Tenure on Trial

By Larry Gordon

It breaks hearts, joyfully jump-starts careers and triggers protests. It evokes jealousy, admiration and befuddlement inother walks of life. It is one of the most diffiult decisions in university life, and also one of the most mysterious.

Academia's granting of, in effect, a job for life is going through hard scrutiny.* The implicit guarantee of permanent employment for valued teachers and researchers can be rescinded only by a dreadful financial crisis on campus; by the death of a department; or in severe cases of incompetence or "professional misconduct,'' say, if a physics professor repeatedly shows up to lectures in a purple Barney costume and serenades his students with Wagnerian operas sung backward. * At Stanford and at campuses across the United States, the process of granting ­ and, of course, denying ­ tenure has drawn lots of attention lately. Two recently disputed cases on The Farm have received much notice from aca-demia and the news media.

In the past year similar controversies about tenure denials rankled such varied schools as Vassar College,
Harvard Law School, Brigham Young University, the University of Wisconsin's Business School, Washington State University, University of North Florida and others.

At the same time, the very concept of tenure is being challenged increasingly at other university campuses and in state legislatures. In a world now thoroughly swept by turbulent market economics, tenure can seem an irreplaceable life preserver for academic freedom, especially for unorthodox thought. Or it can seem an unnecessarily cushy raft on which to doze through a college teaching career.

In part, recent debate about tenure has been fueled by the early '90s corporate downsizings that so traumatized white-collar America.

Parents, students, trustees and legislators have felt battered by the continuing rise in university tuition and wonder why little can be done to cut back on the costs of faculty payroll in the way that private industry trims personnel. They question why professors should be given special protection over anyone else.

"People ask: 'If I can lose my job, why can't you lose yours?' It's not a laudable emotion, but I see it playing out," explains Matthew W. Finkin, a veteran law professor at the University of Illinois and a noted expert on tenure issues.

Another influence is the nightmarish competition for teaching jobs in many disciplines today, amplified by the recent end to any mandatory retirement age for professors. There is such a buyer's market that the new generation of Ph.D.s, with more women and minorities, wonders if it will ever receive a fair shake.

"It's just astonishing. The kind of credentials that would get you tenure 15 years ago would get you an initial probationary appointment now. It is very difficult," says Finkin, who edited the 1996 book The Case for Tenure (ILR Press).

As a result, administrators nationwide say their tenure decisions have been more pressured and painful. More and more, their "nays" are being protested and appealed.

"I think the tenure system, for all its mystery to the outside world, works reasonably well. It assures a judgment at some point about excellence," says Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice, whose job includes the near-final review of all tenure applications on campus.

About 36 percent of new junior faculty first hired at Stanford between 1984 and 1989 were eventually granted tenure, according to campus reports. Some of the other
64 percent left ­ voluntarily or politely pushed ­ during the seven years leading up to the tenure decision. (At Stanford, about 60 percent of the faculty have tenure and another 17 percent are in junior slots that could lead to tenure. The remainder, largely in the medical and engineering schools, are in positions designated as non-tenured.)

While Rice notes that the process is very difficult for everyone involved, she says it ultimately works better than an alternative widely discussed around the nation ­ a system of five-year contract renewals. According to the provost, lower stakes might encourage lower standards.

"The university has to maintain only the very, very best people or we will pretty quickly become a mediocre university," she says.

Stanford philosophy Professor Michael Bratman, who is a former chair of the Faculty Senate and served on the university's important tenure advisory review panel, agrees.

"It's a brutal process. It's hard on the judges and obviously hard on the person being judged. It might be improved at the edges, but I'm not sure I can dream up better alternatives," Bratman says.

People who suggest that tenure makes most professors lazy don't understand the real nature of high-profile research universities, he says. Career-long pressure to achieve comes from peers on campus and around the world. "If you want to be a serious player in your discipline, that brings very stringent demands," Bratman explains.

Through those professional contacts, Stanford recruits established stars from other schools and offers them immediate tenure after vetting. But much more than some of its prestigious competitors like Harvard, Stanford has a strong tradition of hiring newly minted Ph.D.s as assistant professors on a possible tenure track.

For the would-be professors the competition is not so much against each other for available slots but, in reality, between themselves and an unsettling sense that Stanford might find someone better later on.

