By Linda Smith
The tenure process is so involved that modern languages department chair and associate German professor Dr. Jacob-Ivan Eidt said that people with Ph.D.s have a hard time understanding it.
The process is a six-year endeavor, and every two years, the professors are analyzed in three areas: teaching, scholarship and service, in descending order of weight in the decision. The two-year review focuses mostly on teaching, because according to chemistry department chair Dr. Bill Hendrickson, two years is not enough time to delve deeply into scholarship. Suggestions are made to the professors on how to improve their teaching, based on student and department chair evaluations. At the four-year review, scholarship and teaching improvements are also studied. At either of these reviews, the professors can lose their jobs if they are not making sufficient progress. The final decision is made at the six-year review.
If tenure is received, an assistant professor is promoted to associate professor, and cannot be terminated from a university unless, according to nea.org, the school can “[present] evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally or that an academic department needs to be closed or the school is in serious financial difficulty.”
Provost and chemistry professor Dr. C.W. Eaker said that while tenure is job security for professors, it takes on a deeper meaning of how they can approach their work.
“I think one of the original ideas is that we want faculty to feel that they should go where truth takes them,” Eaker said. “They do their scholarship, they do their work, and they are not in a position where they have to say or not say a certain thing because we want faculty members to feel like they are scholars, that they have the ability to say what they think the truth is, or what the situation is. We are free as an academic person to say what we think should be said.”
Eidt expanded on that point, saying that tenure allows professors to truly dedicate their energies into any and all projects.
“It allows you a certain degree of freedom and commitment for you to take a long period of time to develop projects that you want to develop, to teach the way you want to teach, to develop curriculum, to really take advantage of that opportunity of investing yourself, and really your entire professional career and life, in a place,” Eidt said. “From the point of view of the university, tenure is desirable because you have these people who are so committed to everything.”
This year, five professors received tenure at the University of Dallas and are now associate professors: Dr. Marti Jewell in the School of Ministry, Stefan Novinski in the drama department, Dr. Susan Rhame in the College of Business, and Dr. Jonathan Culp in the politics department, and while Dr. Ted Whapham’s title was already associate professor, he has just received tenure. Three professors were promoted from associate to full professor, including English professor Dr. Scott Crider, College of Business professor Dr. Sue Conger and history professor and Rome program director Dr. Peter Hatlie. This promotion, according to Hatlie, can mean a number of things, including increased scholarship, aspiring toward an administrative office, or taking on more teaching responsibilities.
“Being promoted to full professor means, at least to me, that a faculty member consolidates his/her years (and sometimes decades) of experience for a more specialized purpose, consistent with past strengths and experience,” Hatlie said in an email. “A full professorship may or can translate into a faculty member having more responsibility and influence in shaping the future of an institution. To me personally, it is also about my making a heightened and more permanent commitment to UD, and UD in turn signaling the same in my regard.”
However, tenure is not without its flaws. All professors interviewed agreed that it is not a perfect system, and that an inherent danger is that professors will receive tenure and stop being productive. While there are some checks, including yearly post-tenure reviews, the incentives of raises, course selection and promotion to full professor, they will remain at the university until they decide to leave or if a serious circumstance comes up. While Hendrickson posited situations hypothetically, as he knows of no one at UD with whom this would be a problem, the problems with the system could potentially arise.
“There’s a problem with tenure at any institution,” Hendrickson said. “Really when you have someone with tenure that is a professor, all they have to do is show up and teach. I don’t know personally of any instance where this has happened. And that goes back to hiring the right people. But it could happen somewhere, and I think it’s happened at other places.”
Another decision in the process that can affect several in the university committee is for someone to not get tenure.
“We try to be as fair as we can, because it is a traumatic thing for the students as well as faculty,” Hendrickson said, speaking as someone who has been on the school’s rank-and-tenure committee five times in the last ten years. “We are trying to make sure that people can be successful. The goal is for them to get tenure, not to deny anyone.”
This serious decision is not a rash one according to Hendrickson. Since teaching is usually well established after six years, scholarship becomes the determining factor of a professor getting tenure. Due to previous confusion with the level of scholarship needed for departments, Hendrickson and other committee members worked with department chairs to set clear scholarship guidelines a few years ago.
“We have tried very hard to have equitable expectations, and those now should be clearly presented to new faculty at the first day on the job,” Hendrickson said. “People have a very good idea before the tenure decision is made if they are going to really meet the criteria.”
Despite the possibility that professors can be denied tenure or that tenure has its share of problems, Crider said that the system is necessary to ensure that the body of faculty remains free from exploitation.
“Tenure and promotion are necessary for the academic health of a college or university,” Crider said in an email. “In fact, the rise of the number of non-ladder positions in academe generally is a sign of the decline of the dignity and authority of the professoriate, and the rise of an exploitable educational workforce.”
Professors who do not receive tenure can appeal their decision, and at times the decision is reversed upon this review. Hatlie pointed out that “students do have a voice in the tenure and promotion process, and that’s a good thing.”
While all professors interviewed conceded that tenure is a fallible system, they said that it is a certain way that academic freedom can be protected for professors.
“The loss of tenure in academe would lead to a swift decline in the quality of the American college and university, for it is the only sure way to protect academic freedom from the assaults of a culture in which the life of learning is too often valued, if at all, for the wrong reasons,” Crider said.
Eidt said that preparing oneself over the six years ingrains practices into one’s job. He recalled that scholarship was one of his biggest focuses while he was on the tenure track.
“Now that it is over, there is no pressure, but I just keep going, and I want to,” Eidt said. “There is the idea that the tenure process trains habitual behavior. In six years, you train yourself in habits of scholarship, habits of concentrating on your teaching, and there’s also the hope and desire that you, out of habit, continue.”