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Sep 28, 2004 10:58 am

Texas Massacre

Today's Chronicle has an interesting article--subscription required--about a tenure controversy at the University of North Texas, which last spring denied 12 tenure to 12 professors, a denial rate of 37.5 percent. With the usual caveats about all the information not yet having made it into the public domain, this is a story with potential national resonance for the academic community.

In October 2003, the college brought in from Syracuse a new provost, Howard C. Johnson, who was charged with improving the research culture at the campus. He was arriving at the institution that had either hired remarkably talented junior faculty or somewhat low tenure standards, since in the previous two years, only 1 of the 58 professors who had applied for tenure had been rejected. This percentage was in line with that of Texas A&M, which in 2003 granted tenure to every junior professor who applied, suggesting that a culture of mediocrity spreads beyond UNT in the Lone Star State.

The administration's concern? The subpar research performance of the denied candidates. Every case profiled by the Chronicle features the professors' advocates commenting on items such as their"innovative" teaching methods and"strong" record of service, but it appears that, in each case, the research record of the denied candidate was the weakest aspect of the candidate's file. The former dean of the UNT business school, for instance, conceded that one of the denied candidates had mediocre outside evaluation letters, but argued that they were good enough to warrant tenure--hardly a ringing endorsement of quality.

When asked to defend his actions, according to the Chronicle, the provost

looked at several criteria. They included what he calls"evidence of sustained inquiry" and the development of a specific area of expertise. He also looked at whether a candidate's research represented a new activity and whether it was"thought-provoking,""interactive," and"transportable," he says. But in doing so, he says, he used the same standards that were in place when he arrived last fall.

The provost's critics, on the other hand, contend that his actions violated an informal campus culture, in which"departments and colleges make the tenure decisions and the provost rubber-stamps them."

The UNT case exposes some of the difficulties in raising standards--particularly with regard to research--at mid-tier schools. For an administration committed to such an agenda, the tenure-review process represents the only opportunity for implementation, since administrators cannot, realistically, control the hiring process at the departmental level. In this sense, Johnson's conception of his position seems appropriate--and his actions have had the intended effect: the dean of education is encouraging professors"to get more grants and publish in better journals," while the College of Arts and Sciences has changed its tenure standards to make the requirements of external-review letters more rigorous.

What, then, of the professors in the middle--those hired under the old, less rigorous, standards, and then denied under the new? Again, it seems to me (based on the information public available) that Johnson's actions were justified. I'm reminded by guidance I received from the longtime former chair of the Brooklyn History Department (and a prestigious scholar) Paula Fichtner, who argued that first-class departments make first-class hires, while second-class departments search out third-class candidates, because their occupants want to surround themselves with colleagues who will not push them to perform harder. And so tenuring candidates with mediocre research credentials makes it more likely that these now-tenured professors will continue the institution's apparent culture of downplaying research in personnel decisions. For Johnson to have waited until those hired under the old regime were tenured, he would have needed to delay his reforms by 3-4 years, while also strengthening the very culture he was brought in to overturn.

There is, however, one aspect of UNT's handling of the case that troubles me. The university has a--bizarre--regulation in which candidates denied promotion receive a written justification of the decision but those denied tenure do not, and so the administration is not providing specific justifications for the denial. I am a great believer in Alan Charles Kors' advice that in the academy,"sunlight is the best disinfectant," and when universities have nothing to hide, they should be entirely open about their decisionmaking process.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 10/3/2004

Derek, Your response makes sense. I have no problem with different institutions mixing different requirements. I suppose several things sharpened my "edge" in this particular discussion.
1. It seemed quite possible that the requirements at North Texas had shifted in the culture if not in the policy statements. And for nearly everyone on tenure track in any institution, it is the advice in the hallway that matters more. The new administrator may have been within his rights technically, to overturn that advice with the letter of the law, but it was pretty cold blooded.

2. The original post simply made the assumption that a high rate of approvals meant mediocrity. The truth of that depends on a number of factors. For example, did some of those departments encourage people who did not "fit" to leave before their final tenure review?

3. The original post did not consider that student loads might have been one reason for the previous informal emphasis on teaching. The prep situation did not sound bad, but preps are identical to load.

