Female Science Professor had an interesting post earlier this week about a side-effect of tenure that bugs a lot of people: many faculty who were tenured and promoted under one set of standards are now responsible for applying a more demanding set of standards to today’s tenure and promotion candidates. (I freely confess that I’m one of them–I went up for tenure under the existing standards in my college, and a few years later, those standards were significantly revised and elevated.)
A not-uncommon complaint of tenure-track faculty, particularly during the tenure decision year, is that some of those who are deciding their Fate would not get tenure under today’s rather rigorous system of evaluation. How can the process be fair if people unqualified for tenure today participate in decisions about the tenure of others?
It’s a complicated question because, although the tenure bar has definitely been raised with time, you can’t know whether someone who had too-low-for-tenure-today productivity way back when would rise to the challenge of today’s standards or not.
FSP decides that ultimately this isn’t such a big problem, and I agree. There are jerks everywhere, and having an awesome record of publications and grants is no guarantee of sanity or reason in tenure votes. Fortunately, the reasonable people in most departments outnumber the jerks. In my department, the generation of men hired in the 1960s and early 1970s were hired to teach a heavy load (4-4 or 3-3, since it changed over time)–whereas people hired in my department since the late 1990s have taught a 2-2 load. (Of course the standards for publication were going to go up–I don’t work at Candyland University.) It only seems fair.
Furthermore–the members of the current tenure and promotion committee may or may not have been present when your department’s current tenure standards were developed. But their job is to ensure that tenure and promotion standards are communicated clearly at the point of hire and upon each annual review, and then to apply the standards fairly when a candidate applies for tenure or promotion. As FSP writes,
It’s not possible to deny a vote to all those tenured professors whose scholarly records fall below the current standards for tenure, but it is possible and necessary for everyone voting on someone else’s career fate to think very carefully about what standards are being applied, whether these standards have been clearly and fairly communicated from Day One, whether the candidate has had the time and resources to fix any issues revealed during the 1-3 year reviews, and whether the candidate has met the standards for tenure according to the norms of the discipline, the department, and the university. If these requirements are emphasized and openly discussed by the department leaders with the tenured faculty, perhaps it will be more difficult for the unjustly critical to cast a hypocritical no vote.
There are a lot of problems with tenure–but this isn’t one of them.