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Following external review, University defends tenure process

New England Commission of Higher Education criticizes high tenure rate

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Dating back to at least 1998, the New England Commission of Higher Education has criticized the University’s tenure procedures. A 2009 evaluation team report conducted by an external review committee stated that “Brown has historically promoted faculty into the tenured ranks at exceptionally high rates when compared to peer institutions.” A high tenure rate could suggest the University is not rigorous enough when evaluating candidates, said John Bodel, chair of the tenure, promotion and appointments committee at the University. On the other hand, a high tenure rate could also suggest that the University has an effective hiring policy for junior faculty.

The University undergoes the same re-accreditation process every 10 years, The Herald previously reported. In its most recent re-accreditation letter, the external review committee “raised the same concerns as it did 10 years ago,” said President Christina Paxson P’19. This year, the committee encouraged the University to “consider a further evaluation of its tenure promotion process,” according to the evaluation team report.

The external review committee particularly stressed the high cohort tenure rate. This rate is “the percentage of faculty who arrive at Brown in the tenure track as assistant professors … that are ultimately tenured,” said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12. In order to have openings for hiring new faculty, “we have to have a cohort tenure rate of about 65 percent,” McLaughlin said. The most recent cohort had a “74 percent tenure rate,” according to the 2018 evaluation team report.

Despite the committee’s criticism, Paxson doesn’t “put a lot of weight in the numbers.” Rather, she focuses on “whether we are tenuring incredibly strong scholars,” she said.

Kenneth Miller ’70, a professor of biology who joined the University in 1980, remarked that in his department, “we never ever hire anyone at a junior faculty level for whom we don’t have an expectation that they will be able to earn tenure.”

Bodel believes “there’s no inclination of … changing our standards or trying to introduce standards that would artificially increase our number of rejections. We’d like to tenure 100 percent, and have that 100 percent be unquestionably tenurable in a perfect world.”

Carolyn Betensky, a tenured professor at the University of Rhode Island and councilmember of  the American Association of University Professors, works to make tenure as accessible as possible to professors. Betensky said she was surprised by the accreditors’ recommendations. “Brown does not have the reputation of being a place that tenures easily, so far as I can tell from discussions with my peers across the country,” she said.

Betensky noted that given the competitive job market for people with doctoral degrees nationwide, “the idea of making tenure even harder to get seems like a very retro piece of advice — it doesn’t seem in keeping with the times.”

Furthermore, she highlighted the importance of tenure in protecting the academic freedom of professors. “Tenure is supposed to allow faculty to do their job, and to do it fearlessly. Tenure is not a guarantee of employment no matter what. You can be fired even with tenure — you need to do your job, and you need to do it well,” Betensky said.

The tenure system at Brown

Currently, the University utilizes an eight-year tenure track — the “probationary period” — for assistant professors hoping to become tenured associate professors, according to the Handbook of Academic Administration. These assistant professors are appointed for four years, after which they may be reappointed for two years or four years, or their “reappointment may be denied altogether,” according to the handbook. A four-year reappointment “means everything looks good,” a two-year reappointment reflects that the candidate’s department has “concerns,” and “if there are serious concerns that the person is not meeting expectations, then they get a one-year terminal contract,” McLaughlin said.

At the beginning of their fourth year, assistant professors undergo an internal review process to determine whether they will be reappointed. A committee of senior faculty in the candidate’s field evaluates the candidate based on their research, teaching, publications, grants and service to the department, McLaughlin said. Service can include work on departmental or university committees, added William Keach, a professor of English who came to the University in 1986.

Rather than aiming to drive down its tenure rates, the University hopes to “collectively get better, more rigorous at our internal intermediate evaluations,” Bodel said. “It’s in nobody’s advantage — not the University’s, not a department’s, certainly not a candidate’s — to come up for tenure and get denied. It’s psychologically crushing.”

To avoid denying tenure, the University regularly assesses assistant professors, Bodel said. If an assistant professor doesn’t appear to be meeting their department’s standards for a tenure position, and it seems like they may ultimately be denied tenure, the University hopes to persuade them “to leave voluntarily before they face that crisis of being slapped in the face and told no,” Bodel said. In that scenario, “everybody wins,” he added.

Each field within the University has its own standards for assistant professors to meet, Bodel said. For example, scholars in the humanities and social sciences are expected to publish a well-received book and plan for future projects, he said. In economics, having an article published in “certain extremely competitive journals” is “enough to get you tenure,” Bodel said. The sciences can be more challenging to assess, as assistant professors aim to have their name on a vast number of publications, Bodel added.

Generally, another review takes place during “the seventh year of the eight-year probationary period,” according to the handbook. Candidates submit dossiers to TPAC, along with a letter from their department chair. The tenure committee then finds at least eight leading outside scholars in the candidate’s field to write letters evaluating their work, McLaughlin said. The candidate’s department reviews that dossier and votes on whether or not to grant them tenure. If the department recommends tenure, their dossier is sent to TPAC for another recommendation. Then, the recommendation goes to the Provost, the President and the Corporation. “It’s a long process — it takes a year for it to happen,” McLaughlin said.

