trumpeted across a departmental email list, while mum was the word about the fact that I had just been awarded a $40,000 Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship. When another woman of color on the faculty brought my fellowship to the attention of the department chair, one of my colleagues condescendingly congratulated me by claiming to have never heard of the Ford Foundation.
- On another occasion a white colleague’s article published in PMLA was greeted with public praise while my recently published article in Nineteenth-Century Literature was treated to silence.
- Yet another time, I nearly burst into laughter (and then tears) in a faculty meeting after I proposed a new course on the Harlem Renaissance and a faculty member scoffed that we didn’t need “a whole class on that,” since she was frequently known to teach poems by Langston Hughes.
It would have been disingenuous to celebrate my promotion without revealing these struggles. But it would be equally misleading not to acknowledge the opportunities that helped me overcome the odds.
Release time from teaching thanks to the Ford Fellowship, plus a post-tenure fellowship at the National Humanities Center, were the most important factors, as those awards gave me the hours I needed to write. As a result, I had so many articles, plus a monograph, in the pipeline that I not only avoided the customary postbaby vita gap, but I was able to publish my second book in 2017, only two years after my first. All that publishing made it very difficult for anyone so inclined to maintain the presumption of my incompetence based on race.
In a recent interview in The Nation, Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, revealed that the late law professor Derrick Bell once gave her a piece of advice that had stayed with her. “Write a lot,” he said. “Whatever you write will be highly objectionable to a lot of people, but if you write enough of it, they probably can’t derail your career.”
Note that Bell said “probably.”
Over the years what most prevented me from giving in to crushing despair were my family and the various colleagues who supported my career and my work — especially those who intervened and encouraged me to file a complaint when I was being bullied.
But my supporters could not sit down and do the writing for me. And it is not at all lost on me that, given my emotional state during this time, if just about anything else had gone wrong, I would likely not be where I am today. What kept me on the path to tenure and promotion was having opportunities to be away from my home campus and the fact that I remained in good health physically, as did my family members. That meant I had the energy to focus on my research and the space to write outside of the damaging purview of those who were constantly opposing me.
So while the racist haters may not be able to completely derail your career, they can make it infinitely harder, more frustrating, and sometimes impossible to keep on track. Indeed, for every grant I’ve won, there have been many, many more that I was denied thanks to highly racialized comments of peer reviewers who do not think Haiti is “important enough to receive funding at the national level.” Continuing to apply for grants despite such dizzyingly racist comments bouncing around in your brain takes a kind of mental fortitude that I have not always been able to summon.
People who are tempted to ask, “Where are all the Black faculty?,” need to understand that no cluster-hire or diversity policy in the world will increase the number of Black women at the full-professor rank, if the campus environment is hostile, abusive, and even violent. Christena Cleveland’s resignation from Duke Divinity School because of what she termed its “insidious legacy of anti-Black racism” is a case in point. Women of color face extra impediments both before and after being hired that are not experienced by either white women or Black men.
For women of color to succeed in academe all the way through the pipeline, they need support, programs, and opportunities targeted at the particular research and teaching obstacles blocking their way. They also need institutions to actively combat racism by purposefully reprimanding students, faculty, staff, and administrators who engage in racist behavior. As the research of Jemimah L. Young and Dorothy E. Hines has shown, “toxic” classrooms, “personal attacks,” and “hate emails” really are killing the souls of Black women on campus.
Marlene L. Daut is a professor in the department of African American studies and in the American studies program at the University of Virginia, where she also serves as associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. This article originally appeared on July 28, 2019.
Tenure Is Tired
A national resource is imperiled.
Why this sorry state? First, tenure is limited in the constituency it protects. Tenured (and tenure-track) positions refer to a small and shrinking percentage of faculty members nationwide. Presidents, provosts, and boards have allowed it to shrink. Each time a tenured professor retired, the position could be reclaimed by the administration and reshaped in permutations ranging from adjuncts to clinical faculty to special title series or lectureships. A second limit of tenure is that it is highly selective in the protections and rights it confers. It formally deals only with particular categories of professional activities. It does not offer “job security” as such. Any number of other contractual arrangements, such as civil-service regulations or union membership, can provide professional employees with protections, due-process rights, and so on equal in strength to those often attributed to tenure.
