Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tenure tracts

It probably says more about the cast of characters that I call friends, but I read two posts on Facebook concerning tenure:

One is this link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: "Parents: Your Children Need Professors with Tenure."

The other is this link to an article on Insider Higher Ed about the faculty at Brown voting no on changes to tenure that a Provost-appointed committee had developed.

The Chronicle piece offers a spirited defense of the virtues of tenure, culminating with a flourish on academic freedom... "A college professor must be able to voice controversial views and challenge his or her students to question their assumptions and, at the very least, learn to define and defend them more effectively," writes the author, Cary Nelson, an English professor at University of Illinois. "Too many faculty members without tenure do not want to take that risk."

On the one hand, if Fox News is opposed to it, then I feel like I should be in favor... On the other hand, I have to disagree with Nelson: I think the scholar-teachers who are most willing to take chances in their scholarship and teaching are other untenured professors. (In part b/c we are in the process of "proving" ourselves: To our peers, to ourselves for tenure, for posterity...) Being untenured has not stopped me from pursuing research or teaching on topics that can be "uncomfortable" to discuss: Race and racism. Class and social stratification. Birth control and abortion.

I think talk about tenure ought to be more precise: The fact of being "tenured," in and of itself, does not embolden faculty to toss caution to the wind and chase truths that the timid would rather not know! Rather, I imagine that the long term commitment of an institution and its resources - and time - enables individuals to develop: Teachers and scholars do not spring fully formed from graduate school.

I think tenure, if / when it works, might be more like an apprenticeship. Or in today's parlance, an investment that colleges and universities make to further their own interests. Or in still other terms: You grow your own.

Which brings me to the post from Inside Higher Ed on changes proposed in the tenure process at Brown University. In particular, this nugget caught my eye:

The backdrop for the discussion -- and part of the reason many faculty have been dubious of the recommendations -- is that Brown was faulted in a recent accreditation report for having too high a tenure rate (70 percent), because many top research universities have significantly lower rates. Brown faculty members insist that they do a good job of advising those who will not receive tenure to leave before the final vote.

Am I just naive? I was startled to learn that having too high a tenure rate could pose a problem for a college or university. What is the point of hiring "the best and the brightest" if / when the point, apparently, is just to let them go after six years?

What about all the resources and time - and experience and expertise and so on, gained during the years of service - that a faculty member represents? Even in corporations, it is understood that training new workers and grooming them for positions of responsibility is costly, so you protect your investment.

We need to remember that not only do colleges and universities produce students (with and without degrees...), they also produce professors.


The Chronicle piece is written as an appeal to parents: It advises them to look to institutions with tenured faculty.

From where I perch, as a parent and professor, I would be more interested not necessarily in how many faculty have tenure, but how many are tenure-track - and teach undergraduate students, including introductory courses.

This is not to discredit the talents of graduate students or of adjuncts. In fact, having been a graduate student at a major public research university, I would have to question the priorities of an institution that is apparently unwilling to invest in tenure-track faculty.

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