Archive for the ‘Rank and File’ Category

The goal of being on the tenure track is to receive tenure and there is lots of available advice about how to do that. There is less information available about what happens when tenure is denied. Even when our colleagues are denied tenure, it can be hard to find out the details while respecting the fact that they likely do not want to talk about the situation. For these reasons, recent guest posts at Historiann and a blog started in May by Jennifer Diascro are intriguing (and often frustrating and devastating).

“Hannah” at Historiann recounts her experience with a Dean who seemed to be against her case from the start, despite the support of colleagues, and her successful appeal the next year. Diascro, who had been previously tenured at the University of Kentucky, details her experiences with tenure denial at American University where the messages she received from her colleagues leading up to the tenure decision directly contradicted their recommendation. Hannah’s account is interesting, but Diascro’s is even more illuminating due to her willingness to post many of the documents from her tenure case at AU.

Both stories have (eventual) happy endings, which probably makes their authors more willing to share their experiences but makes them no less illuminating.

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Friday, Tenured Radical featured a guest post by two faculty members of St. Mary’s College of Maryland who discuss a plan to ensure that all employees of the College are paid a living wage and that none of them are paid too much. It would work like this:

Under the St. Mary’s Wages plan, a benchmark salary for the lowest paid employees would be set at 130% of the poverty line for a family of four, currently $29,976. This would ensure that no family of four with one full-time wage earner would need to depend on SNAP (formerly called food stamps). Other salaries would be subject to minimum and maximum pay levels based on multiples of the benchmark salary. For example, the President’s salary would be free to adjust based on market forces anywhere between a minimum of 7.5 times the benchmark (currently $224,820) and a maximum of 10 times the benchmark ($299,760). Assistant Professors would start at no less than 2 times the benchmark ($59,952) and all faculty would be capped at 4 times the benchmark ($119,904).

As inflation raised the benchmark, those numbers would change so that even someone at the maximum salary would be eligible for cost-of-living raises. For faculty, other salary considerations (including merit pay, raises for 5 year reviews) would set pay levels in between the top and bottom caps. The staff union, which has signaled its support for our efforts, would retain the right to bargain on behalf of all union members.

The goal is to create cohesion across the campus community by aligning wages with the College mission. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that more schools haven’t done this. Although St. Mary’s is a public school, it seems like these sorts of plans could work well for small private colleges. Tensions are certainly high at my own institution as administrators look to cut costs. Knowing that everybody’s salaries increase or decrease together might provide some relief.

As hard as it is to imagine these sorts of plans taking hold at colleges and universities in an age of academic false consciousness, there are entire countries where they are being considered. Switzerland, for example, will vote next month on whether to limit CEO salaries to 12 times those of their lowest-paid employees. If you can’t get a job in Switzerland, St. Mary’s College of Maryland may be worth checking out.

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Fabio’s post at Orgtheory today about academic phase transition, in which academics go from being in low demand to being in high demand very quickly, made me think about the experiences of one of my acquaintances from grad school in the publication gauntlet and, to a lesser extent, my own recent experiences.

Quite a few years ago at ASA I was talking to an acquaintance who had graduated and started working at a liberal arts school where he was about to go up for tenure. He was somewhat concerned because the school did not clearly define what the publication expectation was for junior faculty. At the time, he had published one peer reviewed article since starting his job and the official word of the administration was that junior faculty did not need at least two publications but that they did need more than one.

A few years later I was wondering if he had been able to get the necessary (but not required) second publication and checked his profile on the school’s web page. He had published two papers in the year he went up for tenure and two more in the year after receiving tenure. Checking his profile today he has published at least one paper in every year since.

As much as we like to think that we come out of graduate school as fully-formed academics, I suspect that for most people this process is not complete when they receive their Ph.D.s. Personally, it took years before I was able to settle into my current position where I am able to balance teaching and service with getting a bit of research done.  Although my publication productivity has been relatively low up to this point, I hope that I am on the cusp of an academic phase transition of my own.

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While I realize that the article I link to below is ancient in internet years, it fits with the recent theme of tenure reviews.  Also, it is so old that it is likely new for many who, like me, are just starting out in this process.  At any rate, you may be aware of some of the exploits of Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., which included running from boulders and looking for tin cups but did not, whatever anybody tells you, include hiding in a refrigerator during nuclear testing or interacting with extraterrestrials.  At any rate, you may have wondered what happened to him after the things that caused Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to make biographical movies about him.  Sadly, McSweeney’s has uncovered the results of his tenure review and they were not positive.  Here are a few highlights:

Demonstrates suitable experience and expertise in chosen field:

The committee concurred that Dr. Jones does seem to possess a nearly superhuman breadth of linguistic knowledge and an uncanny familiarity with the history and material culture of the occult. However, his understanding and practice of archaeology gave the committee the greatest cause for alarm. Criticisms of Dr. Jones ranged from “possessing a perceptible methodological deficiency” to “practicing archaeology with a complete lack of, disregard for, and colossal ignorance of current methodology, theory, and ethics” to “unabashed grave-robbing.” Given such appraisals, perhaps it isn’t surprising to learn that several Central and South American countries recently assembled to enact legislation aimed at permanently prohibiting his entry.