Tenure gained publicity and promise from the 1890s into the 1920s as part of celebrated court cases involving outspoken professors whose scholarship bothered some university board members and presidents. (Often forgotten is that the pioneering professors usually lost their cases.) In the decades following World War II, the demand for researchers who could land large federal grants enhanced tenure. It was a new bargaining chip for prospective professors being courted by universities eager to enhance their institutional reputations. Yet even that high-water mark was punctuated by episodes in which university presidents and boards involved loyalty oaths and other measures to purge dissident faculty.
One important finding in the sociologist Joseph Hermanowicz’s 2011 anthology, The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education, was that, with the important exception of a thin layer of superstar professors whose pay and prestige had surged, since 1970 the overall trend for professorial privileges and protections has been downward. As the subtitle of Howard Bowen and Jack Schuster’s remarkable 1986 book, American Professors, put it, the faculty is “a national resource imperiled.”
John R. Thelin is a university research professor at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education.
A Radical Experiment
Tenure does not equal excellence.
In my 1995 article, I proposed a modest experiment to test the true value of tenure by offering assistant professors two options when it came time for promotion: a long-term contract for 35 years with no options for review or salary advancement beyond inflation, or a fixed-term (five- to seven-year) contract with regular reviews and negotiated raises upon renewal. I am not aware of any institution’s taking up this challenge.
However, in 2005, I became involved in the design of Quest University Canada, the first nonprofit private university in that country, which I subsequently led from 2008-15 as president and vice-chancellor. This provided the opportunity for another experiment: creating a faculty from scratch with no possibility of tenure. It worked. Faculty members were hired, as in most institutions, on provisional one-year contracts. Satisfactory performance automatically extended that contract to three years. In the third year, the Faculty Performance Review Committee evaluated the candidate on the three traditional academic pillars: scholarship, teaching, and service, although “scholarship” was deliberately replaced by “intellectual activity” (more on this below). The performance-review committee made a recommendation to the president for renewal or nonrenewal. Renewal led to a second three-year contract; non-renewal provided one additional, terminal, year.
In the beginning of the sixth year, the committee conducted another thorough review including external letters (which were allowed but neither required nor usual at the third-year review). A renewal at this juncture provided a sabbatical leave and a renewable six-year contract. Nonrenewal provided an additional year, which was terminal.
The performance-review committee was the embodiment of peer review. It consisted of five members elected at large from among all the faculty who had passed their third-year review plus the chief academic officer (provost equivalent). The CAO was nominated by the president for a five-year, nonrenewable term but had to be ratified by 75 percent of the faculty. During my time as president, at least, the candidates’ self-studies and the performance-review committee were as thorough and rigorous as the tenure reviews at my Ivy League institution.
The replacement of “scholarship” with “intellectual activity” was a deliberate expression of the values of the institution, where innovative teaching in a transdisciplinary environment — restricted to undergraduates and devoted to the values of the liberal arts and sciences — was the overarching goal. It both broadened the definition of disciplinary scholarship and allowed it to evolve over one’s career.
The typical new appointees were finishing writing up papers from a postdoc or completing a first book, and their intellectual activity differed little from that at a traditional institution. Over the course of the first few years, however, an individual might become fascinated by the pedagogical innovations required in this new institution and shift toward education research. Assuming a requisite level of excellence, this counted equally. Furthermore, a superannuated faculty member like me might decide that, despite 45 years as a physicist, I have never read Newton’s Principia, and I will dedicate myself to learning Renaissance Latin in order to do so. Or I might (as, in fact, I have) decide to devote myself to becoming an expert on climate change and developing public-communication strategies on this important topic. Becoming a better downhill skier (the university was proximate to the Whistler Olympic resort) would not count as intellectual activity, but the Principia and climate change would.
And, yes, we had a strong statement in the charter of the institution on academic freedom, which read, in part:
Members of the academic community are entitled, regardless of prescribed doctrines, to freedom in carrying out research and in publishing the results therefrom, freedom of teaching and of discussion, freedom to criticize the University or any organization within the University, and freedom from institutional censorship.
