Yes, Changes to Tenure are a Big F**King Deal: An Idiot’s Guide to the Tenure Process

kermit the frog
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Finance passed the University of Wisconsin System Omnibus Motion.  I was going to talk about each questionable provision in the bill like the changes to shared governance that would allow administrators to raid fund balances from student organizations (32 and 37), the deletion of the current law that permits the Board to deduct contributions from the salaries of football coaches for a pension (47), or allowing universities to use students’ social security numbers as their student ID numbers (63).

However, even though much has been focused on changes to tenure, it’s unclear to those outside the system (and to some inside) just exactly what that means.  So, to you, dear readers, I offer a breakdown.

First, the changes:

12: Tenure: Approve the Governor’s recommendation to delete the definition of a “tenure appointment” and language establishing the conditions under which the Board of Regents may grant a tenure appointment to a faculty member. Delete current law specifying that a person who has been granted tenure may be dismissed only for just cause and only after due notice and hearing. In addition, delete the definition of “probationary appointment” and provisions limiting the length of such an appointment to seven.

This has been probably one of the most extreme measures in the bill, but also the one most likely misunderstood.

As the Wisconsin State Journal points out, Wisconsin is the only state that has job protections for tenured faculty written into statutes, a primary reason faculty find System campuses a desirable place despite comparatively low salaries. “The GOP motion calls for the Board of Regents to determine whether to have tenure and what it would entail.”  Quickly, System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents swooped in to save the day, claiming “the board would approve a measure to enshrine tenure in Regents policy at a meeting next week — as they’d promised when removing tenure from state law was first floated by Walker in his 2015-17 budget proposal in early February.”  We will see if this promise is, indeed, kept when they meet next week.

However, “Putting tenure in Regents policy carries less weight, especially symbolically, than having the ironclad protection of state law, said Noel Radomski, director of UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. He said the loss of tenure will have immediate impact. ‘If I were other universities, I’d be poaching as many of our top faculty as possible,’ he said, noting that ‘star’ faculty typically have lucrative research grants that travel with them. ‘It’s going to be open season.'”

Here is the thing about tenure.  It’s a dirty word.  When most think of tenure, they think of the one teacher they had in high school who put off retirement to collect a paycheck, or the professor they had who could barely teach, but with the ironclad protection of tenure, was “unfireable.”

Here are some common myths about tenure and how it’s granted.

As the National Association for Education notes, “Faculty members win tenure because their senior colleagues are convinced they can perform with excellence and a great deal of independence. Tenured faculty are, in fact, successful, highly self-motivated people with a great deal of professional pride. Due process is a civilized value; the right measure of job security makes people more productive, not less. To reach the educational standards we all want, we need to have a corps of full-time, experienced faculty in charge of the academic program and committed to the institution. To keep up quality for the next generation of students, we need to keep up opportunities for the new generation of faculty. In the final analysis, who is in the best position to put academic standards first and shelve other considerations? College administrators? Elected officials? Professors are not perfect but they are educators. If it’s solid education we want, tenure matters.”

Myth:
Tenure is a lifetime job guarantee.
Fact:
Tenure-track professors routinely get observed by faculty in their departments every semester, sometimes by two different faculty members. Those observations are intended to maintain integrity and make sure the teaching that occurs in their classroom is up to par. If it is not, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by student evaluations in all classes, in all semesters, so that if there is a negative pattern, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by the amount of community and professional service in terms of how they positively add to their communities. If they lack in this area, the university has the right to not retain them.

Faculty members are assessed by their professional development in the form of conferences, publications, and other forms of research. As a tenure-track faculty member, even at a non-research 1 institution, it is assumed you will publish, regularly, in peer-reviewed academic journals (most with a 3% acceptance rate if they’re a national journal in that field) as well as conducting research in other areas and in other mediums. If that faculty member fails to publish, or publish in credible arenas, the university has the right to not retain them.

In addition, faculty members are still assessed in the form of post tenure reviews. In fact, most universities have instituted more stringent post-tenure review processes, generally about every five years.


What does that mean? Tenure does not mean one is immune from termination. Having tenure does not protect one from being laid off especially if they don’t continue to excel in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service.  Tenured professors get fired every year for legitimate reasons. Others get fired for illegitimate reasons.  But the idea that it is “impossible” to fire a tenured faculty member is just patently false.

So, why do we have tenure, when did it originate, and what was its original purpose?

In David R. Loope’s “Academic Tenure: Its Origins, Administration, and Importance. South Carolina Commission on Higher Education Staff Position Paper” he states “By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, colleges and universities in Germany and in the United States were striving toward a comprehensive establishment of academic tenure, or the contractual agreement with faculty of continuous employment (Bok 1982, p.5). In the wake ofVanderbilts,Rockefellers, andStanfords who forged new universities with their amassed wealth, an empowered faculty, who were themselves now making important contributions tothe industrialization of western society, needed a shield toensurethe integrity of their teaching and research. American faculty increasingly saw tenure as theultimate guarantor of free speech in the classroom and in the laboratory and as a practice that would ‘prevent the university administration from establishing officialortthodoxies that it might use, directly or indirectly, to inhibit professors from expressing unsettling ideas and unpopular opinions’ (Bok 1982, p. 5). With these ideas in mind, a group of influential faculty members, led by professors from the Johns Hopkins University, formed the American Association of University of Professors (Metzger 1973, p. 135).  By 1915, theAAUP, as flue association became known, had developed a codified set of regulationsregardingthe attainment of tenure and its application on campuses throughout the United States (pp. 151-52). Between 1930 and 1950, with major research institutions and selective liberal arts colleges leading the way, tenure became pervasive throughout the American higher education system (pp. 155-57) and became the benchmark against which most scholars measured their professional success in the academy.”

