Tenure Secure at Tulane

Tenure Secure at Tulane

November 18, 1999

Bill Sasser

Tenure at Tulane is not threatened, Provost Martha Gilliland told an attentive audience of faculty members at an open seminar held on March 11. Her comments were included in a presentation introducing to campus Harvard researcher Richard Chait, the principal investigator in a study that is analyzing the methods different universities use to review faculty performance and how it is rewarded. Tulane University is one of seven universities included in the study, which is funded by the Innovations in Faculty Work Life Challenge Grant awarded by Harvard University and funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. Chait will base his study on the work of an ad hoc steering committee of 15 Tulane faculty members, headed by English department chair Geoffrey Harpham. The Faculty Eval-uation and Reward System Committee began meeting in December to discuss relevant issues such as tenure-review procedures, post-tenure review, merit pay, service activities and awards, rewards for teaching and teaching resources. Gilliland told faculty members that Tulanes participation in the project is an effort to improve the current faculty evaluation and reward system, particularly the way in which excellent teaching and interdisciplinary research are rewarded. This study is about how to align your work life better with the strategic plans of the university, said Gilliland. The emphasis is on faculty development, rather than anything punitive. One of the ways we reward faculty is with promotion and tenure. The way this is done is part of the purview of the committee. In her introduction, Gilliland said,  There are a lot of rumors out and about on campus on what this project is and what its about. Rumors have included that its intention was to eliminate tenure at Tulane or to develop a post-tenure review process that is somehow punitive, and that such a move is supported by the board of administrators. None of these rumors have any basis in fact. Neither I nor the president have any interest in eliminating tenure. I have tenure myself, and Im glad to have tenure. About 65 faculty members attended the March seminar held at Goldring/ Woldenberg Hall, including campus representatives of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national professional organization that lobbies against what it views as encroachments on academic freedom. I have fewer concerns now about this study than I did before Chaits presentation, said Linda Carroll, professor of French and Italian and president of the Tulane chapter of AAUP. Our main concern is that the role of faculty governance be observed in making decisions on the issues that were outlined. After the Chait seminar, Harpham met with AAUP members on March 18 to outline the topics his committee is considering and to assure faculty members that faculty governance would play its traditional role in the process. The process is open to anyone whos interested, said Harpham, adding that the committee would probably complete its work by November. Were asking ourselves if the current system of evaluations and rewards best meets the need of the faculty. Were scrutinizing all these policies and asking if this is what we want, and if not how they might be adjusted. In recent years, state legislatures, governing boards, administrators and critics of higher education at universities across the country have questioned the institution of tenure. Gilliland recounted her own experience as vice provost at the University of Arizona when tenure was under fire from the universitys board of trustees. Tenure was ultimately preserved, she said, after a study showed the negative impact that removing tenure would have on the institution. We want to be a reliable source of information on the tenure debate going on nationwide, Chait said. That we please no one consistently, we take as proof that our conclusions are data driven, not dogma driven. He emphasized that his research is focused on how changes in faculty policies help align professors work and teaching with larger institutional goals. We have never advised a university to abandon tenure and switch to a contract system, Chait said. We are not here to influence decisions or outcomes.  Reviewing the public debate over tenure, Chait said that the public often regards the lifetime employment guaranteed by tenure as anachronistic, particularly in light of large white-collar layoffs in other professions. Some faculty-particularly younger professors, women and minorities-also view it as an outmoded process, and administrators sometimes view tenure as a brake on institutional initiatives, he added. On the other hand, Chait noted powerful counter arguments in favor of tenure, including its insurance of selectivity in the profession, protection of academic freedom and the enormous public benefit of long-term research free of political pressures. In addressing concerns about the potential abuse of tenure, Chait has found favorable outcomes for post-tenure review processes for whole departments, undertaken by external auditors. He said he favors this process over post-tenure reviews of individual faculty members. Chaits research is controversial with some in academia because his findings on tenure show a clear trend in universities toward more faculty members working in off-tenure track positions, as adjunct instructors and part-time and visiting professors. The reality is that we have fewer people on tenure track, said Gilliland. It suggests we should look at the employment system for faculty, and people dont want to do that. In a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Chait was asked to predict future trends in faculty hiring. I think the most likely outcome is a continuation of the path were on-which is the use of more and more non-tenure track faculty, Chait said. It is very difficult to generalize, but the safest haven for tenure is at distinguished private research institutions such as Tulane. The most vulnerable are economically fragile private institutions and public universities vulnerable to public referendums. The grant proposal submitted for Tulanes participation in the project is available on the Web at http://www. ~gillilan/projects.htm.

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