Tenure does more to deprive the academic freedom of those who lack it — now approaching three-quarters of instructional faculty — than it does to protect the freedom of those who have it. The process of obtaining it narrows the criteria for faculty excellence, rather than broadening them to encompass all the roles an institution’s faculty should play to make it a successful place for teaching and learning, research and innovation, mentoring and public service.
With so many of our institutions under enormous financial pressure, faculty hiring in a deep freeze, and the sociopolitical climate leaning hostile, it is past time to re-examine the effects of tenure on our universities and our faculties. Radical reform could benefit us all.
David John Helfand is a professor of astronomy at Columbia University, where he has served on the faculty for 43 years (including as department chair for 19 years) under a series of five-year contracts. He is also chair of the American Institute of Physics and president emeritus of Quest University Canada.
Why Are There So Few Women Full Professors?
The obstacle to parity is a lack of institutional will.
Women comprise the majority of college students, graduate students, and assistant professors, but just 36 percent of full professors in the U.S. are women. For women of color and for mothers, the odds of becoming full professor are significantly lower, and in many STEM fields, including medical schools, women comprise less than 30 percent of full professors. In addition to the disparity in numbers, research by Alisa Hicklin Fryar at the University of Oklahoma shows a substantial pay gap as well: Male full professors at research-intensive schools earn on average $10,000 more a year than their female peers.
To help me think through what it means for women to be full professors, I posted a query on Twitter, asking for other women’s experiences with the promotion process. I was overwhelmed with replies. The most common response was from women reporting that they are the first, or even the only, female full professors in their departments. Women have been earning Ph.D.s since the 1870s; how is it possible for so many women to still be the “firsts” or “onlys” in their departments?
In response to my Twitter query, women reported a host of challenges — from the incursion of caregiving duties that disproportionately affect women to the compounding oppressions of racism and sexism to the adjunctification of teaching. Their replies fleshed out the countless studies documenting gender bias embedded in the academy. And they offered glimpses of the scholarship lost because of our failure to promote and support research by women, a research gap further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Even in the Before Times, when working mothers did not also have to oversee their own children’s education at home, parenthood significantly affected a woman’s chances of advancing to full professor. A recent study shows that just 27 percent of academics who are mothers, compared with 48 percent of fathers, achieve tenure — to say nothing of promotion to full professor. In fact, according to the American Association of University Women, while 70 percent of tenured male professors have children, only 44 percent of tenured women do. Worse still, policies intended to benefit mothers, such as maternity leave, tend instead to benefit new fathers, who use the break from teaching to advance their research. Many mothers replied to my Twitter post that they had given up on becoming full professors, understanding that this goal remains out of reach for most mothers.
The lack of gender parity among full professors is not primarily a pipeline problem (women comprise 45 percent of associate professors); it’s a timing problem. While women earn tenure at nearly the same rate as men, there is a significant divide in research productivity post-tenure. It is one thing to hold on to one’s ambitious research agenda for six years in one’s 30s. It is quite another to sustain an ambitious research agenda into one’s 40s when care for growing children often collides with care for elders. Within the academy — perhaps more so than other fields requiring an advanced degree such as law, medicine, or business — the burden of caregiving falls on women who generally do not have the financial means to hire additional help.
Meanwhile, at work, too many men, consciously or otherwise, expect their female colleagues to perform more than our fair share of university service. Whose job is it to take the minutes at faculty meetings? Who serves on the Committee on Committees? The same people who do the preponderance of thankless tasks at home: women. In the great irony of diversity work, women and people of color tend to be the ones called to serve on the time-consuming committees to fix the structural problems that we encounter. Several women told me of having to be put on “every committee under the sun” so that each could have a senior woman or person of color.
Several “stalled associates” (a regrettable term perhaps better renamed “overburdened and underappreciated associates”) thought that they would return to their research once their caregiving responsibilities had lessened, only to find no clear path back. In large part this is because of the differential workload policies many universities have adopted in recent years. Such policies tie faculty members’ teaching loads to their research output, but, once you are teaching a 3/3 or a 4/4, it is nearly impossible to publish enough to earn a course reduction.
