Monday, March 31, 2008

Seven Years Is Enough

The recent blog exchange on tenure has now been picked up by Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as by Professor Zero with her Modest Proposal. I thought perhaps her post might be about hungry adjuncts eating administrators, but no. Instead it's an even more shocking proposal -- tenure at hiring. Although I'm intrigued by such a proposal, I had posted previously an even more modest proposal that I would like to revisit here.

My proposal is simply that institutions adhere to a slightly truncated version of the current AAUP Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The AAUP writes:

The total period of full-time service prior to the acquisition of continuous tenure will not exceed 7 years, including all previous full-time service with the rank of instructor or higher in other institutions of higher learning.
If generally enforced, I believe this one principle would solve many of the current problems with tenure. The constant escalation of tenure requirements and time to tenure is one of the chief complaints of those involved. This makes tenure into a moving target such that no one knows where to aim. It tends to make every tenure case cloudy since one can always imagine that more and better teaching, research and service could have been done, or even point to a case where more and better was actually done thus ratcheting up the standards one more notch. It also produces a tenured faculty whose own records of teaching, research, and service slowly fall behind the current standards such that committees may find themselves turning down junior faculty for tenure whose records are substantially more distinguished than some full professors in the department. This is a situation that can only end in tears -- or law suits.

If institutions restrained themselves and required no more than seven years of full-time work for tenure, these situations would not arise. There is actually a physical limit to how many books and articles can be published, how many courses taught, and how much service can be done in seven years. It may be high, but it is finite. And while some institutions may decide to push closer to this limit while others decide to provide more latitude, and while some might give more weight to teaching and service while others focus more exclusively on research, there is actually an upper limit to the amount of work that will be extracted from junior faculty before being granted tenure.

Thus, if a search committee wishes to hire that very attractive candidate with great teaching evaluations, six articles and a book contract for their position, that would be fine — just notice that the candidate has those very impressive credentials because they have been a Lecturer for five years and a Visiting Assistant Professor for three years already and so should be hired with tenure. If a committee doesn’t want to take that plunge, fine — there are many recent Ph.D.'s they can hire without any teaching experience or publications that can be hired into a tenure track job for the whole seven year probationary time. Or they can find someone in between and let them go up for tenure after two or three years instead. But no one would ever be expected to work for more than seven years, in any combination of jobs, and then be expected to spend yet more probationary time for tenure. Nor is it necessary. It is already abundantly clear what that person can accomplish in seven years. It’s on their vita.

Unfortunately, the AAUP statement then goes on to fatally weaken this otherwise admirable standard by adding that
the probationary period may extend to as much as four years, even if the total full-time service in the profession thereby exceeds seven years
What this exception really means is that faculty are subject to never-ending probationary periods and that there is no upper limit to how high the requirements for tenure can go. For instance, suppose after ten years as a full-time Lecturer, one is then hired into a tenure track position and asked to spend another four years on probation; and then another four years after that if they move on to yet another institution. If after eighteen years of full-time teaching they are then granted tenure, their vita may look substantially more accomplished than any vita of someone who has been working full-time for only seven years. If their vita becomes the new standard for tenure in the department what has really happened is that the probationary period for tenure has been increased from seven years to eighteen, since it is no longer possible for anyone to meet those requirements in only seven years.

Seven years is plenty of time to demonstrate scholarly promise, to show teaching and service excellence, and to document anything else an institution might legitimately want to know about a faculty member. Seven years is enough.


  1. The problem is that if someone smart gets exploited during at least part of those 7 years as an adjunct, and then *has* to be hired with tenure and thus *has* to compete against people who already have better publication records, they will never catch up.

    Or am I missing something? 7 years in one nice job is one thing, and 7 years in high teaching load low library time jobs with cross country moves in between is something else again.

  2. The point is to try to create and protect a realistic standard for tenure that it is possible to meet in 7 years in order to prevent exactly the sort of comparison and competition you mention. If we continue to think of tenure as comparisons between individuals rather than as an institutional standard to be met, we're screwed.

    Remember that the person in question has been hired for this tenure-track job in the first place, so their research must have been up to par to get them this far. What this insures is only that whatever standard their institution has set, it is actually possible for someone to do it within seven years, rather than the current system where in practice the standards often tend to be met by spending 12 years spread over two or three jobs.

  3. OK - I see - but then one has to look at hiring standards too.

    We've short listed three people [details here distorted for discretion], of whom two are ABDs with minimal publications and one has been out for a while and has more. So it's easy: if we get to hire 2, as I hope we will, and one of these is the more advanced one, it's easy: fast track that one to earlier tenure. This would be good for us, too - the more tenured faculty, the better, IMHO.

    What about those people who publish a book and eight articles before writing their dissertation ???

  4. "What about those people who publish a book and eight articles before writing their dissertation ???"-- hmmm. What did you have in mind? Something simple like short sheeting their bed? Or more drastic like pushing them under a bus? Or was this you Cero??

    I don't think it's necessary to make a policy to accommodate every oddity. The person you describe isn't going to have any trouble getting a job -- although they may have trouble finishing their degree. I don't think it would be a particular hardship for them to spend 7 years to tenure after grad school, but they might persuade their school to let them go up early anyway. I actually did learn a few things my first few years teaching full-time that I didn't learn in grad school, so the probationary time sometimes does what it is supposed to do.