4. There was the overall assumption that, all else being even, teaching quality was less important than research quality.

5. And yes, there's a personal edge to this. I've been an adjunct for a number of years. To some extent this has been voluntary. My wife is tenured on a small campus in northwestern Wisconsin. We like it here a lot, and we have this weird desire to live together. As a result I have chosen to make the most of what is in the commuting region.

So for the last several years, I have put nearly all of my efforts into teaching, including expanding my breadth of knowledge, creating two interdiscplimary courses , and doing some of the new Scholarship and Teaching and Learning. It is irritating to read that I am qualitatively inferior because of this path.

Now as it turns out, I may actually get a contract from a publisher for a more traditional work. (Actually, my proposal has been approved, but as my contract hasn't arrived yet I am feeling rather superstitious and don't want to jinx the works by saying any more). Assuming that all goes well, I hope I turn out a book to be proud of. And I would want that added to what I have done.

But I would not want the book to diminish what I have already done by reducing all of that to a prelude that did not matter much.

Derek Charles Catsam - 10/3/2004

Oscar --
Because Williams can demand that their teachers also be productive scholars. They do. And despite how I welcome lake Woebegone comparisons, at places like Williams, the teacehrs simply are on the whole damned good, if not excellent, because the institutional culture can demand it. So when most all of the professors are outstanding in the classroom, but they also are expected to do first-rate research, you don't drop that bar. Professors know going in that the expectations are X and Y, and that if you are absolutely astounding at X, that is expected. You still need Y. Elite places can have such demands. It was a shame that my professor could not get his book out, and he is now doing what i guarantee is a fantastic job at a dcommunity college where his gifts are equally appreciated. that is the other good thing about the elite places: not getting tenure from them is not the same blot on a record as it is elsewhere. You could populate a damned good university demanding researdch and teaching from folks who have not gotten tenure at the shools of the Ivy league and the Little Three.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/1/2004

From Peter Smith (CSU-Monterey Bay), Breaking the Model: From Storied Tradition to Valued Position in The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America, Chapter 3. (Via Tomorrow's Professor list)

If the goal of a college is to be well thought of by other colleges; if the president of a college wants to move up to even more prestigious, high-paying jobs; if the aim is to enroll only the wealthiest, smartest, and most promising students who have already demonstrated their capacity for academic work; this model serves pretty well. It will weed out those not ready, but it won't identify their intelligence and interests and support their learning. It will teach cutthroat competition to faculty and students. But it won't teach teamwork. It will produce a few extraordinary alumni whose faces will decorate future college catalogs and whose names will eventually be mounted on new campus buildings. But their success will be standing on the shoulders of many who failed. If the goal of a college, however, is to serve its community and nation by equipping students and graduates to be socially, economically, and civilly competitive in a global society, this model must be revamped.

So I ask again: who is served by an "improvement" in the direction of increased research requirements for tenure?

Jonathan Dresner - 9/30/2004

The finest teacher I had as an undergraduate, bar none, was denied tenure, on the surface, because of her research. I think now, as I thought then, that the university could have given her tenure, based on what she had done, but chose not to for other reasons. I still believe that decision was poorly made.

This whole discussion is predicated on a fallacy (more strongly represented in KC Johnson than in Derek Catsam, but present nonetheless) that measuring the quality and quantity of research is a straightforward thing. I'm not saying that it's impossible, I'm just saying that I don't assume, for example, that those people denied tenure in Texas actually had worse research records than those granted tenure just because the provost says so.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/30/2004

I'm curious Derek. There was a great teacher who apparently inspired you and, it would seem inspired others. They got rid of him, almost certainly not knowing if the person who replaced him would be as good in the classroom.

What do you understand better that makes you more sympathetic with that decision? Why is the ability to inspire low rated.

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/30/2004

As a Williams alum I can second KC's observations. Research is a priority alongside teaching at Williams. Places such as Williams, Amherst (sucks!), Swarthmore, and others in that small substrata can demand first-rate teaching and research in a way that few places can. I assure you that a huge majority of schools in the US would sell their souls for the research records of the faculties at Wlliams-Amherst-Swarthmore-Wesleyan-Middlebury.
Anecdotally, one of my two favorite professors and one of the best teachers at Williams was denied tenure because his research did not pass muster. I was outraged then, I understand much better now.