Gender bias also underscores key components of the promotion to full professor. “National reputation,” a common requirement for a promotion to full professor, is a rather nebulous category that can obscure gendered (and racial) bias. In history, for example, men who write about other men tend to sell more books and receive more speaking invitations, enhancing their national reputations and thus their opportunities to write more books and give more talks. Furthermore, the ability to travel about the country giving talks (and going to conferences) is predicated on having either no caregiving responsibilities or plenty of help. Studies also document widespread bias in citing research done by women and in student evaluations of female professors, especially women of color.
The lack of diversity among full professors compounds other systemic problems facing universities. Full professors populate the applicant pool for high-paying, decision-making positions. Full professors also have the institutional clout to speak out on campus issues without fear of reprisal and to serve as role models for junior colleagues and students.
The obstacle to parity is not a lack of solutions; it is a lack of institutional will. What if instead of saddling female associate professors with a disproportionate amount of committee service, women were given more flexibility in the timing of our research? What if universities rewarded administrators and departments for not only hiring diverse faculty members but also retaining and promoting them?
Is lack of diversity among full professors the biggest problem facing the academy? Surely not. But diversifying full professors is a relatively low-cost fix with high-impact reverberations across all other aspects of university life, including overall diversity and more robust, representative research.
Kimberly A. Hamlin is a professor of history at Miami University, in Ohio, and the author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020). She tweets from @ProfessorHamlin. This article originally appeared on March 30, 2021.
Are Tenure and Social Justice Compatible?
Universities embrace activist rhetoric, but not activists.
West’s case brings up recurring conversations on race, social justice, and tenure, and this discourse ranges from considerations of how to make tenure equitable to cases for the abolition of tenure. A 2016 report from the TIAA Institute, a nonprofit center on higher education and financial-security research, shows that from 1993 to 2013 underrepresented minorities in tenure-track, full-time positions grew by 30 percent, while underrepresented minorities in non-tenure-track, part-time positions increased by 230 percent. Similarly, an analysis by the American Association of University Professors on contingent faculty members found that, as of 2016, around 73 percent of all faculty positions were non-tenure-track. If tenure is about protecting academic freedom, its scarcity shows that the university is not a space designed to promote collective freedom. Instead, it is a self-interested system that provides individual benefits to those who help sustain it.
Within this discourse, West’s case is unique. He was once tenured at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Union Theological Seminary. He does not face the same level of precariousness as do many other academic workers of color: the non-tenure-track scholars, graduate students, scholars pushed out of the academy, food-service workers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, and other parts of the academic-industrial complex. Harvard offered West an endowed chair, but, as he explained to The Boston Globe, the tenure-consideration denial stung: “I wasn’t raised to put up with being disrespected or tolerate disrespect. I don’t try to negotiate respect.”
The material stakes are different in West’s case. What is being withheld from him is regard and respect — and the protection that goes along with it. Rather than offering “academic freedom,” tenure provides a buffer from various forms of abuse one might be subjected to in one’s academic career. West, then, is contending that his intellectual and social-justice legacy warrants the level of structural care that tenure provides.
It must be said that even tenured and tenure-track positions are not completely safe, due to the downward trend in enrollment and the financial impact of Covid-19. Colleges across the country have committed to eliminating tenured, tenure-track, and non-track positions alike, with Wright State University being one of the most recent instances of this trend. While higher ed grapples with how to remain economically stable, it has simultaneously embraced the rhetoric of social justice. One can hardly miss the increase in job ads requiring diversity statements, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and sustained efforts to hire racially diverse faculty members. One of the starkest examples is the University of Chicago’s English department, which decided to admit only those students to its Ph.D. program who are interested in working in Black studies.
It is all the more surprising, then, that a rich university like Harvard would balk at granting tenure to West, a leading figure in a multitude of activist spaces as well as the author of field-changing academic texts on race. Universities have rhetorically committed to social justice as an ideology and intellectual framework, but West’s case suggests they are not as committed to social justice in practice.
