It is often said that universities are still businesses despite their nobler aspirations. However true this may be, higher education today operates under a very different set of incentives and principles than any corporation or startup. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a college’s relationship to its employees and customers, the professors and students who are the beating heart of any educational institution.
One defining characteristic of university operations is tenure, the academic recognition granted to full professors after years of service at an academic institution. The title comes with benefits and consequences, and its implementation has been a critical aspect of university politics in the last century.
“Tenure was originally introduced in order to protect academic freedom around the time McCarthy and the Red Scare,” said Mark Taylor ’68, currently the Chair of the Columbia University Religion Department, whose 2009 book, “The Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities,” deals at length with the subject of tenure of History.
Professor Richard Elphick, who has taught at Wesleyan University for almost 40 years, affirmed that the system has been essential for job security even within his career span.
“A lot of people were fired in those days,” Elphick said. “They were just not given tenure. It was much more savage than it is now.”
As institutions of higher education have grown in the last half-century, tenure has come to be seen as a benchmark for academic careers, a form of job security, and occasionally, a source of institutional controversy.
At the University, consideration for tenure often starts before a given professor is even hired. Before beginning their jobs, some candidates are given contracts that offer tenure at the end of a protracted work period at the University, and some, known as visiting faculty, are offered short-term contracts.
“The number of tenure-track searches varies from year to year depending on retirements and departures opening up lines,” wrote Dean of Social Sciences Joyce Jacobsen in an email to The Argus. “The number of visitors also varies from year to year depending on [who] leaves and other situations.”
At the moment, the University does not keep a database of non-confidential personnel statistics on hiring and tenure appointments beyond blog posts and department-specific announcements; Jacobsen, however, affirmed that the Office of Academic Affairs is currently creating such a system. The promotion process in particular can be oblique and secretive, and while this may be necessary to maintain confidentiality, the result is often that faculty information is transmitted through departments and to students through word of mouth, which has led to controversy in the past.
Jacobsen offered a rough estimate of hiring trends.
“I would say that in general we hire more individuals as visitors in a given year than tenure-track faculty,” she said. “The number of promotions also varies from year to year. I think next year there will be about 10 tenure-track hires and about the same number of tenure cases, but those numbers can end up changing at various points as well.”
Tenure as a contractual right persists for a given professor moving between institutions; its administration and the rights it confers are regulated by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, a body that reviews academic standards across institutions. While many prestigious colleges hire high-profile faculty members who are tenured from other institutions, it seems that the University makes an effort to cultivate talent from the ground up.
“Our faculty is promoted from within, and therefore it’s really important to ensure that they’re going to be successful when they come here and that it’s going to be a good experience and that they’re going to want to stay,” said Professor of Government Donald Moon. “[There is] a very reasonable prospect for tenure because of our commitments to promotion from within.”
The AAUP guidelines dictate a standardized procedure for tenure appointment that persists among schools. Taylor, who has taught at Williams College, described the process.
“What most schools do on a regular tenure track line is to have the first contract of either one or three years, which is renewable,” he said. “If the person is renewed after three years, he or she usually gets another three- or four-year contract. In the fall of the fifth or the sixth year…the person will come up for tenure. That entails a review process in which the department presents the case to tenure this person.”
President Michael Roth summarized the promotion process at the Universiy, which is regulated by the Academic Council, a super-departmental body comprised of staff and administrators that oversees the institutional management of the school. It is divided into three boards, two of which oversee the process at various stages.
The Advisory Committee is the primary body in charge of promotion. Composed of elected faculty from various departments on a rotating schedule, it interacts directly with the department and candidate seeking promotion to evaluate their merit.
“There are three categories: teaching, scholarship, and colleagueship,” Roth said, listing the criteria. “If you’re really a great teacher but never do any scholarship and never publish, you won’t get tenure. If you are a really great publisher but a crappy teacher you won’t get tenure. You can’t substitute one for the other.”
Professors who do not receive tenure are not offered another teaching contract at the University.
“It’s either up or out. The department votes, the department brings its vote to Advisory which is made up of people from science[s], social science[s], humanities, [and] arts,” said Roth. “The provost is my representative at those meetings.… The Advisory Committee votes and if they affirm the department, there’s a Review and Appeals Committee that then looks at that to make sure it was done correctly, and then it comes to the President.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry Michael Calter has served on the Advisory Committee several times in past years.
“Advisory was set up so that candidates would be reviewed at a university level by a committee of other faculty, rather than a dean or other administrator,” Calter said.
The Committee used to include three junior faculty as Tenure-Track Representatives, who offer perspective on the process from the other side. One such Representative is Professor of Psychology Mike Robinson.
