What is the sound of one hand slapping my forhead?

Here’s your Koan for the day:  What if Kevin Carman, Dean of the College of Basic Sciences at Louisiana State University, were made Provost of Brown University, where the current Provost is troubled by the fact that 70% of all tenure candidates win tenure and promotion at Brown and wants to lower it?  (You’ll recall that Dean Carman is the guy who yanked a proffie out of her own course because of a high rate of student failure in her intro class.)  Would he be concerned that 30% of Brown Assistant Professors are “failing?”  Would this create a wormhole of dubious conflicting administrative initiatives?

I like this comment from Dore Levy, a professor of East Asian studies who opposes the Brown initiative to deny tenure to more Assistant Professors.  She explains why many faculty are with her:

They say that Brown is trying to provide them with the sort of research resources that are on the high end of what one could find at a liberal arts college, but then judge them by the standards of a research university. “You want us to be like Harvard? Then give us the Widener Library,” she said.

Levy, whose scholarship is on classical Chinese, said that she has spent her Brown career doing research at the libraries at Yale and Princeton Universities, which are far superior in relevant holdings than Brown’s collections. Brown can’t have it both ways, with resources not matching expectations, she said.

Sing it, sister!  Anyone who has ever visited Brown knows that it prides itself on being the Ivy with the research chops and also the character of a tony SLAC.  (That’s also Dartmouth’s role, sorta, but Hanover’s just a truck stop at the juncture of I-89 and I-91, whereas Providence is a truck stop with both the Amtrak and regional rail to Boston.)  Brown looks the part, and from what I’ve heard, it acts the part.  A friend of mine was offered a job in a humanities department there a few years ago, and told me a story about the disbelief and foot-dragging that met her request for one course release in her first year there because the job required some substantial administrative work with another unit on campus.  The chair of the hiring department responded to this totally normal and even predictable request as though he had never heard of this thing called a “course release” in his native tongue (which was English, BTW.)  “But–this is Brown!  We care about our teaching!”  (She does too–which is why she asked for a course release, so that she would be extra-super-on-top-of-it for the three courses she would teach that year.)  Surprise!  She didn’t take the job. 

For the record, I think this is about right:

Like many professors at Brown, [Professor Arnold Weinstein] also said he resents the idea that the university’s tenure rate is being judged a failure for promoting too many people. “I don’t think we have anything to apologize for,” he said. At Harvard, he said, the expectation is that junior faculty will not be tenured. “We try to hire people for the long haul, and we think the humane model is that you make a careful appointment decision and a careful reappointment decision,” rather than looking for people to reject later, he said.

One way of looking at a low tenure rate, several faculty members said, is as a sign that a university does a poor job of initial hiring or doesn’t worry too much if junior faculty members aren’t the best talent. Is that to be valued? they asked.

“It strikes me that we do a very good job of hiring and mentoring,” said [Professor Susan] Smulyan. To say that there should be a lower tenure rate is “in some ways to say that the faculty doesn’t know what it’s doing when it hires,” she said. “This isn’t like grade distribution. Why should there be failures?”

Several faculty members also said that Brown may do a better job than other research universities on initial hires because of the outcome of a gender bias suit filed in 1974. The suit was by Louise Lamphere, who was denied tenure in anthropology, and the resulting consent decree — in place until 1992 — specified hiring and promotion procedures with more detail than is the case at many institutions. Many said that the consent decree put Brown ahead of the curve in terms of promoting sound hiring practices, assuring lots of rigor and consistency and limiting the influence of “old boy network” hiring.

And, I’m sure that consent decree and its salubrious effects on the tenure process were the products of administrative initiatives back in the 1990s.  Sometimes you just can’t win.  It’s like Eddie Izzard’s description of Italians weathering various conflicting political regimes:  “‘we’re all fascists!’  Alright–Ciao!”  Administrators come and go with their various conflicting initiatives.  Sometimes faculties should just be cool and say “Ciao!” and drive off on our motor-scooters while we wait for another dean or provost to come along.  But, I think the Brown faculty are right to fight back on this one, for sure.

0 thoughts on “What is the sound of one hand slapping my forhead?

  1. The way I look at it is, like you, not the 70% success rate but the 30% failure rate. Rounds these parts of academia, our department considers a failed tenure case a department (and even university-wide) failure — we either failed the prof in giving them the tools and resources to build a good portfolio, or we simply misjudged the person and made a bad hire. And that’s an embarrassment on us. What university that hopes to recruit and retain good faculty wants to be known as a tenure graveyard?