While social justice as an academic philosophy has been compatible with the tenure track, social justice as a method to challenge hierarchies of inequality has not. Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi whose academic and activist work on the carceral state pushes the bounds of academe, is being terminated for failing to sufficiently communicate with his department chair. Noel Wilkin, Mississippi’s provost, defended Felber’s chair’s decision to fire him, contending that the dismissal had nothing to do with his work on the carceral state and race, but rather stemmed from a lack of communication. Right. If Wilkin’s admission is correct, the message is that it is fine for Felber to write about the violence of surveillance and policing, but resistance to surveillance and policing by one’s department warrants termination. This is the university’s stance toward social justice more broadly: Studying it is lauded, but taking actions based on the clear lessons of such study? That’s a fireable offense. In this context, the tenure track conveys to junior scholars that career security is earned only through a set of narrow values and beliefs.
West’s case should force us to question our appraisal of the tenure system. The public discourse around getting tenure-track jobs has already shifted from a focus on merit to one on luck. But what happens when we consider the untenured not just as unlucky but as oppressed? What does West’s desire for tenure, given his otherwise excellent situation and vast intellectual legacy, tell us about the subjugation of academics without it? West deserves tenure at any institution. If an academic icon does not feel adequate without tenure, then that label may hold too much material, psychological, and cultural weight to be offered to so few.
Corey Miles is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Morgan State University. This article originally appeared on February 22, 2021.
No Departments and No Tenure
A developmental approach.
It seems important to recognize up front the distinctiveness of Olin, the extent to which its circumstances may not generalize. We are tiny — approximately 40 faculty members and 360 undergraduate engineering majors — and only two decades old. Lack of tenure is arguably a less disruptive choice in an institution whose faculty tilts towards engineering, science, and technical fields — that is, for whom employment outside of academe is a more plausible alternative than it is for those in, say, the humanities and social sciences — although it applies to our faculty members in all areas. Finally, the ideas here could in some cases be incorporated into a tenure system; and they are not at all given outside of one.
Olin was also founded without departments. That has meant that we are able to do deliberately cross-disciplinary things without regard to how our “home department” will perceive them. A great deal of our institutional success has come from leveraging this freedom. It is not without cost — we have less of the departmental cohesion, development, and bench strength that traditional organization provides — but for us it has been more feature than bug.
In a similar way, lack of tenure has caused us to think creatively about the long-term mutual commitment between our institution and its faculty members. Tenure can sometimes decouple the interests of the institution and the interests of the faculty member. This is part of the design, as when tenure protects a faculty member’s academic freedom to pursue an intellectual agenda that might be misaligned with the institution’s perception of its own interests. In other cases, tenure criteria create perverse incentives: within-institution success dictated by stature in an international scholarly community; risk-aversion that translates into incrementalism; or the junior faculty member who is told: “We value you highly. We know that you are one of the people who holds up the roof around here. And we’re worried about your tenure case.”
Imagine instead a system in which faculty members and academic institutions mutually commit to one another’s continued development and thriving. Imagine asking whether an activity advances personal or institutional mission rather than calculating in which “bucket” a virtuous activity might “count.” Imagine aligning missions and actions, strategies and accountability.
A deliberately developmental organization is one that learns and grows, and supports the learning and growth of its members, as a core part of everyday practice. Universities are institutions fundamentally committed to growth, development, and learning. What might it look like if we deliberately and intentionally applied this approach to ourselves?
Might we shift from measuring outputs — accumulations of activities — to broadly assessing impact? For example, instead of solely counting credit-hours taught, might we measure impact on growth and development of students? Such a shift would reward the often-invisible labor of inclusion work, the benefits of thoughtful advising, and the creation of new curriculum. Similarly, if we believe that service is essential because it sustains our institutions, can we recognize that impact in all its varied forms rather than only counting committee rosters? A DEI initiative or new program development that supports student growth might also be critical to building our institution. Could we recognize it as occurring in the intersection of these two criteria, rather than determining how much it “counts” in which “bucket”?
Accordingly, we have replaced the three independent buckets of a typical faculty-assessment system — research, teaching, and service — with three more outcome-oriented and mission-aligned overlapping circles. Rather than service, we ask what a faculty member has done to build and sustain our institution. Beyond classroom instruction, we consider the many ways faculty members support the growth and development of our students. And for our institutional mission, efforts that others might call “research” or “scholarship” boil down to the many ways in which our faculty members have impact on the wider world. Other institutions might ask different questions. The important thing is that outcomes are aligned with both the short- and long-term needs of the institution.
