On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions


As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field.

This actually seems to be a not-uncommon approach in some liberal arts colleges. I’ve heard from people at several institutions in which everybody — biologists, philosophers, psychologists, nuclear physicists, education scholars, art historians — has identical scholarship requirements for tenure.

If you’re not working at one of these places, I imagine you’re thinking, “WHAT? That’s absolutely nuts!”

If you happen to be working at one of these places, then my experience is that you’re probably thinking, “SIGH, yes, this is nuts.”

If you’re a Dean or Provost at one of the places that has a single tenure bar for everybody, then I bet you’re thinking, “This might sound untenable at first, but there are pragmatic historical and political reasons for this.”

Let me be a person to tell you that those reasons might be very pragmatic , but they are are holding your institution back and whenever outsiders look in, they see that you’re not taking scholarship seriously, nor treating your faculty fairly.

I get it. You can’t trust small departments with senior faculty to develop field-specific guidelines, and dealing with people who believe that this policy is somehow egalitarian is a pain the butt. But here’s the thing, academia is very different from field to field.

Here is what can happens to your faculty if everybody faces the same bar:

  1. For some small fraction, the bar is set at a reasonable place (on par with colleagues at comparison institutions with similar teaching expectations and support for research.)
  2. For some professors, the bar is absurdly low, because they’re in a field that publishing a peer-reviewed paper is pretty easy to do with a relatively small amount of work.
  3. For other professors, the bar is absurdly high, because they are in a field in which a decent publication takes a ton of work.
  4. For other professors, the bar is just nonsensical. In some fields, journal publications just aren’t considered the important part of being an active scholar.

From my understanding, for computer scientists, the closest equivalent to a journal article would be presenting a peer-reviewed paper at a conference. A computer scientist who doesn’t present competitively selected talks isn’t considered to be an active scholar in the field (at least I think so, please let me know if I’m wrong!). In my field, the opposite is true. You could give as many conference talks as you want, but if you’re not publishing peer-reviewed articles, then you’re not considered to be an active scholar. In many corners of the humanities, journal articles aren’t taken nearly as seriously as books, whereas having a book in the sciences doesn’t count for that much. And if you’re a studio artist, then having work in the right kind of show matters.

I can’t imagine how we can find the units for find equivalencies among art shows, journal articles, and conference papers. You just can’t invent a rational model. We shouldn’t pretend that we can compare measures of scholarship among all fields in a small liberal arts college. If we want to treat scholars fairly, then they need to be evaluated relative to their peers in the own fields.

Work is considered legitimate because of peer-review. Yes, my colleagues in Anthropology and Religious Studies are peers, as educators and fellow scholars. But my scholarly peers are at other institutions, because in small campuses, we tend to hire one of each kind. In my department, for any person there are probably only 1-2 people who really can put one’s publication record in context. The rest of the folks just don’t know the journals and can’t really follow things. The stretch to evaluate work within my own department is do-able, perhaps. But the stretch among departments? No way!

I’m not positioned to claim that it’s harder to publish a journal article in (say) membrane biochemistry than in (say) the sociology of food. Because I am neither a biochemist nor a sociologist. I think an attempt to create a singular scholarly standard for both would be like comparing apples and radiators. But then again, there are things to be learned from the scholarly field of bibliometrics. The most recent email from a Small Pond reader that prompted this post included an attachment of an article that involves a comparison of the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and so on. Clearly , the numbers show that it’s mighty absurd to use a single bar across disciplines. Do we want to ignore the expertise of the faculty in their own field? That’s kinda disrespectful, isn’t it?

If everybody coming up for tenure has the same bar regardless of their field, then the people on college-level tenure committees are tasked with kafkaesque job of evaluating someone’s academic performance with an arbitrary indicator that has nothing to do with their specialty. The college-level committee can do its best to trust the department to evaluate the discipline-specific scholarly record, but if they have nothing to do with setting the bar, then they don’t have much say over the level of quantity or quality of scholarship that the person will

The only way a single bar for everybody makes sense is if you don’t care about fairness or whether faculty on campus are viewed as legitimate scholars to outsiders.

If you want all of the faculty on campus to be respect one another as scholarly peers in different fields, then a single bar as a minimum threshold will undermine that aim.If the institution has a single quantitative set of expectations for scholars in different academic disciplines, this makes a mockery of faculty expertise. In a community of scholars, it’s must be hard for some folks to view everyone as peers, when it’s common knowledge that some people are being subjected to lighter expectations.

If the institutional goal is to make sure that everybody is an active scholar who is as productive as can be reasonably expected, then “productive as can be reasonably expected” needs to be quantified for each discipline, or it should be measured subjectively.

