Tenure and reward at heart of report

March 22, 2000

Mary Ann Travis

English professor and chair Geoffrey Harpham expects the report by the Committee on Faculty Evaluation and Reward Systems to provoke lively discussion, and he welcomes it.

"I hope that there's vigorous debate," says Harpham. "I want this report and these issues thoroughly aired, rather than simply passed on or passed over. And I expect that some parts will incite considerable controversy."

Harpham points to stacks of papers in his office,external publications, internal memos and material downloaded from the Internet,to show the research he and the 12 committee members,representing all the schools and colleges,sifted through and analyzed as they wrote their universitywide report, which addresses bedrock faculty issues such as tenure and rank.

President Scott Cowen and former provost Martha Gilliland commissioned the ad hoc committee report 15 months ago. Harpham presented the final report to Cowen in mid-February. It's on the Tulane Web site here and was on the agenda of the March 13 University Senate meeting. (An update on the senate response appeared in the April 1 Inside Tulane.)

At the heart of the report, Harpham says, is the committee's conviction that Tulane's "best interests" lie in maintaining and furthering its identity as a research university. Tulane is a member of the American Association of Universities, Harpham points out. As a member of this elite group, he says, Tulane must generate policies and procedures that are appropriate to a research university.

He says, "We insist that the university has the right to expect high performance in all three areas,research, teaching and service to the university community. However, we are a Research 1 university."

With the understanding that Tulane's "best future" is tied to its commitment to research, the committee has written new, quite specific, criteria for attaining tenure and the rank of associate professor.

The report states, "Tenure . . . should be reserved for those who[se] . . work has been widely perceived by their peers as outstanding." Among other guidelines, the committee recommends that no fewer than four external reviewers must evaluate the work of tenure-track professors.

Regarding full professors, the report states, "[They] play a critical role in determining the intellectual quality of the university. The rank of professor is reserved for those. . . who have demonstrated continuous intellectual development and leadership with respect to scholarly research."

Harpham says, "You don't get there by just enduring. You get there by accomplishment. A full professor in a research university should mean something. This is a title we should respect."

The report recognizes that each school and college and every academic department has its own "customs" in regard to tenure,and that they will continue to administer the process. But, Harpham says, the report states that "the university would be best served if the individual schools were unified by a number of principles held in common across the university."

The report extols the benefits of the tenure system to the university, particularly the fostering of faculty loyalty to the institution and its students. It also explores the historic,and contemporary,benefit to faculty in terms of freedom of speech and job protection.

Before he began work on the report, Harpham says his views on tenure were not nearly as crystallized or detailed as they are now. He says he was "completely innocent" of the sorts of pressure that the tenure system has come under from suspicious state legislators and hostile boards. He and the committee discovered that such attacks on tenure have occurred mainly at public institutions and at institutions "in search of an identity," but not at prestigious research universities.

At Tulane, with its "supportive and sophisticated" board, the tenure system does not face the same kinds of attacks, says Harpham. The report reiterates the value of tenure, stating that it "contributes greatly to the vitality and independence of the faculty, and thus to the mission of the university as a whole." To recognize faculty members for their outstanding research and exemplary performance in the other realms of their jobs,teaching and university service,the report proposes several new awards with financial compensation attached.

The report also includes a recommendation that the deans of each school identify, "on the basis of annual reports, the most productive one-quarter of the faculty of that school." These faculty members would then be eligible for increased compensation that would bring their salaries in closer alignment with institutions similar to Tulane.

To those who question the efficacy of assessing productivity of faculty members, Harpham would respond with the same reply he gives to those who perceive tenure as a mysterious or capricious process: "Tenure is only mysterious to those who want to compromise it. Yes, there are assessments, evaluations and judgments in the tenure process. These involve using intelligence. But, after all, using our intelligence is what we are about."

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