Over the still-brief lifetime of this institution, faculty members have been able to shift roles, usually in mutual coordination with the college. From time to time, a professor’s interests and skill set have grown beyond their role here. We have often found opportunities for pride — if bittersweet — when our colleagues grow beyond our institution.
Lynn Andrea Stein is a professor of computer and cognitive science at Olin College of Engineering.
The Healthy and the Sick
Is tenure inhibiting academic progress?
Important questions are being raised about whether the quest for tenure is causing institutions and the faculty to become too focused on obtaining grants, to the detriment of high-risk, high-reward avenues of inquiry or the ability to take a chance on a more diverse population of scientists, whose opportunities for funding are diminished by bias. The protections of tenure should, in theory, allow researchers to take the sorts of risks that lead to innovation, but if the path to get there drives the system as a whole to conservatism, we have diminished tenure’s value. The intersection of the hypercompetitive environment for federal funding, the importance of external funding as a criterion for promotion, and a climate that strongly resists structural changes may be incentivizing practices that are bad for science, the academy, and society.
Tenure and the university-government partnership of federal research funding are baked into the culture of the U.S. biomedical-research enterprise. Questioning whether the norms governing academic research are dated or harmful tends to trigger ardent, hyperbolic defenses of the status quo.
It is hard to admit that things we hold dear might also be flawed. For example, in its report “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine noted that tenure can serve as a barrier to taking action against harassers, and the perception of tenure protections can discourage targets of harassment from reporting their experiences. At NIH, we have seen firsthand how institutions will go to great lengths to protect well-funded investigators or at least prevent funding from leaving the institution.
Funding agencies and universities have an opportunity to align our incentives toward the positive changes we want to see. That means creating incentives for diversity, recognizing practices that underlie rigorous and reproducible science, and fostering a safe and inclusive research environment. And we need to think of new ways to reward practices that may be difficult to measure, such as mentoring, data sharing, and innovation.
Carrie D. Wolinetz is the acting chief of staff, as well as the associate director for science policy and director of the Office of Science Policy at the National Institutes of Health.
Bringing the Humanities to the Public — and the Public to the Humanities
How the tenure process can reward writing for a bigger audience.
Take Public Books. The magazine, which I founded with the comparative-literature professor Sharon Marcus, attracts tens of thousands of readers each week. On our website, academics across disciplines and cohorts join a spectrum of curious thinkers in debates informed by deep research and the careful, thorough argumentation that is the hallmark of academic work. Our editorial process, our published articles, and our events foster this passionate pursuit.
Building Public Books required conceptualizing inquiry as fundamentally inclusive. We see of readers, writers, and editors alike as “public scholars.” In its original meaning, scholars were eternal students, always evolving because they were committed to grappling with ideas and people who challenged them. Contemporary public scholars share a common passion to understand the world and develop new knowledge about it, no matter their location.
Convening this public is a demanding intellectual challenge, and one shared by many others outside of the academy, such as film-festival creators, museum and exhibit curators, and policy roundtable organizers. Each of these thinkers conceives of conversations, considers how to move debates forward, and gathers people to learn and fashion new ideas together. Such assembly work is an essential kind of scholarly production.
Public scholarship conceived this way demands fundamental change in how humanists understand the nature and practice of inquiry. The art historian and American-studies scholar Nicole Fleetwood has given us an object lesson with her award-winning book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Fleetwood treats incarcerated artists’ works as critical sources of knowledge and understanding, which she situates within the “practices of care and collective survival among Black women.” Experience with these practices helped Fleetwood cultivate her own intellect, and she marries this approach to her scholarly mastery of visual culture. Fleetwood’s method offers a prime example of public scholarship, a model for the kind of work that universities need to honor and value more.
Participating in the struggle to define what is worthy of attention and why it matters requires engaging with people and ideas that are regularly excluded from academic circles. That is why tenure evaluation must change. At present, junior faculty are assessed along three dimensions: research, teaching, and service. Where should we place public scholarship? One potential approach would be to fold it under the rubric of “service” — the most ambiguous and least recognized among the three. This would be better than nothing, but it would maintain a fundamental misunderstanding: that knowledge is something that humanistic scholars bestow upon others.
