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Essays on Tenure

Scott Colley

About a quarter of Berry College faculty members hold tenured positions. During the next several years, many talented young professors will qualify for tenure and promotion, and I will ask for Board approval of a number of these cases. The percentage of tenured professors will increase. Before these tenure decisions come before us, I would like to explain the following:

  1. what is tenure and why we have a tenure system;
  2. how one qualifies for tenure;
  3. strengths and weaknesses of this system;
  4. and the future of tenure.

All of which will be followed by my reflections. I think we will find that the issue of the day is accountability and quality control and not simply the tenure system.

1. What is Tenure and Why We Have a Tenure System: Two major reasons:

While not a guaranteed lifetime contract, tenure is indeed an employment agreement that should not be broken unless there is significant cause. The system of tenure was developed 60 years ago to protect intellectual freedom. Until the creation of a tenure system, professors could be and were indeed dismissed for holding opinions that were considered uncongenial to college officials or a college's powerful constituents. Tenure systems were designed to protect freedom of thought and speech.

Tenure is also useful because it produces professors who are partners and "co-owners" rather than employees. A sense of ownership improves job performance.

Intellectual Freedom:

Professors must be encouraged to pursue truth even if truth is painful to others. Censorship can destroy intellectual inquiry, and dull the life of the mind. Throughout this century, professors in a number of countries have been dismissed or imprisoned for arguing points of views that were at odds with prevailing ideologies. In our country, free speech is less threatened by external forces or government action than by institutional censorship and self-censorship. De Tocqueville thought the greatest threat to democracy in America would be self-censorship. We should work diligently to prove him wrong.

But self-censorship becomes a near-irresistible temptation for intellectuals who do not have the job security that tenure provides. For many of these professors, conformity is not a matter of comfort, but rather is the means to economic and professional survival. When professors must excessively "edit" what they say, intellectual growth and vitality are threatened. It is not surprising that the quietest campuses are the least likely to produce important thinking.

While prudence and discretion should guide all human actions, timidity makes for a dull academic setting. At the end of this paper I will add a few thoughts on intellectual freedom and the rhetoric of teaching.

Perhaps of greatest importance, tenure helps encourage professors to push students who lack the energy to learn. Under the best conditions, the quest for truth becomes one's raison d'etre, rather than the comfort levels experienced by young people who are not ready for intellectual challenges. Without tenure, academic expectations could sink to the median defined by students and their parents rather than by faculty members. This process has long since occurred in high schools where parents, administrators, and students have as much a voice in defining academic standards as do the teachers.

My strongest arguments for intellectual freedom are our need (1) to guard against excessive self-censorship and (2) to avoid many of the problems we observe in the public school systems in which students, parents, and pressure groups can exercise inappropriate control of academic standards.

Partners and Co-Owners:

Few people are as noble as they should be, and human cultures have thus developed incentives to ensure good performance. Incentives in many successful enterprises take the form of promotions, salaries, partnerships, and co-ownership. Law firms and medical practices frequently produce partnerships. These incentives exist because people are thought to work hardest and most effectively when they are best compensated -- both in psychological and material senses.

Money is not the same incentive on campuses as it may be elsewhere. Professors are satisfied if they are paid appropriately, given their academic discipline, rank, and the institution in which they teach. They are well aware of salary scales at comparable institutions because the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications keep them posted. It is "fairness" and "appropriateness" that determine a faculty member's satisfaction with salary levels.

Stronger incentives for faculty members are positive working conditions, the quality of their students, and opportunities for continued intellectual growth. Indeed, faculty members are happiest when they perceive that they are "part owners" of their college or university, and they do their best work when they perceive that such conditions prevail.

Tenure may be considered analogous to becoming a partner in a law firm or medical practice, or a high-salaried, stock-holding executive in a corporation. Of course, tenured professors do not enjoy profit-sharing as do these other partners, but they do become stake holders in symbolic and psychological senses. "Profit-sharing" for professors is the satisfaction of working in a strong academic setting in which students grow morally and intellectually.

2. How One Qualifies for Tenure at Berry College:

Professors have six years to show that they have met standards for achievement in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service to the campus and wider community. They are rated by a panel of their colleagues, their dean, and then by a college-wide committee on tenure and promotion. Successful recommendations go first to the Provost and then to the President. The President presents positive recommendations to the Board of Trustees for approval.