The “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” states that “Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

In 2015, do we still need tenure as a way of preserving academic freedom and firing without just cause?  I would argue yes.  Take the case of Dr. Steven Salaita.  Or Professor John McAdams.  Or the cases at the University of Oklahoma, Felician College and the University of Southern Maine.

But even if I haven’t convinced you that these job protections are necessary, that they make universities stronger, let me provide you with personal experience.  As an untenured faculty member since 2009, I’ve held my tongue during committee meetings or departmental meetings for fear of angering the wrong person sitting on my evaluation committee who determines, year after year, whether or not I can be retained.  As an untenured faculty member, I can be and have been exploited by senior faculty and filed no report for fear of termination or retribution.  As an untenured faculty member, I would be less likely to speak publicly regarding these budget cuts and policy changes.  As an untenured faculty member, I wouldn’t be blogging right now.  Tenure isn’t just about job security–it’s about having a voice.

Without tenure, professors everywhere would have little incentive to do controversial work or research, question their own administrators, or file grievances against those who are mistreating them either in terms of harassment or gross misconduct.  I highly doubt Professor Richard Grusin would have called for System President Ray Cross’s resignation had he not had the protection of tenure.

In addition,  if tenure is eliminated or even weakened, who in their right mind will want to work in Wisconsin?  As Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab claimed in a recent Facebook posting, “How does one fight without any rights or protections?? The new provisions make it very easy to close my tiny department and the Lab.”  What she is referring to is the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the nation’s first translational research laboratory aimed at identifying new and effective ways to minimize barriers to college completion so that more students can reach their full potential. As Inside Higher Ed notes, “Goldrick-Rab said she passed up a center directorship at an institution in another state several years ago, fearing that shared governance there wasn’t as strong as it was at Madison. But now she’s actively pursuing opportunities elsewhere, she said. ‘I can’t work in an institution without genuine tenure protections and I will not work in academia without shared governance. We cannot protect students’ interests without it.'”  For those not familiar with Professor Goldrick-Rab, to say she is a “star” is an understatement.  She could work anywhere and is currently a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  To lose her and any of the immensely talented professors in Wisconsin due to this policy change would be criminal.

Lastly, tenure is not just handed down by the tenure fairy.  It is *earned.*  I cannot emphasize that enough.  As Chuck Rybak, Associate Professor of English and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay states, “Let me put this,  another way, and again, forgive me for the personal tone and reference: tenure is not a perk for me. I did not erroneously stumble into tenure. It was not ‘awarded.’ I earned it. Twice. But more importantly, it is a symbol of my work, skill, and accomplishment. In my professional life, tenure is a source of pride not because I get to sleep on a state yacht, but because it signifies nearly two decades of my life: the study, training, job searches, students and their triumphs, individual and book publications, teaching awards, community work, institutional work, etc. Twenty years of my life and dedication, wiped away with a grudge and a brushstroke. I’m demoralized and, like many of us, wondering, ‘What was all the work for?’ In short, the only people who have done their jobs, who lived up to the promise of the UW, are faculty and staff. This is how we are rewarded. President Cross has said he and the Regents will ‘reinstitute’ tenure. Maybe in name, but not in any form that fulfills the promise and commitments made to us upon being hired (see item #39 in the bill). This is betrayal and it hurts. It has taken its toll on me, my mental health, my ability to focus on my job, my relationships. Have I failed in some way? President Cross, Robin Vos, Alberta Darling, I sincerely ask, where did I go wrong?”

Another faculty member, Mark Karau, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan stated, “The process to get to tenure is so ridiculously onerous that I feel quite confident in saying that most people who would abuse that privilege will never earn it in the first place. First of all, you have to be willing to spend roughly a decade of your life in graduate school, which is NOT remotely like undergrad. Those who think grad school is just hiding in school for more parties and drinking have NO idea what they are talking about. A doctoral program in particular is an extremely rigorous and difficult journey. There is a reason that the vast majority of those who start such a program never finish it. Then, if you are one of the lucky few who land a tenure track job you are in for another six to seven years of extremely difficult work where you have to, in effect, justify your existence to your department every year by compiling massive amounts of documentation demonstrating your skill in the classroom, your development as a scholar etc. At any point along that spectrum you can simply be let go. All tenure really means is that you no longer have to do that. You are still evaluated on a regular basis, or should be if your school is functioning properly, and can absolutely be removed for negligence or failure. But most people who have successfully navigated that nearly 20 year journey are the kind of people who don’t the need the fear of job loss to do their job well. In fact I will go so far as to say that if you actually do end up having to fire someone who has earned tenure it was your institution that failed. That person most likely should never have earned tenure in the first place.”

So, to be clear, when you see faculty freaking out about the elimination and/or weakening of tenure, please understand we have very good reasons.  You don’t just get tenure by existing for 6-7 years on a campus.  As my partner can attest, I am much happier to live with now that I have tenure, and I worked extremely hard to earn it.  I feel free to speak out against injustices happening in my state or on my campus without fear of losing my job.  I can speak on behalf of untenured colleagues, students, and staff who don’t have those same protections.  Since 2011 and the passage of Act 10, we have seen colleagues resigning from UW institutions at astounding rates.  To say we are hemorrhaging faculty and staff would be an understatement.  My colleague keeps a list of all the faculty and staff who work on our campus on the back of her door.  At the end of the year, she puts an X through the pictures of each who have resigned or retired far before their time.  The list grows every year.  And with these policy changes, that list will grow exponentially.  Vacancies won’t be filled and we will be scrambling to find anyone to teach and work in this state.  That is why yes, my friends.  Changes to tenure are a big f**king deal.

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