  2. But we’re not rigorous enough if we don’t waste thousands of dollars in hiring resources and dismiss years of work by departments and tenure candidates on the grounds that we can’t be good enough to pick 7/10 candidates worthy of the long haul!

    Why, that would make us like other universities in our peer group and not the ones we aspire to be like! Can’t you just see the complaints up in the administration buildings?

    The initial problem seems to be with establishing Brown in an incompatible peer group. Come on guys, Sesame Street’s been around for ever and we all know the drill: “One of these things is not like the others. . . .”

    I was also struck by this line in the IHE article: “the prevailing sense is that this is about writing that extra book or landing that additional grant”. Oh, yes. Especially when you follow that up with the proposal to require TEN letters for tenure (all about your research because, really, what are these ten outsiders going to know about you besides that). Good golly, Miss Molly!

    But, in the good news column, I’m sure that this would be grounds to award hefty bonuses and commendations to the administrators who see these changes through, dontcha think?


  3. One of the many problems that afflicts us now that our new insect masters have taken over so many administration buildings is that they want to improve us by making us like the other places that they envy. Each good university or SLAC is good in some part because it has developed a strong local culture that supports the things it considers important (of course money and many other factors play vital roles as well–but culture counts). But invaders from outer space don’t get that. They look at Brown and say, gee, here’s a place that with relatively modest money and resources has carved out a special place for itself, as a university with an excellent faculty that also genuinely values and rewards great teaching. That’s what brings Brown all those great undergraduates who might not otherwise want to be in a small corrupt city in Rhode Island. But that’s not enough for them. Naturally, they decide to scrap those values and the system that put Brown where it is and imitate the Colossus of Cambridge–a metamorphosis which, as the faculty quoted point out, they don’t remotely have the resources to create.


  4. Our new dean made a similar proclamation at our ‘introductory’ meeting with hir last spring. I – particularly as an untenured faculty member – was horrified. I simply cannot comprehend how a university could look at the successful promotion of faculty who met clear standards as a “failure” or a “problem”. How is denying tenure to more faculty helpful? Isn’t that the kind of situation that creates arbitrary (and *discriminatory*) practices? (As we saw many months ago in the case of the SUNY Buffalo – was it a dean or a provost? – summarily rejecting certain percentages of candidates, mostly of course women.)

    I completely agree with eduardo, and have always viewed tenure failures as fiascoes for departments, not triumphs. Every once and a while there is a genuine incapacity in a junior faculty member to live up to the rigor of tenure standards, but more often there is a double failure – the failure of the department/university to mentor and some kind of struggle on the part of the faculty member. To me this partly comes back to the idea of mentorship. You either believe (and practice) that untenured faculty are a valuable and genuine part of department life, that you hire people to keep them and therefore try to make their success at your institution possible. Or you don’t, and instead you treat them like dispensable, powerless nothings who probably should always keep their mouths shut and certainly not expect to be treated like “real” people until they achieve the golden tenure certificate.

    Even if one’s rate of tenuring was 90%, couldn’t that just as easily indicate the university doing an extremely successful job of hiring brilliant candidates and retaining them? Considering how competitive the job market is, it’s hard for me to imagine there are a lot of duds out there.


  5. Historiann –

    I am going dive into these links and offer my valuable perspective as a Brown graduate later today. In the meantime, please refrain from lumping us in with Grinnell and Pomona.


  6. I agree with you all–esp. Tony on how administrators sometimes want to take what’s special about an institution and jam it into another mold. As Monocle Man will probably testify, Brown is a rocking place to be an undergrad. I’m envious of that experience–I attended a well-respected but (I think) considerably sleepier SLAC, whereas I think Brown would have challenged me more and kept me on my toes.

    (But, I probably wouldn’t have been admitted! I applied to college in the mid-80s, and Brown was especially hot then because JFK Jr. had gone there.)

    And, seriously: as Janice suggests, who would want to write letters for Brown tenure candidates, knowing that they’ll be one of TEN?? As Perpetua and eduardo note–this is a work speed-up that will not necessarily improve education, and it will put departments in the position of having to fire people (which should in most cases be viewed as a failure on the part of the department and/or institution, not the tenure candidates themselves.)


  7. As some commenters may have noted, one of the issues is who is doing the rejecting. If indeed the tenure rejection rate is increased or increasable by the upper administration, one certainly suspects that it’s not the second book that will lead to tenuring, it’s the additional grant. In short, administrators may tend to look at tenured faculty (read: all faculty) as deadwood when they are not generating a revenue stream.