The first hurdle in the process is an employment renewal at the third or fourth year. While details differ somewhat among disciplines, the candidate's work and classroom record usually will be examined in the seventh year by the department on campus and by 12 to 15 scholars in the same field from other universities who remain anonymous to the candidate. These judges must consider not only the existing body of evidence but also project how the young professor's future seems to stack up against the careers of nationally known figures. Student evaluations of teaching are also in the mix, as well as possible classroom visits by senior faculty.

More attention is being paid to teaching than 10 years ago, university officials say, with allowances for different strengths in lecturing to a big auditorium or coaching at a laboratory. Research, of course, remains more important.

"To be honest, though, nothing can overcome a mediocre or worse teaching record," said John B. Shoven, former dean of Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, who stepped down in September. "We are expected to be superb in one and have to be very good in both."

Then begins a pyramid-like series of decisions, according to Kathryn M. Gillam, senior associate provost for faculty affairs. Sometimes preceded by a committee review, a debate is held among the candidate's entire department of tenured professors, who then formally vote to approve, or not. If the vote is affirmative, the dossier moves up the ladder to the dean of the school, usually with an advisory panel there, too. That is the point at which most rejections occur. Some suggest this is the case because departments may find it hard to turn down colleagues who have become friends. If the dean makes a negative finding, the review usually ends. If it is positive, the file goes on to the provost and then to a university-wide elected advisory board of senior faculty, and finally to the president.

No one claims the process is perfect.

"We're making judgment calls. I think it is an extremely good process but sometimes we make mistakes," Shoven concedes. After being denied tenure at Stanford, some people have gone on to have very distinguished careers elsewhere. On a couple of occasions, Stanford later sought to hire those former rejects, he says. Neither was outraged, but neither accepted.

If successful, the newly tenured faculty member will receive a formal note announcing that he or she is appointed associate professor "without limit of time." If rejected, the options are not many.

Under Stanford rules, the grievance process is not to reargue the merits of a lab experiment, a book project or a teaching award. It must focus instead on some fault or prejudice in the review process itself, including questions of whether the outside evaluators might have been the wrong ones to appreciate the candidate's research.

Again, starting with the school dean, the case can go up the ladder.

A basic problem is that "in many disciplines, there is nothing approaching an agreement on what is the core agenda of the discipline," notes Stanford history Professor David Kennedy, who is chairman of the Faculty Senate's Planning and Policy Board. So tenure decisions may reveal "deep schisms," he says.

It is extremely rare for a grievance to succeed. However, associate anthropology Professor Akhil Gupta (Ph.D. '87) last summer won one. In his first round, Gupta received departmental approval but was rejected by Dean Shoven. That set off protests by his supporters on and off campus. A complicated grievance review led to a reversal by the president's advisory board, and President Gerhard Casper agreed. University officials say the process was not affected by the protests and press coverage.

Gupta, who specializes in post-colonial societies, says he had other job offers but decided to fight for fairness "at great cost emotionally and mentally."

Stanford officials refused to discuss specifics of any case, but some privately note Gupta's review occurred during turmoil between cultural and biological anthropologists on campus and, in fact, in the entire discipline nationwide. Gupta contends that the tenure process punishes scholars whose work "is so innovative that it threatens established work."

A candidate should have more chance to respond to evaluations without learning the identities of the judges, Gupta says. "Why should the process be so mysterious. Why can't it have some transparency and accountability?" he asks.

The other heated case on campus involves assistant history Professor Karen Sawislak, a specialist in American labor history who won departmental approval for tenure and was denied by Dean Shoven. In March, Provost Rice said there were no grounds to reverse the denial. Sawislak, whose case turns around the issue of whether she has been productive enough to merit tenure, aired her grievances before the Advisory Board of the Academic Council
during a closed hearing Aug. 6.

As appeals of tenure rulings are becoming more common nationwide because of the tough job market, the American Association of University Professors increasingly is asked to examine the cases. The faculty organization censured Brigham Young University last year for denying tenure to a woman in the English department who taught feminist theory that violated the Mormon doctrine backed by the school.

Still, Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the AAUP, thinks the tenure system usually is fair.

"We hear very heavily about the flawed cases, the contested ones, but they are in, at most reputable institutions, very distinctly a minority," he says. But he adds that there are colleges where "corruption and favoritism" are rampant. "We will be presented with cases where everybody in a particular department, no matter how gifted, loses out because some old boys in the department will not support anybody with a different point of view," he says.

The AAUP also has been involved in arguing against the cases attacking the overall concept of tenure.