Robert KC Johnson - 9/30/2004

Having taught at Williams, I disagree that Williams puts teaching ahead of research in its tenure process: when I was there, untenured faculty were always told that the two were of equal importance. The school rigorously (and, I feel, commendably) evaluates teaching ability--going well beyond simple teaching evaluations, senior members of the department interview five students from untenured colleagues' classes each term, thereby getting a good sense if the junior faculty is doing a good job in the classroom. (I've also never argued that schools can't determine what constitutes good teaching--they can, and they do.)

At the same time, people who were denied tenure when I was there tended to lose out because of weak research records. I don't think anyone at Williams would say, for instance, that good teaching and service would compensate for a mediocre research record.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/29/2004

Which raises the question: what is the mission of UNT? Who is served by shifting the school's priorities in such a dramatic manner?

David Lion Salmanson - 9/29/2004

Two points, given that in most fields, the number of applicants far outweighs the number of jobs available, the chances of UNT making a subpar hire are pretty slim.

Second, schools like Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst etc. that put teaching first in their tenure process consistently produce graduates who excel in their chosen fields, statistically well beyond what the holders of BAs from comparable research institutions produce. This suggests that, contrary to what KC constantly tells us, there is some measurable way of seeking good teachers and that these institutions are doing it and that undergraduates actually do better in the long run when they get good teachers.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/28/2004

Never mind. I can't do it without going beyond what I feel are the boundaries of civil discourse with a colleague, nor without revealing too much of myself and my feelings about my university's condition.

Robert KC Johnson - 9/28/2004

I'm certainly not arguing that good teaching should not be rewarded in the tenure process, and I apologize if I conveyed that impression: I think that good teaching is vital, and that it should be valued equally to good research. The phrase "innovative" teaching methods, however, has generally been used as a cover (at least in the situation at Brooklyn, and in other comparable AAC&U schools with which I'm familiar) to mean not good (or bad) teaching, but teaching according to the watered-down pedagogy championed in current ed-school fads. This approach, as all readers of Cliopatria know, is not my preferred pedagogy.

I am quite explicitly making the assumption--as the article very strongly implies--that until the current provost's arrival, research was given short shrift in the UNT tenure process, and those with mediocre research records were often shuffled through the process through questionable means--i.e., by submitting their scholarship to outside evaluators of questionable quality themselves.

I know that some universities designate themselves as "teaching" schools and argue that teaching should receive priority over research in tenure decisions. I disagree, but if a university wants to take that approach, that's fine. Certainly, however, if a school is going to maintain, as UNT had even before the current provost's arrival, that research is vital for tenure, it should enforce that requirement. A 2/3 load is hardly excessive.

As to the "strong record of service" point. I know of no institution in which service is not a factor in tenure decisions. But for service to receive equal weight to teaching and research--or even, as appears to have been the case in some of these UNT decisions, to have been allowed to trump research--strikes me as grounds for creating an institution in which the pursuit of academic quality is not high on the agenda.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/28/2004

Which is precisely the level at which administration feel they can increase research demands without lowering teaching loads.

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 9/28/2004

Some quick googling around suggests that the teaching load at UNT is 3/3 or 2/3, depending on department.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/28/2004

1. I am trying to be calm, but the implicit assumption that good teachers are a dime a dozen but good researchers are not really irritates me.

2. "innovative" teaching methods and "strong" record of service". Nice phrase KC, your contempt for people who have those priorities just drips through.

3. Finally, did you actually bother to look at what the profs at North Texas do? For example, what is their teaching load? Two preps, three? How many students?

It just might be the case that the previous "informal" standard rewarded teaching over research because that the student loads made it logical that teaching be the number one priority.

Did you even think to check that?

Robert KC Johnson - 9/28/2004

I'm awaiting the rant . . .

Jonathan Dresner - 9/28/2004

... but (because?) I'm not tenured yet, so I'm going to swallow it for a few hours and see what develops.

I'll just point out that ... no, I'm going to wait.