Peer institutions follow a range of tenure systems, all with varying tenure probationary periods. Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology all generally follow an eight-year tenure track, while Cornell and Princeton follow a six-year track.

Some argue that a longer probationary period ultimately hurts faculty on the tenure track. “The seven-year limit is a necessary safeguard to protect the candidate from prolonged exploitation by his or her institution,” wrote James Andrews, a professor at the University of Iowa, in an article for AAUP. “Extension of the already substantial seven-year maximum probationary period would prolong the period in which faculty receive lower pay, exert less influence and have less job security.”

But Betensky believes a longer probationary period can help faculty during their tenure process. A longer tenure track allows candidates to refine their portfolios and alleviates some of the pressures associated with the many deadlines of the tenure process. “You’re waiting on editors, you’re waiting on peer review, you’re waiting on …  the schedules of editorial boards of journals and academic publishers,” she said.

An eight-year tenure track “is not overly generous, … especially since the standards for tenure at a place like Brown and the standards of scholarship are really high,” Betensky said.   

Tenure process over the years

Following the 2009 NECHE evaluation team report, the University underwent changes to make the process “more rigorous, and to give the administration a little bit more oversight,” McLaughlin said. The University’s 2010-11 Committee on Tenure and Faculty Development convened to consider whether or not the University’s policies and processes were appropriate given “Brown’s status as one of the nation’s leading research universities,” according the University’s 2013 interim report. Miller said the committee’s efforts were “met with a great deal of resistance from the faculty in general.”

“Every department feels like they have their own standards for tenure, and they all think they’re sufficiently rigorous. They don’t want the central administration telling them what to do,” Miller said.

The committee recommended several policy changes to the University’s tenure process, most of which were approved, McLaughlin said. Some of the changes that were implemented include extending the tenure probationary period from seven to eight years, increasing the number of letters written by outside scholars from five to eight and increasing the quantity and frequency of candidate reviews, The Herald previously reported. When the committee made these proposals, “we had huge crowds of faculty coming out to (faculty meetings) and had a lot of very heated debate about these changes,” McLaughlin said. 

But “there had not yet been a significant change in the research level of faculty achieving tenure despite a change in tenure procedures since the time of the last comprehensive review,” according to the 2018 evaluation team report.

Professor of Computer Science Andries van Dam has served on the faculty since 1965 and noted that the University’s “tenure standards are probably a little bit higher than they were 40 to 50 years ago, but they haven’t changed a lot.”

As a member of the last tenure and promotions committee “three provosts ago,” van Dam had access to data indicating that tenure rates at the University were indeed higher than those of peer institutions at the time. “There were various theories about why that was, and there was even some (dispute) about whether” the high rates reflected effective hiring or lenient tenure standards,  van Dam said.

Van Dam argues that though tenure rates may be higher at the University than at competing institutions, the attitude toward tenure at the University is a healthy one. Within the computer science department, van Dam said, eligibility for tenure is not measured relative to other colleagues, but rather is assessed in the context of a faculty member’s individual achievements and external recommendations. “We try to have very high standards for hiring people, with the idea that anybody we hire should be tenurable. It’s strictly up to them to prove our judgement correct,” van Dam said.

Pointing to Harvard’s tenure policies several decades ago, in which assistant professors competed for one or two spots, van Dam added that a cutthroat approach to tenure is ultimately detrimental to the wellbeing of the faculty as a whole. “If the criteria and standards are significantly higher … over time, on average, you will get a higher quality faculty. On the other hand, it may be a faculty that is much more into competition, and there’s less collegiality and too much emphasis on publish or perish,” van Dam said.

Tenure in the future

“It’s important to understand that procedures around tenure really belong to the faculty,” Paxson said. To address the accreditors’ concerns, she will start by having conversations with TPAC and the Faculty Executive Committee. “We have a lot of talking ahead of us to sort out next steps,” she added.

“There’s a lot of interest, and I think some concern because tenure rates are a very crude measure,” said Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Ross Cheit, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee. “You would have a high tenure rate if you were being quite lenient,” but, “you would also have a high tenure rate if you hire really well,” he added.

Cheit believes discussions around tenure rates are “bound to be nerve-wracking to people who aren’t tenured.” The Herald reached out to seven assistant professors on the tenure track, each of whom declined to comment or could not be reached for comment.

Any changes made to the tenure process will have to be “carefully” considered and voted on by the faculty, Cheit said. For now, Cheit is interested in “getting additional information” on faculty’s productivity levels after they are tenured.

McLaughlin believes the changes the University made since the 2009 re-accreditation report “have given us the tools that we need to make sure our process is rigorous.” As a result, the University “is not going to be making any radical changes,” McLaughlin said.

“I believe that neither of the extremes — of the overly competitive, old-style Harvard model, and the overly permissive model — work for a place that wants to be a first-rank research university that also really values teaching,” van Dam said. The lack of a cutthroat process “makes for a better educational experience and a better state of being, of mental health and emotional health, for the faculty themselves.”