Among its peer institutions, the University makes largely successful efforts to ensure that its hiring and promotion processes are, if not transparent or particularly streamlined, as equitable as possible. Recent trends in higher education have, however, cast new light on universities’ hiring and tenure practices, which are intrinsically bound together as higher education swells as an industry.
Columbia Professor Mark Taylor ’68 has written extensively about the issue in newspapers and in his book, “The Crisis on Campus: a Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities,” which was the source of abundant controversy upon its release in 2009. In it, Taylor traces the development of several widespread problems in academia back to the widespread adoption of tenure.
“There was a huge boom of students in the ’60s,” Taylor said. “People came out of the war, had kids…. Schools hired a lot of people and tenured a lot of people.”
Taylor noted that when economic turbulence hit in the 1970s, expansion stopped; many universities were maxed out on tenured professors. In some cases, those professors are still teaching.
“Many people in academia don’t retire or don’t retire until they’re 75 or 80,” Taylor said. “Positions became harder to get, tenure became harder to get…. If 80 percent of your faculty are tenured, they’re not going anywhere for a long time.”
Many reject the notion that tenure disincentivizes scholarship, and that tenure, however it is perceived, is not a panacea for the stresses of academic life. Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and Behavior Janice Naegele serves as the director of the Center for Faculty Career Development, an office that assists both junior and senior faculty in everything from pedagogy to career advancement.
“Faculty tend to be less interested in teaching at a place like MIT,” Naegele said. “It’s a very research intensive environment. At Wesleyan, I would say you can’t neglect the research; you need to be a scholar and a good teacher. And it’s really hard to strike a balance.”
Among the current hot-button topics being addressed by both the faculty and administration are teaching evaluations, which play a large role in promotion, making it a heavily student-driven process.
Dean of Social Sciences and Director of Global Initiatives Joyce Jacobsen explained the extent to which course evaluations influence tenure.
“Course evaluations and other forms of student input (letters from students, for instance) play a very crucial role in the tenure and promotion processes,” Jacobsen wrote in an email to The Argus. “If someone is going to come in with tenure, I do pay more attention to the prior course evaluations (which will also be more numerous in general than for a new professor), as they will be important for the tenure process and that is part of the hiring process in these cases is to try to make sure that someone we hire conditional on receiving tenure will actually be able to receive tenure.”
Naegele confirmed that faculty pay close attention to these developments.
“A really big issue on campus right now is teaching evaluations,” she said. “I would say a big role for the CFCD is to help faculty who have teaching evaluations that are lower than they like, to help them really address some of these issues in their teaching.”
Naegele continued that faculty members disagree over how much import they believe these evaluations should carry.
“[It’s] a very contentious issue,” she said. “Ultimately, from a faculty perspective, it does seem that Wesleyan puts a great deal of emphasis on evaluations….The teaching evaluations from the faculty perspective are just one of those things that you feel like you don’t have that much control over. You can be delivering the best course you know how…but your teaching evaluations don’t necessarily reflect [that]. For faculty who teach very challenging courses, the teaching evaluations can be lower.”
Despite the vagaries of the teaching evaluation system, most professors seem to be in agreement that student feedback is a necessary and important part of the promotion process. Roth is one of these believers in heavily weighing student feedback.
“I think from the student perspective what everybody should really understand is that you can’t substitute great scholarship for great teaching,” Roth said. “We really do want people who are adding to knowledge as they communicate.”
Professor of History Richard Elphick echoed Roth’s comment.
“This is not Harvard; this is Wesleyan,” Elphick said. “Professors are supposed to be teacher-scholars, with teaching and scholarship ranked roughly equal….Teaching evaluations are very important, and…everything is always under revision. Faculty of course don’t like teaching evaluations if they don’t get good ones. I think serious efforts are made to ensure that students’ interests are looked after.”
Given the extensive administrative architecture the University has developed for its promotion processes, many faculty express confidence in the system as a whole.
“There are rules to ensure the people who have been only superficial understanding of the case can’t vote,” Elphick said. “This is utterly different than say, Harvard…where these decisions were essentially made by two or three guys in [what is] not literally a smoke-filled room, but what used to be. Here everything is very collegial, very democratic, very strenuous, exhausting.”
Although features such as teaching evaluations hold teachers accountable, other professors see them as immaterial given the permanence of tenure, and suggests that this can have detrimental effects on curricula as a whole.
“People will defend tenure on the basis of academic freedom,” Taylor said. “But I’ve never known one person who is willing to speak out openly after tenure who wasn’t before.”
Taylor spoke to the extent to which tenure limits academic flexibility.
“It really functions as job security,” Taylor said. “The difficulty is that tenure is more permanent than marriage. Marriage, you can get a divorce. And you’re committed not only to a person, but to a field or a subfield for 35 or 40 years. In today’s world that makes no sense. You block positions for new people and you lose all flexibility in terms of adjusting or adapting your curriculum.”
In some cases, incentives that tenure has created have the counter-effect of discouraging the academic openness it was created to foster in the interest of job security. Roth offered an anecdote.
“Before I came back to Wesleyan I was a historian in California, and was sent the dossier of a very respected historian here at Wesleyan,” Roth said. “Apparently I had met him when he was a grad student. I didn’t know him, but I read his stuff and I thought it was great, though I didn’t agree with everything. So I said, ‘Yes, definitely give him tenure. This is great stuff, but…I think he made these errors.’ Knowing what I know now I would never do that, because some people look at that and think, ‘Well he doesn’t think he’s so great.’ For me, it was a sign of respect. I thought he was so great, there’s no way he wouldn’t get tenure.