Instead, we should include this publicly engaged work in research, often seen as the most prestigious category of academic work. That would require assigning value to the process of gathering perspectives and incorporating them into intellectually significant projects, whether that be building a publication, organizing events, or orchestrating engagements that inspire research and writing. Without this recognition, public humanities will remain a solipsistic endeavor.
Caitlin Zaloom is editor in chief of Public Books and a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.
Counting the Cost of Tenure
How can we be accountable to the disasters of the present?
Today, we find ourselves caught in the bardo between “the before times” of Covid and whatever comes next. While I am deeply grateful for the work of the American Association of University Professors and other scholarly organizations that argue for the value of tenure, I also think those of us with tenure need to think hard about whether academic freedom remains a sufficient claim.
The health and economic inequities exposed by the pandemic, juxtaposed with very public violence against Black Americans and Asian Americans, have provided daily evidence of racism’s deep roots on campuses and in our communities. We are confronted with a faltering democracy, environmental collapse, growing hunger and homelessness. Safely theoretical questions like “what is truth?” have turned deadly after being put into public practice.
How, now, are we to be accountable to ideas and knowledge? If we want to save our graduate programs, we need to use the semiprotection of tenure to connect advanced studies with many career paths rather than the professoriate. If we want diverse, inclusive colleges as well as communities, tenured professors must be accountable to lead the way in fundamental changes. We can start by creating syllabi that acknowledge the contributions of thinkers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. At moments of evaluation, we would factor in the currently undervalued labor scholars of color undertake: educating white colleagues about diversity and equity and mentoring students of color. We need to urge our administrators to take more risks in favor of an education that promotes citizenship, equity, and social and environmental justice.
I dream of every tenured faculty member urging our institutions to name the ordeals we face. I dream of faculty members finding a greater sense of purpose by brilliantly imagining the way the work each of us does — however distanced from practicalities — might shed light on our current crises and possible ways forward. That accountability starts with the hard conversations many departments are having this year about whom and what we have failed to value in the past. It extends to asking ourselves what tenure is for — in the disciplines, in the curriculum, in the classroom. What are we accountable to, if not to prepare our students for these perils by more actively taking on such challenges ourselves, as the tithe we pay for the privilege of tenure?
Teresa Mangum is a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa.
A Permanent Institution Needs a Permanent Conscience
If the tenured won’t step up and lead, academic freedom is in trouble.
Of course, devoted nontenured staff and fixed-term faculty are essential. Many of these important folks stay around for their whole careers and make enormous contributions. But they mostly stay out of harm’s way when anything dicey happens.
Thankfully, admissions to Ph.D. programs, appointment to tenure-track positions, and appointment to tenure are all decisions still largely in the hands of the tenured faculty.
Especially important, tenured faculty are usually responsible for advising the administration on the application of the tenure and faculty codes. While most of these recommendations are advisory, wise administrators know that they should be resisted only in the rarest of circumstances. While there might be short-term political gains from ignoring the recommendations of the faculty, it will hamper the ability of administrators to get things done on all other fronts.
Most opponents of tenure are outside stakeholders, generally from business and politics. They lament the job security that they feel is exploited or not earned. They’re wrong. Ask them if they can think of any other jobs that pay what an entry assistant professor in the humanities pays with 10 years of postbaccalaureate training and hundreds of applicants for every slot? And the so-called exploitation? For every senior faculty member phoning it in, 10 are serving on every committee, teaching extra courses, and still doing research. It’s a bargain.
Tenure does have a couple of drawbacks, though, and they have to be managed. The first is that the long timeline, while desirable in its own right, risks baking in even more firmly the inequities afflicting academe. So it’s especially important to get folks who have been excluded and marginalized into the permanent, decision-making cadre.
The second drawback is that it is getting harder and harder to get tenured faculty to answer the call of leadership. Increasingly, administrative searches produce a very small pool of candidates. If you go to a faculty gathering and ask who wants to be the department chair, most folks will crawl under the table. That’s because as universities get harder and harder to run, moving from a faculty position to a leadership role becomes less and less appealing.
That needs to get fixed. The best way to ensure that administrators will have respect for tenure and for academic freedom is to draw them from the ranks of the tenured.
Holden Thorp is the editor in chief of Science and a professor of chemistry and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. He served as provost of Washington University and chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.