Demonstrates successful record in undergraduate and graduate teaching:

In his nine years with the department, Dr. Jones has failed to complete even one uninterrupted semester of instruction. In fact, he hasn’t been in attendance for more than four consecutive weeks since he was hired. Departmental records indicate Dr. Jones has taken more sabbaticals, sick time, personal days, conference allotments, and temporary leaves than all the other members of the department combined.

The lone student representative on the committee wished to convey that, besides being an exceptional instructor, a compassionate mentor, and an unparalleled gentleman, Dr. Jones was extraordinarily receptive to the female student body during and after the transition to a coeducational system at the college. However, his timeliness in grading and returning assignments was a concern.

The story is not entirely a sad one, however, as shortly after his dismissal Jones was hired by a top research university, where his notoriety helped attract affluent students who wanted to study with him despite the fact that his teaching load was 0-0.  Years later, faced with pressure from a new university president, it is said that he took on a young British graduate student by the name of Lara Croft (who may or may not have been a Russian spy known as Evelyn Salt).

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Given the emphasis that academics place on tenure, I assume that most colleges and universities have some sort of review for junior faculty before the one that determines whether they will be asked to pack their things and leave.  Some schools review junior faculty in their third year while others, such as my own, review junior faculty in their second and fourth years before the tenure review in their sixth year (assuming that they were not given credit for years at another institution and that they do not stop the tenure clock along the way). Of course, the materials for these reviews are often due during the academic year, so they are more like 1.5, 2.5, or 3.5-year reviews.  Regardless of the time frame, they are intended to give junior faculty members feedback on things they could/should/must improve and, in some cases, provide them with time to start seeking employment elsewhere.

Having recently completed my own two-year review, I have several thoughts.  The first is that I am glad to have these reviews, despite the amount of work involved in preparing materials for them.  I am also glad to have two pre-tenure reviews instead of one.  Given the uncertainty surrounding tenure expectations at any given institution it is nice to get some feedback along the way.  My second thought is that it is hard to believe I have already completed two years as a faculty member.  Beyond the usual realization that time goes so fast, this puts the tenure clock itself in perspective.  I simply have not had much time in the past two years to establish myself as a scholar, though I am making progress in that area.  Even with a slightly lower teaching load it is hard to imagine my output being much higher.  The pre-tenure reviews, as a result, are crucial for letting me know whether this is acceptable for faculty members at my institution.

My final thought on the process is that it was anticlimactic.  While I have never been led to believe I was doing something wrong, I was eager to hear what the committee thought I needed to improve.  Instead of setting some goals for me, though, they basically said “keep up the good work.”  Obviously, I am happy with that message, but it seems that it will be hard to show improvement when it is time for subsequent reviews.  For example, I doubt that it is wise to start a tenure application with the following statement: “Dear Tenure Committee, Because I was so awesome when you hired me and I have not changed my approach to teaching, research, or service, I am still awesome today and, thus, would like to receive tenure so that I may remain awesome at this institution until such time as conceptions of awesomeness have changed, at which point I intend to remain at this institution at least a decade longer to remind new faculty what awesomeness looked like at the turn of the century.”  On the other hand, could tenure really be denied based solely on this type of jackassery?  If anybody wants to try it, let me know how it goes.

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Because the tenure process is nearly as mysterious as the job market, I am glad that my institution provides feedback at multiple points along the way.  Specifically, I have a two-year review, a four-year review, and the tenure review.  Because these reviews occur at the end of the specified years, candidates turn in their materials roughly half a semester early, which results in the recent submission of files for my two-year review.

While I appreciate feedback, the idea of turning in materials for a two-year review is strange to me on multiple levels.  In one way, I feel like I have just started and can’t possibly be nearing the end of my second year.  In another way, I feel like the process of distilling my accomplishments over the past year and a half down to a series of papers, syllabi, evaluations, and bulleted lists borders on homeopathy.  Like homeopathy, I wonder how much effect the original substance can possibly have on the diluted result.  Does a syllabus say much about the experience of creating and teaching a course?

In addition to a three-ring binder, the tenure and promotion committee will receive evaluations of my teaching from four faculty members, each of whom observed roughly one class session of my teaching.  I have similar questions about the effectiveness of these evaluations as a gauge of a student’s classroom experience.  In response to my recent workload, I would tell myself to take it easy if I were on the T&P committee.  It will be interesting to hear their actual responses, which I will surely try to distill down to a blog post.

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