    As for hiring standards... I think those should be guided by tenure standards. You look to see how much experience the job candidate has relative to those standards and hire them at the appropriate rank and with the appropriate amount of time served towards tenure.

    I find it very odd when my colleagues discuss someone new they have hired as already having plenty of publications for tenure... and then saying that they won't have any trouble when they come up in 6 years. That's just gross. Without any change in policies at my institution, this person could be allowed to come up for tenure in 2 years. But they will almost certainly keep them scared and anxious for the entire 6 just because they can and because by doing so they believe they are championing something called "high standards."

  5. The Latin American way is to get a fancy old fashioned M.A. with a thesis of the type that now passes for a Ph.D. thesis here. Become professor, teach all levels of undergraduate and beginning graduate courses, publish well. *Then* come on fellowship to the U.S. to do a Ph.D. because that is the only way to get access to the more complete Latin American libraries, which are located in the U.S. This phenom is really common.

  6. Translating degrees and ranks from foreign institutions into U.S. equivalents always takes a little time and effort, but my experience has been that folks who share those disciplines do the conversions reasonably well. The principle I'm defending here would, I think, help in these cases too since full-time experience is full-time experience and should be counted towards rank and tenure, instead of each institution counting only its own probationary years as time served towards tenure.

    But in the situation you describe, I think the aim of these scholars is more to find ways to pursue and fund their research and spend time at some good Latin American libraries, like those in Austin or Pittsburgh. They already tend to be well established scholars in Latin America and aren't necessarily interested in full-time tenured positions in the U.S.

  7. !Es mas complicado que eso! These are the biggest standard raisers in the typical job applicant pool. And yes they do want to stay in the U.S., even if the original idea was not that.

    I'm not talking about visiting scholar types, or megastar types who are hired to tenure, I'm talking about regular people and they are legion!

    My point: I really don't know that, with all of the ins and outs of situations in all fields, etc., etc., saying that one *has* to hire to tenure a person with 7 years experience will necessarily make things fairer, or lower standards, or create opportunity, etc.

    I'd really really really suggest considering it a goal not some sort of absolute. My student who is an instructor wants this past year as an instructor, during which he also published, to count to tenure in his new job. Fair enough. But if, this year, he'd been teaching five courses and been being harrassed and had had a new baby or something, and had not published, should he *have* to have this year count?

  8. I feel like we've fallen into a strange "Who's on first?" conversation...

    Take the case of an instructor who spends a year teaching too much and writing too little -- IF they still land a tenure track job despite this, then what we know is that their overall productivity was good enough to get them hired. Given that, a shorter time to tenure will still be a good thing -- and a standard which compares that instructor only to others who had a similar number of years of full-time experience rather than twice that much, will definitely be a good thing.

    But I would be happy with a very small change to the existing policies where the presumption is that full-time work should count towards tenure (as per existing AAUP policy), rather than the current presumption that every Assistant Professor should do 6 more years of probationary work at the institution that hires them regardless of how many years they have taught.

    Does that sound less troubling?

  9. Yeah - it's because of all these differences in what actually happens in disciplines and lives that I basically say f*** it, give tenure at hiring. I'm soon to go into my third decade at this and if I can't spot or get a tenurable hire by this point, I'll ... eat my hat?

  10. Of course, one problem with 'tenure at hiring' is that if a bunch of useless people would get tenure, then it would be hard to get rid of them. There are reasons people are denied tenure, even if not all of them are good reasons. This does not mean that all the reasons people are denied tenure are bad either.

    Just because someone is smart is not enough to mean that they are a good professor. They may have poor research. They may have bad teaching. They may be nuts! There are many reasons that people are denied tenure. Please keep this in mind.


  11. Very true. Which is why I'm still willing to champion seven years to tenure as a general policy. That is plenty of time for someone to demonstrate they can teach, publish, and that they aren't nuts. And, just as important, it makes sure that tenure doesn't drag on so long that it itself drives some otherwise excellent and sane teachers and scholars nuts in the process.

  12. Or less. I've come back to think this because we're hiring. Even among applicants to my non-top school, all who are not abysmal have serious upper level teaching experience, much more than I had when I was new (they get this in grad school now) good conference presentations, and more than one refereed publication. All they really lack is the perspective one gets from doing service / administrative work while being a professor. I don't think they need the seven years I did. This seems to be the profile of today's new assistant professor.

    [Although I agree, seven years is certainly enough; I actually came up for tenure for the first time in my eighth year because my first two years didn't count; that was why I was so tired by then; if I'd been up for tenure at the time of my fourth year review (in practice my sixth) and gotten it, I'd have streamed ahead in the profession instead of getting bogged down, which I did.]

    Looking at the history of the department of which I speak (I've got two departments) and looking ahead, I can see any good hire they make getting bogged down because of the way they treat junior people - especially junior people who are competent (and therefore, scary).

    This is why I keep coming to the conclusion: seven years, fine if you are a very big institution that doesn't tenure anyone if they aren't somehow *prominent,* and where you don't have to have tenure in order to be treated with some modicum of respect. Otherwise, for everyone's sake the amount of time needs to be shorter.