In its creation, tenure was supposed to be the buffer from political and administrative pressure. Such academic freedom benefits society at large with breakthroughs in the sciences and the humanities, notes Stanford historian Kennedy. "Universities are one of the very few institutions in our society where people can think about long-term projects without having to worry about the bottom line next year or even in five years," he says.

An unpleasant chapter in Stanford history played a key role in the history of tenure. In 1900, sociology professor E. A. Ross was forced from Stanford after upsetting university co-founder Jane Stanford with public speeches against Chinese immigration and the supposed sins of corporations. Seven other professors later resigned in protest, and the incident
fueled a national coalition that wrote the so-called Declaration of 1915.

That document was intended to guarantee academic freedom and the concept was refined over the following decades and adopted by most universities by the end of the 1940s. Such crucial protection was repeatedly tested ­ not always in the professor's favor ­ in controversies during
the McCarthy era of the '50s and the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s.

As budgets get tighter, public universities in particular are under pressure to operate more like businesses, says
Patricia J. Gumport, associate professor of education at Stanford and executive director of the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement. So the rigid nature of a tenured faculty payroll is challenged more often.

Over the past few years, governing boards or state legislatures in Arizona, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota have at least studied abolishing tenure. Those efforts did not go far, although some states are instituting periodic post-tenure reviews to make sure professors are still performing well. At the same time, the number of part-time, non-tenured teachers is rising at public institutions.

Critics allege that tenure makes it difficult to fire incompetent teachers and to introduce innovative courses. Tenure, they add, creates a two-tier system of privileged teachers and an ever-anxious army of part-timers and adjuncts. They also contend that tenure protects mainly older white men and is a system that makes it difficult for women, minorities and younger academics to get a foothold on the ladder.

A federal survey of college and university professors found that women are increasing their numbers among tenured faculty but still composed only about a quarter of all tenured spots around the country in 1993.

Richard Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard and consultant on tenure reform to the University of Minnesota, has said it is healthy to scrutinize the policy. Tenure has taken on the "flavor of catechism. To raise policy questions is to challenge scripture," he told the
Chronicle of Higher Education.

Chait has been criticized in pro-tenure quarters. Still, he may have more support than first thought. A 1995 survey of 34,000 professors by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that more that 43 percent of all faculty under age 45 believe strongly or somewhat that tenure is an outmoded concept. That is not surprising since there no longer is a mandatory retirement age. Only about 30 percent of faculty over 55 think likewise.

To Professor Finkin in Illinois, support for the abolition of tenure is a sad sign that the public views faculty as expendable workers: "Higher education used to be thought of as a higher good. What's changed is that we now live in a society where the market has become the model against which everything is measured."

That may fly in community colleges, driven by quick response to student and business interest. But, he bemoans, "it is the death of research universities."

Even if tenure keeps "a very few rotten apples" on the payroll, its most important benefit is that professors can pursue research that might take decades to hit results, stresses Richard Shavelson, dean of Stanford's School of Education.

Shavelson doesn't think tenure will ever be dropped wholesale at many universities. But he does think an alternative of 20-year contracts, with higher pay, may be offered as options.

Around the country, schools have introduced alternatives which include performance reviews every five years, with systems of warnings and dismissals if the professor is found below campus standards.

Also being studied is the possibility of tenure becoming contingent on specified student enrollment in departments or on certain student-to-faculty ratios.

Officials fear a crisis could occur if an unforeseen number of senior faculty don't retire until their 80s. Meanwhile, as long as all other highly regarded research universities offer tenure, the consensus on campus is that Stanford will not make any move to drop it anytime soon.

"Since almost no one else in society has it except U.S. Supreme Court justices, I could see examining it, but I don't think [dropping tenure] is a real consideration,'' Stanford's Shoven says. "I can't say we will have tenure in 50 years, but in 10 years it will be here." ST

Larry Gordon is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he covers architecture and historic preservation. His last article for this magazine was a profile of President Gerhard Casper.

Tenure on Trial (Plain text)

Previous | Next

September/October 1998


 President’s Letter

 Campus News
 Boomer Bear Market
 Continuing Studies
 Leland Statue
 Business School
 Campus Briefs

 Science & Medicine News
 No UFOs Yet
 Sun Quakes
 Sci & Med Briefs

 Sports News
 Sears Cup
 Sports Briefs

 Tobias Wolff
 Stanford Physics