    Tenure supposedly allows intellectual freedom: including the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry that are not fundable (or not as fundable as others). Meaningful decisions about tenure should be kept at the department or disciplinary level; anything else risks an active encroachment on intellectual freedom.

    But then, so does the selective awarding of faculty lines according to areas perceived to be better at grant funding, as opposed to departmental need.


  8. I think Tom has struck on one of the most pernicious effects of this trend – that is to say, it’s clear that administrators think that departments cannot be trusted to make tenure and promotion decisions, because they are tenuring “too many” people. Thus, it’s clear that the “cuts” would be made at the university-committee or even administrative level. As someone who’s sat on university-wide committees to evaluate summer grant applications, it makes me very afraid to think of such a group having final say over whose work is “significant” and why (let alone administrators!).


  9. I’m afraid Tom and Perpetua are right to be suspicious of the motivations and likely outcomes of such initiatives. (Although, speaking as a tenured person, I’m trying trying TRYING desperately to win some funding! Really! I’m not writing an un-fundable book by design.)


  10. I’m not sure Brown fits into the category of SLAC/LACs I’m thinking about, but it seems to on first look.

    The category of SLAC/LAcs I’m thinking about have the following characteristics:

    1) High tuition ($30,000 +)
    2) Smallish classes (average under 30)
    3) Marketing to students (parents) as a college that takes teaching seriously.
    4) 3/3 or 4/4 loads without a TA/tutor etc..
    5) High research expectations, by administrators and faculty with power.
    6) Lack of research facilities, funding etc.. to support R-1 level research
    7) Low value on teaching, both in P & T and hiring.

    I’ve seen this combination up close a few times and it’s really ugly and unethical. The students are paying a very high tution to support research that does not benefit them or their education. Faculty are in an impossible situation, because they teach a lot for researchers but are also expected to produce like folks with low loads and TA help to grade.

    Since the faculty need to keep their jobs, and since research is valued, they have no choice but to cheat (and I choose that word intentionally) their students.

    The students graduate having spent at least $120,000 and without the abilities to think and write critically — because their profs weren’t in a position to give adequate feedback.


  11. I can’t add much. I think it is important to change the dialogue so that the focus is on denial of tenure as a failure of hiring, not high standards. (When I was denied tenure, there was a new president who wanted to show that she had high standards. And that meant denying tenure…)


  12. Perhaps we should also note that denying tenure is a denial of a long-term commitment, including a long-term commitment to a comparatively high salary. Denying tenure can allow an administration to minimize costs of salary (which are ongoing) at the expense of some search costs (one-time dollars). If a tenure candidate has gotten regular annual salary increases, the denial of tenure is a possible money-saver, unless starting salaries have gone up significantly over the period in question.

    Finally, more frequent denial of tenure means more frequent searches within a line, meaning more opportunities for it to be possibly down-graded to a non-TT line.


  13. What I found striking in the article is that the administration used an accreditation report to start pushing this program. My uni is currently dealing with accreditation and it is moronic the crap they are having us do. And faculty and admin here all realize it’s crap – but I wonder will our admin come back with something like this? We’ve been battling over changes to our tenure system of late too and this is all very worrisome (and we have a similar R1/SLAC profile to Brown). Crap, crap, crap.


  14. God, this is depressing. I can’t think of anything constructive to say at this point. The commenters are spot on about this. A tenure denial amounts to a failure at the hiring level and the mentoring level.

    I have to go off and write about how the budget cuts are going to affect our department’s assessment plan, gag.


  15. Susan’s comments get back to the conclusion of the post that I highlighted, specifically, the fact that higher rates of tenure were the result of fairer hiring, retention, and promotion practices that came out of a sex bias lawsuit. Susan’s denial of tenure came at a time when there were few women tenured in that department–so the effect wasn’t just a neutral-seeming defense of “high standards,” but rather a standard deployed that looks suspiciously like patriarchal gatekeeping.

    Philosopher P: I think Brown sees itself as offering an Amherst- or Williams-like SLACy education. I taught for one semester at Wellesley College, which had a 2-2 load, and I’m assuming that other tony SLACs have something like that or perhaps a 3-2 load. A 2-2 load without grad students or large lower-division surveys (and I’ve got both) is like a 1-2 or 1-1 load with grad students and large lower-div surveys. People at SLACs can be publishing fiends with only undergrads to teach. But that’s not the case at Brown–in some ways, it sounds like the current admin there wants to make Brown the most prestigious “comprehensive university” in the country, as in “we do it all equally awesomely! Undergraduate education, grad education, AND we all publish like madwomen and men!”