“It’s very intense, and the bar is set very high, as it should be.”
That high bar affects much more than any one academic’s career. In a market saturated with qualified and productive faculty, promotion at an institution like Wesleyan can have long-lasting consequences for one’s career prospects elsewhere.
“It’s often said that academic politics are petty because the stakes are so small,” Elphick said. “But actually the stakes are rather large for the people involved. In most businesses you can fire someone and they’ll get a job somewhere else. Here, [if] you don’t get tenure it’s hard to get a job somewhere else. You have to explain, you have to go into a job interview and say, ‘I was at Wesleyan but didn’t make it.’ Is Harvard going to hire you then? Not likely.”
The financial stakes for the University are just as large.
“Full professors are $150,000 a year plus all kinds of benefits, so the better part of $200,000 a year,” Elphick said. “The University has an enormous financial stake in making the right decision.”
Given the double-or-nothing stakes involved in the process, the difficulties that full professors face in navigating their careers seem to have a push down effect on junior faculty, a phenomenon that has become increasingly problematic in recent years.
“Part of the drive for that was that in 1970 the job market dried up,” Elphick said. “And there haven’t been [as many] jobs in the humanities and a lot of social sciences ever since. The year that I looked for a job, in 1972, there were three jobs in modern Western religion in the country, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been ever since.”
While permanent positions are increasingly rare, a growing number of college students nationwide has prompted many universities to compensate by hiring visiting professors, whose contracts are shorter term and do not provide the opportunity for tenure.
“In recent years there’s been a shift away from tenure-track appointments to adjunct appointments,” Taylor said. “And in most cases adjunct appointments are very poorly paid and have no benefits. In some cases they are only being paid $12-15,000 dollars per course.”
Professor of Religion Alex Kaloyanides, who spent a year on the job market while teaching at Wes before recently accepting a tenure-track position at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, confirmed this as a problem for many junior level academics.
“A lot of people do postdocs after they graduate,” Kaloyanides said. “It happens to be more common in the humanities, especially after ’08 with the job market, because it’s a way for people who can’t get jobs to stay in the academic world until something does work out.”
Kaloyanides added that visiting professorship has benefits and drawbacks.
“The visiting professor gig…is nice because you have some security, you get healthcare—it depends on the situation—but at the same time you have to be on the market with a set end date,” she said. “And a lot of the time those positions involve a lot of teaching, especially when you’re first developing your syllabi and learning how to teach, that can take a lot of time….It’s hard because it’s harder to develop your own research and the kinds of things they’re looking for on the job market.”
This pressure is exerted increasingly on those earlier in their academic careers, down to the graduate student level.
“Schools have not adjusted,” Taylor said. “Quoting principles of market, there ought to have been fewer graduate students. But professors have not been honest with students about the dire situation of the job market. Schools need students more than students need the school in many cases. Certainly graduate programs need graduate students not only to teach, but also as teaching…and research assistants.”
Indeed, Taylor sees this institutional entanglement as largely responsible for the ballooning price of higher education at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
“My last year at Wesleyan, tuition and room and board was only $3,200,” Taylor said. “I used to make $1,200 in the summer, so that was a third. I worked at Downy House for my board, and I had a $500 scholarship, which sounds ludicrous. My mom and dad taught, my dad would make $21,000, but I graduated from Wesleyan with no debt. And now you can’t do that….By the time my youngest grandchild is ready for college, four years at Wesleyan or Columbia will be $840,000.”
Although the cost of tenured faculty is far from the sole reason for astronomically priced universities, it no doubt factors into the rapidly rising cost of admission, which is far outpacing the earnings of most students and their families. Universities do not exist without students, and the rising prices of admission combined with the financial burden of tenure have placed increased pressure on colleges in recent years, which has often been met with increased rigidity.
“The only institution more conservative than the Catholic Church is the university,” Taylor said. “It’s very, very difficult to get change. In that sense, having tenure leads to an ossification of the curriculum and of education. From my point of view this is a death spiral because what they are doing is unsustainable….Sweet Briar [College in Virginia] just closed down; that’s been getting a lot of attention. In all honesty I’ve been surprised more haven’t. They’re going to collapse.”
This apocalyptic thinking has become increasingly prevalent on the fringes of academia, as the vicious cycle of hiring and promotion, debt, and inflation become more exacerbated with each generation of students. Despite the criticism he has received, Taylor is not alone in his treatment of these issues. Other prominent scholars such as Noam Chomsky of MIT have published similar treatises in books, journals, and newspapers, all pointing to the problems with an increasingly insolvent university system.
“Liberal arts education is under huge pressure, especially the humanities,” Taylor said. “It may be that economic astringencies will force changes that rational argumentation couldn’t. You already see it happening in some places. They’re closing humanities departments, they’re forcing departments to converge in a sense. We’re going to have to find different ways to do things, but it’s hard when you’re saddled with people who are committed to doing things the way they always done them.”
Indeed, the rallying cry that we are not Harvard rings true for now on appeals to the quality of a small-scale liberal arts education. With regards to students seeking entry into an increasingly uncertain academia, it remains to be heard how long that cry will ring.
“We had a monopoly on the higher education market, and we still for the most part have the best system,” Taylor said. “But nothing’s forever. In the most jeopardy are small liberal arts colleges….The last 25 years have been rough in higher education, but the next 20 are going to be rougher, because there are going to be systemic changes.”
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Richard Elphick is a Professor of Government.