  • Teaching: we assess student evaluations of their instructors, peer evaluations, teaching experiments and successes therein, as well as the variety and difficulty of teaching assignments taken on.
  • Scholarship: we consider published articles and papers, artistic creations and performances, books, book chapters, conference presentations -- any written or presented piece of work that meets the standards of peer review. In this case, "peer review" means review by scholarly authorities at other colleges and universities. Peer review provides external professional validation.
  • Service: major program development, committee work, service to professional organizations, advising, freshman seminars, writing workshops and writing courses, advising student organizations, significant out-of-class activities with students, and civic and service organizations in Rome and Floyd County.

The "Graph": I imagine a graph that is divided into six segments to represent each year of the six-year tenure probationary period. Is there a steady curve upward from year one to year six in all three areas? What record of productivity and accomplishment can one track over six years? This record will help us predict who will remain energetic and engaged over a 30-year career following tenure.

3. Strengths and Weaknesses of the System:

One great weakness of the tenure system is that the larger public does not understand why tenure is important. Improving job performance by lowering one's risk of losing a job is counterintuitive to many people outside academe. It is true that unmotivated and unengaged faculty members can take advantage of the tenure system and avoid risk-taking and hard work. One tends to collect anecdotes about such people while ignoring the 99% who make the system function as it should.

At Berry, we work hard to avoid violations of the spirit of tenure. All courses of all professors are evaluated every semester, as is their work as scholars and members of the community. Promotion from associate to full professor depends upon very good performance, as do raises. It is harder to be a scoundrel now than in days of yore. More on this last point, just below. The great strength of the tenure system is that it actually does encourage intellectual freedom and a feeling of co-ownership among faculty members.

At the end of this paper, I will outline why I support a well-run tenure system.

4. The Future of Tenure:
Tenure should not be considered a guaranteed lifetime contract. Colleges and universities now validate tenure at appropriate intervals to determine if the faculty member continues to meet the standards of the institution. One can be dismissed "for cause," and a significant cause is failure to meet the standards of the institution. This process must be handled carefully, and is almost as complex as removing a judge or elected official. But the process can be carried out in cases of serious professional neglect or misconduct.
The policy of continuing accountability is the most significant change in the tenure system during the past two decades.

Annual Faculty Evaluations at Berry:

At Berry, we evaluate all faculty members annually. Their performance as teachers, scholars, and community servants is assessed by their dean, who establishes strategies for improvement. One is given time to introduce improvements; if the designated period passes without improvements, one can then be warned about future action. Action for removal of tenured professors is quite rare today nationally, and will be rare in the future. Much more common now are techniques and strategies to assist faculty members to perform their duties properly. On the other hand, if untenured faculty members cannot improve quickly enough during the six-year probationary period, their contracts will not be renewed.

A Regular Cycle of External Reviews of All Departments and Programs:

Moreover, every five years, all departments and programs are subject to external review by teams made up of faculty members from other institutions. The resulting reports are read by the deans, the Provost, and the President. As President, I interview every visiting team just before they leave the campus. These reviews cover the quality of our academic programs and those who are teaching in them.

Accreditation Reviews:

Each decade, the entire college is subject to intense review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; every five years, there is a follow-up review as well. The "reaffirmation" review demands about two years of hard work, and requires elaborate self-scrutiny and analysis. In addition, our teacher preparation is reviewed each decade (with a five-year follow-up) both by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission and NCATE, the national teacher education accreditation board. Our Campbell School of Business is now undergoing accreditation review by the AACSB, the premier national accreditation board for schools of business. Similarly, our music program is evaluated by a national accreditation board. Each of these accreditation boards makes intense demands, and approval is by no means assured. The quality of what we do here is constantly under review.

Other Issues:

We are, in fact, moving to a "mixed economy" in which some faculty members do not hold tenure-track positions. Across the country, there are an increasing number of lecturers and other untenured faculty members on college faculties. The presence of a tenured body of faculty members will help to protect the intellectual freedom of those who do not hold tenured positions. Indeed, the good example of the tenured members should help the lecturers meet the standards of the institution. If they do not meet such standards, one can respond appropriately.