It’s not my place to tell every small liberal arts college how to cook up their tenure expectations. But here is a menu of ideas. Are you one of those campuses that is not soliciting external review of tenure files? That’s a good start. Have you asked department to develop standards? Have you consulted with comparison campuses to see what their tenure expectations are for each department? Have you put the scholarship of teaching as a valid category, so that publication in pedagogical journals is valid? Do all departments have an external review, even though not subject to discipline-specific accreditation? When departments go through external review, have the reviewers been specifically asked to evaluate and remark on tenure criteria?

I haven’t put in a tenure file in a place like this, and my bar has been set at the department. (In my first tenure-track position, it was one paper before tenure.)  If your bar is a college-level or a university-level measure, what has this meant for you? Has it reduced or added stress, is it more difficult or less difficult than it should be? What changes would you like to see? You can comment anonymously by leaving the ‘name’ and ’email’ fields blank.

4 thoughts on “On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions

  1. “From my understanding, for computer scientists, the closest equivalent to a journal article would be presenting a peer-reviewed paper at a conference. A computer scientist who doesn’t present competitively selected talks isn’t considered to be an active scholar in the field (at least I think so, please let me know if I’m wrong!).”

    You’re almost right! Regular journals do exist in computer science alongside peer-reviewed conferences (where you submit a completed paper to the conference, and if it is accepted, you present it at the conference, AND it gets published in the conference proceedings book). Both conference and journal publications are considered legitimate publications. Just as is the case with journals, some conferences are more prestigious than others. Depending on your subfield, the most prestigious publication venues may be conferences, journals, or a mix. I think it is true in most subfields that you need at least some conference activity, in reputable conferences, to be considered an active scholar more than you need at least some journal activity, in reputable journals, to be considered an active scholar. Anecdotally, computer science also seems to care less about what people refer to as the glam mags – Nature and Science – than some fields. Getting into either of those would definitely be considered an exciting thing, worthy of celebration, but not generally a requirement or a focus.

    CORE, Australia’s computer science research organization, has a pretty well-regarded conference ranking system, where conferences are classified as A*, A, B, C, or unranked. My tiny subfield’s top conference is an A, which means it’s in the top 18% of all computer science conferences. A* is the top 4%, and if I wanted to get into an A* conference I’d have to find a top-flight conference that covers subfields other than just my own.

    This system also means, I think, that computer science has more subfield conferences (at least, ones that people really care about) than many fields, because every subfield is going to have a flagship conference. I get the sense that in some other fields of science, conferences in your particular area are nice, but it’s the huge conference for everyone in that science (like the APS March and April Meetings for physics, which I’ll use as an example because I’ve been to the March Meeting and have some familiarity with it) that people care about and go to. There’s no huge conference for everyone in computer science, that everyone wants to go to, that serves a similar function to what the APS March/April meetings do for physics. Given the need to peer-review submissions, it would probably not be practical.

  2. Heh – it’s not just small liberal-arts colleges. We do the same thing here, and we’re a rather ginormous college of medicine. To be sure, we have “department requirements”, but the college committee pretty much ignores them and applies whatever standards they choose.

    Even the department requirements are problematic, because we have departments where the faculty diversity is just about as broad as the “small liberal arts college” mix: My department has a neurologist, a physicist, a computer scientist, a mathematician, a geneticist, a chemist, a statistician and a philosopher of logic. And yes, we all work in our respective fields. The tenure bar for all of us, is set at the same place as everyone else in the college – you can imagine how well that’s working out for us, given that clinicians set the bar…

  3. I was the one who emailed Terry the link to that study, but I haven’t had time to comment on the post until just now. It’s not entirely true at my institution that the bar is the same across all of the disciplines, though we all are supposed to produce “3-5” scholarly or creative works by the time we go up for tenure. There seems to be some understanding that expecting five publications for a science professor is unreasonable, so the science bar leans toward the “3” and some of the other disciplines towards the “5” end of that range. That said, there is still a lot of frustration among the science faculty that comes from the very obvious fact that some of our higher-level administrators (who are heavily involved in tenure/promotion decisions) still don’t quite understand what it’s like to be a scientist in the liberal arts environment. For example, when we were reviewing scholarship requirements, some of our administrators were reluctant to give full credit for multi-authored papers. In other words, one could read the bar as “three publications, if you’re the only author but if you share authorship with another scientist, then…six?” Or something like that. My department chair carried a stack of journals from every sub-discipline of biology to a meeting and flopped them down and said “Find the single-authored papers.” (Or at least that’s how I like to imagine it went down. I wasn’t there.) On another occasion, I ran into our dean’s assistant one day in June and she asked me why I was on campus during summer…despite that every pre-tenured (and most of the tenured) science faculty are in their labs every day during the summer. I also know that it is the opinion of many outside of the sciences at my institution that working with many undergrads in the lab clearly must improve our efficiency. It can, of course, in some cases but for many folks it actually slows us down given the training required, high turnover, etc. So there seems to be a fairly general lack of understanding/familiarity among our administrators with the challenges of doing science, particularly at a SLAC, which is why the “common scholarship bar” is somewhat problematic.

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