    But, having taught once upon a time at a so-called “comprehensive university,” my sense is that these institutions try to do it all, and do them all pretty badly. I don’t think that’s what Brown really wants to be, if the provost would think about it for fifteen minutes.


  16. I was a grad student at Brown when the Lamphere case was settled (back in the day, people wrote really stupid things down…) and it did make a difference.

    Brown has — at least in history and american civ — small but very good graduate programs; it expects (and has had) top scholars; and it markets itself as taking undergraduate education seriously (which, based on the people I know there, it does). As I read the article, the changes are really an attack on shared governance — at every step moving authority to the administration from the faculty. And it strikes me as science oriented: junior scholars in the humanities and social sciences usually already have their research agenda developed, and it doesn’t take another year.


  17. Historiann,

    Brown was “hot” back then because a guy who didn’t write enough books to win tenure as president at Penn and then saved the New York Public Library from the remainder bin headed over to Providence to spread the alchemy around. I’m not sure if there was a Kennedy component or not.

    But this is to quibble. For admins, it’s all about metrics, and especially all about yield. It’s like driving your u-grad apply/admit ratios down so as to look better in US News, which allows you to get another job at a Bowl Championship Series school. Someday you might even get to run the NCAA. The funny thing is, Harvard and Yale have been claiming for years that they’re trying to move away from the “hire-to-fire” model.

    Up late today, so I just had to skim the thread as a whole.


  18. Whaaaa? V to the G didn’t get tenure at Penn? I thought he first rose through the administrative ranks there, and then went on to the NYPL and Brown. (Wikipedia says he “became the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and the provost in 1978 [at Penn].”


  19. Oh, yeah, sorry, I just used the term “get tenure” in a loose way to mean VG was widely-understood to have been tapped to become president in 1980, and when that didn’t happen he moved on. In a soft-core sort of way it split the Uni for years after into parts that were perceived to be either his supporters or not his supporters, with the former being in the great majority. Plus of course those who came later and had no real stake in the issue except for hearing about it over and over. It didn’t become a real schism or anything, just made it sort of complicated for the person who did become prez. But he unquestionably took the mojo from years of hanging out with the Brooke Astor set in Gotham over to Rhode Island and hotted-up that place good.

    Having now read the linked story, the most alarming thing about it to me is the imputed causal connection between the Brown move and the opinion of that black helicopter new world order agency: “The Accreditors.” Who accredits the accreditors in our little republic? Who appoints, elects, or governs them? What do they do, or in fact–where the heck ARE they, corporeally–when they’re not not-working on our campuses? Around this place “Middle States” is invoked with the mewling reverence and submissiveness that you might have applied to a parent who left your room saying “when I come back here next time, I’d better not see…” [fill in the indiscretion or shortcoming]. If the “Middle States” godhead so much as alludes to anything in its report, the assumption is that it’s a mandamus, not an idea.

    These accrediting agencies are unquestionably the source, or at least the spearpoint, of the “assessment” borg that’s devouring everything in front of it in the academic world. Governance issues at the accreditor/ institution interface is a very much underaddressed issue. Where does it lie in the ancient constitution?


  20. Good point on the assessment borg, Indyanna.

    I’d also like to emphasize Susan’s point, though, on shared governance. I agree that this is the key element here.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this, Historiann.


  21. Yes on the shared governance. But, quite frankly, shared governance only operates at most universities at the pleasure of the administration. Deans, provosts, and presidents can (and do) interfere in departmental tenure and promotion decisions all of the time. Faculty should realize that some pigs are more equal than others in this government.

    Give the guy some credit: the Provost at Brown is firing a warning shot. (Or, maybe he’s trying to build some consensus for his initiative.) Whatever. He could have just started firing people, like the d00dz at Baylor. But they’re smarter than that at Brown.


  22. Cgyeye: 2-2 means 2 classes for 2 semesters; 4-4 means 4 classes for 2 semesters. If there’s a quarter system involved, it’s described (for example) as a 2-2-2.

    (I know it doesn’t make sense since “quarters” are not “thirds,” but whatever.)


  23. Or sometimes, if it’s a quarter system, it will be X classes (say, 5) distributed over Y quarters (say 3, or 4). Defenders of the quarter system, as I understand it, like it because it can be possible to be away from the classroom, or indeed the campus, for six months each year. I wouldn’t know.


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