Some campuses will see unions replacing tenure systems. That would be the worst possible solution. "Co-owners" will be transformed into "labor," which is hardly an approach that will encourage intellectual achievement.

Some people who study higher education think that tenure may slowly evolve into a contract system in which professors hold five-year contracts that are renewed annually. If the contract is not renewed, the professor has fair warning and can take four years to find work elsewhere. The rolling five-year contract may be construed as significant enough to protect intellectual freedom. The evolution I describe will be a slow one. One disadvantage of contract systems is that they may require colleges and universities to raise salaries significantly. Tenure systems help colleges hold down salary costs. Moderate salary levels plus very high job security make faculty positions attractive. With lower job security, salaries may have to increase.

My Thoughts on the Issue:

Tenure is an institutional and not just a faculty need. The system allows us to develop and implement change for the long term. We live in culture that frequently says "produce at once for right now." Colleges and universities emphasize continuity as well as change. There is a real need on American campuses for a stable faculty to push programs through their "teenage years," as it were, and to see projects to their conclusions. In order to effect significant change that has a long-term impact, we must recruit and retain a faculty that will persevere. Products and even corporations appear and disappear. Like the Church, colleges and universities are built to last.

Tenure helps colleges like Berry recruit faculty members who may have options elsewhere. If a young faculty member is choosing between Berry and Sewanee, and Sewanee offers an opportunity for tenure and Berry does not, the decision seems a simple one.

Tenure is a spur for a quick start: faculty members must reach a high level of productivity quickly and then remain at that level for six years in order to qualify for tenure. This period of activity builds good habits: at the end of six years, work habits have been established, and one has taken on the ethic of the prevailing campus culture.

For a number of faculty members, tenure means loyalty. With tenure, good faculty members can put down roots at a college. Without tenure, many of the best and brightest -- if not all -- would be motivated to make professional decisions that enhance mobility. There would be incentives to approach teaching and scholarship in ways that are quickly marketable. The advancement of knowledge is not well served by short-term market concerns. In a radical free-market system, faculty energy would be directed off-campus rather than on-campus. The hard work of developing programs and making them work would be left to administrators.

The presence of adequate numbers of tenured faculty members allows the alumni to perceive continuity as well. When graduates return to campus, it is a positive experience for them to interact with their former teachers.

Tenure decisions do not come down to "publish or perish." Publishing scholarship or scientific research that meets the standards set by established scholars at other colleges and universities is a part of the tenure system, but only a part. We seek excellent teachers who are also accomplished scholars and scientists. We want professors who are lifelong learners and explorers of knowledge. We want them to be as motivated at age 60 as they were at age 30. The tenure system helps us reach our goals.

A good tenure system does not run itself. Such systems depend upon the judgement and wisdom of senior faculty members, deans, provosts, and presidents. These academic leaders must assess the evidence that is available to them and make decisions about candidates the president will recommend to the Board of Trustees for tenure. The president has the final decision about whom to recommend to the Board for approval. In most cases, when tenure systems do not work properly, the fault is one of leadership and not of the system itself. When asking "what sort of tenure system do we have," trustees should also ask "what is the quality of academic leadership on this campus?"

The key to the system is to make it function properly. My arguments are in favor of a good tenure system, not a poor one. A good system helps us to advance knowledge. It allows us to appoint, retain, and motivate the best faculty we can assemble to help our students learn. A tenure system that calls for excellent teaching, very good performance in scholarship, and a good record of community service, and is part of a continuing system of evaluation and assessment can enable us to meet our goals as an institution.

In remarks to Parliament many years ago, Winston Churchill remarked that "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." When I look at alternatives now available -- unions, public school contract systems, self-promoting careerism, or perhaps, arrangements that encourage self-censoring conformism -- I much prefer a tenure system.


A Footnote: Free Speech and Academic Freedom:

      Free speech in this country does not include shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nor does free speech allow us to harass someone, or to assault another person's dignity. Free speech on a college campus is also subject to the limitations of effective rhetoric. One can say things to graduate students that one should not say to younger students. Professors can push seniors harder than they can push freshmen. The point of rhetoric is to get one's point across effectively.

      Civility, decorum, collegiality, and a sense of respect should guide discourse on campuses. That said, there are times when professors should not tip-toe around sensitive issues. There is a time to push, and a time to make intellectual demands.


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