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A ticking clock: Brown faculty reflect on tenure’s impact on research, teaching

Professors share impacts of tenure on career development

This article is the second in a series exploring tenure at Brown and in higher education. 

When Associate Professor of English Stuart Burrows first came to the University, the clock was ticking. To meet the minimum requirements established by his department to receive tenure, Burrows knew he needed to write “a book and publish six articles in reputable journals” in the coming years.

“It was very stressful, but at the same time, knowing what I needed to do made it possible,” he said.

Receiving a tenured appointment is one of the most significant moments in an academic’s career. The appointment can confer stability and freedom in a field increasingly shrinking in opportunities. 

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“No other profession has this kind of watershed moment where it's all leading up to that moment, and after that your career is kind of what you make of it,” Burrows explained.

Publish or perish

During tenure deliberations, research and scholarship are weighed heavily and are often evaluated by the number of publications and presentations in an academic’s curriculum vitae.

“You have a certain amount of time, and you have to make the most of that time to pull together this impressive looking CV,” said Lukas Rieppel, an associate professor of history.

For many faculty, tenure allows them to take more risks in their research and work on long-term projects without immediate payoff.

“Although I didn't feel like I was holding back in any particular way before, I definitely feel much more freedom to take risks (and) to do things that I'm not sure are going to work out,” Rieppel added, explaining how securing tenure impacted his career. 

For Jonathan Conant, an associate professor of classics and history, pursuing bigger projects before tenure “can be a bad idea.” 

A longer-term project “doesn’t really bear fruit at the kind of speed that you would need it to,” he explained.

After getting tenure, Conant began to research emotional and psychological history in the early Middle Ages, an area outside of his usual scholarship which required him to study psychological literature.  

“While I think it is somewhat cutting edge, it would have been suicidal to do something like that pre-tenure,” he said. Tenure “lets you indulge your curiosity, even if that doesn't yield the sort of insights that you go into the project hoping that it will.”

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As a private university in Rhode Island, Brown can offer more pronounced tenure benefits, since some state policies can limit academic pursuits in public universities. In recent years, certain fields of study, including sociology and critical race theory, have faced national backlash and politicization from right-wing advocacy groups and state legislatures.  

 “If you were a public university in an unfriendly state, tenure would mean almost nothing,” said Thalia Field, a professor of literary arts.

Tenure and teaching

Tenure can also transform teaching, giving faculty freedom to develop their curricula with less fear of reprisal. Even changes like redesigning existing coursework or adding assignments come with added pressure pre-tenure.

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After getting tenure, Emily Rauscher, a professor of sociology, added a research project to her introductory statistics course with help from the Sheridan Center.

“I’m not sure pre-tenure that I would have had the flexibility to take on that large time investment with a high risk,” she said. “It turned out very well, but pre-tenure there’s a higher stress with that type of change.”

Conant crafted what he called a “ridiculously ambitious” class on the history of violence, with content spanning from the Neolithic era to the 21st century.

“It took me right out of my comfort zone,” he said. “If I had gone into that worried about ‘What are my teaching reviews going to look like on the other end of this, and is that going to set me up for tenure?’ I probably wouldn't have done it.”

“I probably would have played it safe and just continued to develop classes that deal with my geographic and chronological speciality,” he added, noting that tenure “frees up a lot more space to be more original and more creative.”

To serve or not to serve

While service in Brown’s faculty governance is considered when granting tenure, it’s often weighed less than other factors. 

“There's a pretty strong culture here at Brown of not overburdening junior faculty (with service)” so they can prioritize research and teaching, Rieppel explained.

Burrows noted that some service roles can be very “time consuming,” which can be “an unfair burden to put on a junior scholar because their focus shouldn't be there.” 

Faculty members can serve in a wide array of roles, including departmental roles like chair and director of undergraduate or graduate studies. There are also many University-wide faculty committees, some of which — like the Tenure, Promotions and Appointments Committee — are only open to tenured faculty members. 

Faculty committees have the authority to recommend changes to University policy on topics ranging from budgets to academic priorities. In addition to these roles, faculty often mentor and advise students both formally and informally.

“I feel more involved and I am able to take on these service roles, partly because I don't feel this very high anxiety about getting tenure,” Rauscher said.

Faculty “can feel free to take on more service roles, playing a part in Brown’s administration, (or) they could take on more teaching roles like mentoring and advising independent research projects without feeling the very strong pressure to publish at such a high rate,” she added.

“The magical thing about tenure is that what you're seeking to do is contribute to a community on a long term basis in an impactful way,” said Jacinda Townsend, an assistant professor of literary arts who is on the tenure track.

“That is why tenure is important to me,” she added.

Politics, family

Since its inception, tenure has aimed to protect and promote academic freedom and freedom of expression without the threat of corporate or political pressure.

“You don't need to worry as much about political pressures being brought to bear on the University” as a tenured faculty member, Conant said.  

“I do much more policy-relevant research now,” Rauscher said, though she admitted she didn’t know if the shift was conscious. Academic freedom can inspire more “compelling research,” while allowing faculty to voice their thoughts on “potential policy implications,” she said.

Tenure may also help faculty pursue political advocacy, Burrows said, specifically noting faculty support of the students arrested in the fall sit-ins in support of divestment and a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine war.

“It does give you a certain kind of freedom to do that, which is, for me, incredibly valuable,” Burrows explained.

He added that requesting tenure letters of support asks “a lot of people … and you just don’t want anything clouding that,” he said. “You want it to be purely about scholarship and the kind of teacher and thinker you are.”

Townsend noted that the protections tenure confers are especially important to her as a mother. “Especially for someone with younger children, stability is important,” she explained.

Burrows and his wife waited to have children until they secured tenure, he shared. 

“The idea of having a newborn before going through tenure just seemed unimaginable to me,” he said. “It does delay your life in that way to a certain extent.”


Ryan Doherty

Ryan Doherty is a Section Editor covering faculty, higher education and science & research. He is a sophomore concentrating in chemistry and economics who likes to partially complete crosswords in his free time.



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