“The position has the goal of representing the tenure-track faculty and their concerns on the Faculty Executive Committee,” Robinson said. “We regularly consult with the other tenure-track faculty through a diversity of means…. Working with the committee has provided me with the opportunity to see how things work within the University and to see that the University is always open to new ideas and ways to improve things for the faculty as a whole.”
Today, however, the main positions on the Academic Council are reserved for tenured faculty only.
“The rules were changed so that junior faculty no longer served on the committee,” Calter said. “Three out of the nine Advisory members used to be junior faculty. I was in the last class of junior people to serve, and it was a severe workload, not to mention a potential conflict of interest, for a person to be on Advisory before getting tenure.”
Indeed, for junior faculty the process is one of intense preoccupation and high stakes, and it acts as the major professional incentive for faculty seeking jobs at academic institutions.
“It’s hard to feel 100 percent confident about any decision that one makes that has such an influence over someone else’s life,” Calter said. “Some cases are extremely straightforward and sail through all the levels of faculty review and beyond. Other cases have strengths and weaknesses that you have to try to balance against making the right decision for what’s best for the University.
This latter type of case ends up taking much longer to deliberate in Advisory, and the decisions are never unanimous.”
When such problems occur in Advisory, it is the Review and Appeals Board, another body of the Academic Council, that picks up the pieces. Composed of several dozen faculty, drawn at any time from a wider range of departments than Advisory, the board was created in the mid-90s to solve persistent issues with the Advisory structure. Moon has served on the committee several times.
“It’s more like a review board with an occasional appeal,” Moon said. “Grounds for appeal are very limited. Basically a procedural error must have been made by advisory or some place along the line that infected the case.”
However, the Board plays other roles beyond simply critiquing the Advisory Committee.
“If you thought about it in political terms, the fundamental principle of democracy is the idea of accountability,” Moon said. “Publicity is what we rely on to prevent the arbitrary use of power…. Having to come before a nontrivially-sized group and make an argument and explain their reasoning in these cases, it’s a way of helping [Advisory] to do their job properly, because they know they’re going to have to explain it to a fair number of people.”
Professor of Neuroscience Janice Naegele served on the committee during such controversial cases.
“I once served as the head of the Review and Appeals Board during an appeal on a tenure case,” Naegele said. “The department supported a candidate, but the advisory board voted to deny tenure and the case went before the Review and Appeals Board where we heard testimony from all sides.”
President Roth also appealed to the Board in particular as a key factor in maintaining the quality of scholarship for the University’s faculty.
“Appeals [works] to make sure the rights of the individual coming up for tenure are respected, but I think from the student perspective what everybody should really understand is that you can’t substitute great scholarship for great teaching,” Roth said.“If you’re a bad teacher you shouldn’t stay at Wesleyan—you should go to the Ivy League,” Roth joked, adding, “and if you’re [a] really great teacher but you’re not going to advance knowledge, this is not the place either. We really do want people who are adding to knowledge as they communicate.”
Per the Wesleyan Charter, after a case proceeds through Advisory and Review, the final decision lies in the hands of the President and the Board of Trustees, a veto structure that has caused some controversy over the years.
“It is never easy and it is always surprising when decisions of the faculty are overturned by the President or the Board of Trustees,” Calter said. “Legally they have that authority, but it is better if the faculty process produces a result that is so well-considered that there is no way to argue with it.”
According to Professor of History Richard Elphick, such situations are fairly novel at the University.
“The last president, Doug Bennet, regarded his job as to rubber stamp the faculty process and recommended it to the trustees. He always agreed. The present president has not always agreed,” Elphick said. “Naturally, that’s created a bit of anger. But he’s within his rights; it’s quite clear within the constitution that the president has the right to listen to what the various faculty bodies recommend and then make his own decision.”
Despite the controversy, faculty in general expressed both acceptance and confidence in the dynamics that presidential oversight imparts on the hiring process.
“Ultimately the president has veto power and can, in rare instances, reverse decisions,” Naegele said. “Not all presidents do that, but [Roth] is himself a teacher, and he reserves the right to [veto].He frequently writes and thinks about what’s unique about the kind of education that’s provided at liberal arts colleges. So he’s led, along with [Vice President for Academic Affairs] Ruth Striegel Weissman and academic deans…a push to really think in a mindful way [about] how are we teaching, what are we doing the classroom.”
Roth himself seems to regard his veto as being reserved for genuinely exceptional cases, and his uses of the power, though unorthodox in the context of the University, have been used rarely during his term.
“Almost always the President says, ‘Job well done,’” Roth said. “Then I bring it to the board and the board always, unless they want the president to leave, says, ‘We take your recommendation’….But there’ve been a couple cases where I had concerns.”
Despite its rigorous process, the politics of tenure weigh heavily in university politics.
“Protocols for fairness don’t guarantee happiness,” Elphick said. “That’s the main lesson to be learned.”