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Simon Liebling '12: Kertzer's Brown, Inc. legacy

Announcing the end of a 45-year transformation from one of the University's foremost student radicals to a bureaucratic Brown, Inc. acolyte, President Ruth Simmons took the opportunity last week to praise departing Provost David Kertzer '69 P'95 P'98 for what will likely be his last administrative pet project — his unsuccessful attempt to push through unpopular and unneeded tenure reforms over widespread faculty disapproval.

"His recent and courageous efforts to reform and improve the tenure process at Brown will no doubt be one of his most lasting accomplishments," she wrote in an e-mail to the same faculty who worked through the channels of democratic faculty governance to ensure that the proposed reforms would be neither "lasting" nor "accomplishments."

The e-mail itself is indicative of the antagonistic tack the administration has taken in dealing with faculty. The only thing that makes Kertzer's efforts "courageous" is that he has stubbornly foisted them upon a faculty that does not want them. Simmons's unwillingness to take an unbiased position, casting her lot with the provost, is an anti-democratic insult to the principle of autonomous faculty governance that carries strong overtones of the growing "administration knows best" attitude. The same goes for her insistence that the reforms will ultimately be accepted and implemented, an ominous warning that one way or another, the faculty will be overruled.

The only reason that these tenure reforms are on the table at all is the First Commandment of Brown, Inc: "Thou shalt always endeavor to be more like Harvard and Yale." The reform process began only after the committee that reaccredited Brown — chaired, notably, by the president of the University of Pennsylvania — pointed out that Brown's tenure rate was significantly higher than those of our supposed peer institutions, the research universities of the Ivy League.

Faculty members have rightly pointed out that this fact should be read as a success story rather than a cause for soul searching. High tenure rates are proof only that Brown is more judicious in its initial hiring processes and more thorough in its mentoring of junior professors — departments tend not to hire those unworthy of tenure in the first place. At the peer institutions with which Brown compares itself, meanwhile, junior professors join high turnover faculties under the expectation that they will not receive tenure — which explains the gap in tenure rates as a difference of philosophy rather than rigor.

Absent the "everyone else is doing it" argument — Brown, Inc.'s favorite — there is no compelling reason for administrators to be worried about Brown's tenure rate. Kertzer has been wholly unable to articulate any actual negative academic consequences of a high tenure rate. The only concern — as seems to be the case with most things in which Brown, Inc. gets involved — is external perception.

Unsurprisingly, the real purpose of these tenure reforms has nothing to do with academic quality. The administration's first goal, reflected in Simmons's e-mail to faculty, is to seize authority over academic governance from the faculty and consolidate power in University Hall. To that end, one of the reforms would grant administrators the ability to pick the outside reviewers who evaluate tenure candidates — previously the exclusive domain of departments and faculty committees.

The other goal — coming hand-in-hand with Brown, Inc.'s plan to reinvent the university-college as an international research university — is to incentivize research at the expense of teaching. The reforms would double from five to 10 the number of letters required from outside experts in each tenure candidate's field — letters that are invariably based on professors' research reputations, not their teaching acumen. Prominent faculty members have taken to national higher education publications to express their concern that this reform in particular would mark the end of Brown's unique emphasis on undergraduate education. Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein told Inside Higher Ed that "the status of teaching at Brown is in jeopardy."

Kertzer's tenure reforms, then, fit neatly into Brown, Inc.'s vision of the thoughtless emulation of Harvard and Yale, whether or not mimicking makes actual sense for Brown. The faculty's resistance to the reforms is a clear statement of their own alternative vision — one that preserves the university-college and reasserts their uncompromised authority over academics at Brown.

Simmons assured the faculty that they will have input into the search for Kertzer's replacement, which is promising, given that one would hope that the faculty would have a role in selecting their chief academic officer. But if the administration has any respect for faculty governance, it will choose a provost who respects the final democratic authority of the faculty and whose academic philosophy is built on something a little more substantial than competition for competition's sake.

 

Simon Liebling '12 is from New Jersey. He can be reached at simon.liebling@gmail.com




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