Monday, October 31, 2005

On Un-Articulated Standards

Here at Wheaton we did a lot of hiring starting about five years ago, so we have several large "classes" of junior faculty who are going to be coming up for tenure soon. Even though Wheaton has a very good record for tenuring faculty (only two denials in the years I have been here, though that's slightly misleading, since a lot of people don't come up for tenure at all if, after a few years, things look bleak--i.e., your research comes to a screeching halt when you come to Wheaton). Due to this "demographic" fact, there is a lot of discussion going on (mostly sub rosa) about standards.

Most of the junior faculty I've spoken to are very frustrated about the lack of formal, articulated standards. 'I want to know exactly what I am supposed to do,' one said. 'Just come out and tell me: "you need one book, two reviews, teaching evaluations in the range of x-y... whatever it is, just tell me."'

The senior faculty, and in particular the department chairs and the tenure committee, are unwilling to do this. When I started at Wheaton and asked about the research standards for tenure, I was told 'Probably about an article per year or a book, but that can vary.' When I pressed, I was told that 'We don't want to set a formal policy, because then if a very good person comes along who for whatever reason doesn't meet those standards, we'd have to deny tenure when we don't want to."

Now I know that this was meant to be comforting: there was wiggle room, the colleague was saying. Don't worry so much. But that's not what I heard. I heard: "There are no fixed standards, so the committee can find an excuse to deny you tenure no matter what your research or teaching accomplishments are."

I think junior faculty are hearing the same thing. Rather than seeing the lack of clearly articulated standards as a safety valve, they interpret this fuzziness as a very real danger to their tenure. But for the junior faculty this open-endedness generates the feeling of always being on a treadmill. At the time of my tenure I had one book published, one under review (I got my contract two days after my tenure), seven articles, a software program, a grammar book, a couple of reviews and the beginnings of a new journal. I still didn't feel that could be certain that I had done enough. I think most of the junior faculty would prefer to be given a set of clearly articulated standards, as difficult as they might be.

But I am pretty certain that the tenure committee would not create any fixed standards and that the faculty as a whole and Wheaton's AAUP chapter would try to strike down such standards if they were articulated. Many faculty would see such standards as the creation of the administration that would put at risk faculty control of the tenure process (at Wheaton we are possibly unique in having no administrative veto within the tenure committe: there are 7 members of the committee, 5 faculty plus the President and Provost. You need five positive votes to get tenure, so theoretically the faculty can over-rule the administrators. Of course the President and the Board of Trustees have ultimate veto power, but that has, as far as I know, never been used).

The trade-off between flexibility and predictability (and fairness) is difficult to judge, but personally I would favor high but articulated standards rather than the current flexible but fuzzy process. I know for a fact that the members of the tenure committee take their jobs very seriously and that the faculty as a whole take very seriously the task of electing a good tenure committee, and the process could not be more thorough. But it is not objective, and not at all predictable (except that I've predicted every tenure case correctly since I've been at Wheaton), the way it would be if there were clear, articulated standards.

Now the process could never be completely objective, because we have no agreed-upon metrics, and to a certain extent I don't want some kind of seemingly objective but actually still fuzzy metrics to be adopted (i.e., each page in a journal from this list counts as 1.5 pages of the journals from this other list; numeric teaching evaluations divided by departmental average divided by ratio of grade-point-average to college mean; service on committee X equals Y number of points, etc.) Such systems are always gamed, and they very often outlive their usefulness (for instance, supposedly due to its being founded only in the 1970's, the journal Anglo-Saxon England isn't on the Dean's approved list of first-tier journals at certain institutions, even though ASE is obviously the flagship journal for Anglo-Saxon studies).

The current process works if people trust the committee and trust the process. But that very trust is eroded by the paranoia (which is in a sense justified, if only because so much is on the line for junior faculty coming up for tenure) that is generated by un-articulated standards. It is difficult situation that has no obvious solution, which is a bitter pill for my junior colleagues to swallow and this very stress-filled time in their lives.

1 comment:

J said...

If the goal was really just to provide some wiggle-room so as not to deny tenure to a good candidate who falls just shy, it would be easy enough to make that explicit. (Make the criteria include an "Other Factors" and guarantee that it will never be detrimental.) The problem is the faculty want to preserve wiggle-room in the other direction as well. So the risk that junior faculty perceive is genuine, if small.

I believe that the reason it looms so large, psychologically, is that by-and-large academics are extremely risk-averse. That's really the whole reason tenure is such a prize, isn't it?