Sunday, February 04, 2007

Post-Tenure Review With Teeth?

A comment on the last post reminded me that I'd been meaning to write about post-tenure review. Our university has it (we are all reviewed every year), but does the review have teeth?

It has teeth, but they are baby teeth.

However, all departments have recently been asked to update and revise their post-tenure review policies and procedures, and so we've been talking about this issue lately: whether/how to add bigger, sharper teeth, but still have a fair system.

In theory, if a tenured faculty member is not performing to the level of 'department norms', the executive committee of the department (several elected faculty + the Chair) meet with the faculty member, discuss the problem, come up with a plan to rectify the problem within a certain time (typically a year), and then reevaluate after the year.

That sounds good, but the tricky part of course is what do you after that year is up if the problem is not solved? There are some senior faculty here who just aren't going to jump-start their careers this year and start getting NSF or other funding, although the 'department norm' and expectation is that we all have grants.

Do you re-balance their responsibilities so that they do more teaching and service and have lower research expectations? That might work for some, but do we want some of our least active faculty to teach more students and play more of a role in decision-making in the department? For the student's sake, some of these people should be teaching fewer students.

A related issue that I am particularly concerned about is that any toothy post-tenure review be fairly applied. I know of a situation in which there is an 'under-performing' female professor and an 'under-performing' male professor, but, although the woman has at least some research activity, an international reputation, and has had one NSF grant in the past decade, the under-performing man (who has none of these) is viewed as being more 'active'. He is very aggressively involved in department politics and he has one student (she has none). Possible explanations for his greater intra-departmental reputation are sexism, ignorance, or both.

Did I mention that he's a full professor and she's a terminal associate professor? I can see why this woman has never been promoted to full professor, but in a just world, this man would not have been promoted either. It's the classic case of a mediocre man making it through a promotion hoop, which is widened just enough for him to squeeze his beard and tweed coat through, but then the door slams shut behind him. In my opinion, which is fortunately shared by some like-minded colleagues, the new post-tenure-review-with-teeth system cannot go after her and not him.

In any case, in the interest of trying to be fair now, do they both get to survive post-tenure review, do they both get chewed up by it, or is there some way to optimize the talents they both have so that they are earning their academic keep (so to speak)? They are both 10-15+ years from likely retirement age, so it's not as if the problem will resolve itself in a couple of years.

If the University offered a better retirement package for faculty, more faculty would retire sooner. I know this is expensive, but I know some senior faculty who would like to retire but don't feel that they can because they are worried about not having sufficient health insurance coverage.


Ms.PhD said...

Good point about retirement. Maybe the YoungScientist job problem would be solved if everyone who wanted to retire felt they could afford to do so. I had the misfortune of working for someone who really wanted to retire to spend time with his young children, but was worried about being able to afford to send them to college without working for another decade. Too bad, since he clearly had stopped enjoying science.

TW Andrews said...

Do you re-balance their responsibilities so that they do more teaching and service and have lower research expectations? That might work for some, but do we want some of our least active faculty to teach more students and play more of a role in decision-making in the department? For the student's sake, some of these people should be teaching fewer students.

This is one of the problems with tenure. It's really predicated on the idea that professors and teachers are a superior sort of person who, when exogenous motivations are removed, will still perform at a high level. It's a testement to the partial truth of this that some (or even many) actually do (not to flatter, but I think this true to a much greater degree in research fields than in the humanities.)

But there are a significant chunk who don't. Or do for a while, and then settle into an early pre-retirement, becoming comfortable muddling through.

Beyond the implications on the average quality of faculty, I also think that tenure is one of the things which helps ossify academic departments, particularly at the upper levels. Without tenure, I think that many more of the female grad students and post-docs would make it into leadership positions at research institutions.

Finally, I think eliminating tenure would help deal with the research/teaching split. FSP has mentioned that it's just not the case that research professors don't teach, as the popular imagination and press would have it, and I'm certainly in no position to disagree.

However, it must be the case that there are professors who are more suited to research than teaching and others who would make fantastic teachers, but sub-par researchers. I have the feeling that without the pressure to seek a tenure-track position (read: research focused), there would be considerably more specialization.

Anyway, that's my $.02 on tenure and tenure review. I don't work in academia, so my thoughts obviously need to be taken with the appropriate salt, and I have stronger feelings about the detrimental effects of tenure on primary and secondary education, but I think it has some negative, unintended concequences at the post-secondary and graduate school level as well.

anon said...

I'm not really sure that I would be up for a system in which you aren't safe after tenure. After all, it's this system that forces you to work hard and achieve during at least the first five years. During that time you are theoretically an excellent researcher and teacher. You should be able to pull your act together if asked by the chair 15 years after the fact. Just being asked to do it by the chair should be embarrassing.

It's just not fair to have too much teeth in the post-tenure review process and will stop some of the best people from going the academic route. Now, some people got tenure by accident, but there is not much that can be done about that now except put together a really good retirement package and make sure your department doesn't make similar mistakes in the future. Also, having a grant sounds a little arbitrary if they are hard to get. Maybe a more fair criterion such as 'research output' measured by number of articles and conferences.

Anyways, tenure is one of the few things that make the academic route attractive. Already the best people are lost to industry in my discipline. There is no reason to build a nicer ivory tower by obtaining all the building materials from the foundation right below it. There has to be another way.

P.S. I do not have tenure and am not a professor.

Doug Natelson said...

You've hit the nail on the head regarding one of the most vexing problems in academia. More broadly than your case: what do you do with tenured, research-inactive folks who are useless or actively harmful in the classroom and on service committees? Do you make them teach more because they're not carrying their research weight? That seems mean to the students. Do you reward their bad citizenship by minimizing their significant committee work? Bleahh. I don't know of many good alternatives.

Anonymous said...

De-lurking on this topic!

Part of the challenge with post-tenure review is the changing responsbilities that come with tenure. I work in a department with a relatively new chair (with limited academic experience) who has adopted a philosophy of limiting the service activities of assistant professors. That results in the senior faculty getting overloaded with various service activities, particularly for the "fulls". Since few of us chose academic careers in order to serve on department/college/university committees (I am excluding graduate committees here--those are a fun part of the job), I see this increase in time spent on service activities as a very real source of frustration that takes time away from the research and teaching activities that I enjoy!

One of the things I have found since I made full (and although I am not in the physical scences, female full professors are as rare as hens teeth in my field) that the more service activities that I am "assigned" the less time and energy that I have to work on teaching and research activities! The issue of fairness is also a problem. Our post-tenure review is initieate in the annual review process (a poor annual review can trigger the process--although the chair can initiate the process whenever he wants). I have already seen some discrepencies in the annual review process that are disturbing. Some of the other senior faculty (male) are concerned that the (very) few women are being judged much more harshly than the men. The implication for a post tenure review with teeth are pretty obvious.

I don't know what the solution is. I understand the need for a post-tenure review process, and actually agree with it to a certain extent.